What does the first COVID-19 lockdown teach us about gender inequality in the Netherlands?

Mara Yerkes (Interdisciplinary Social Sciences, Utrecht University) received the ODISSEI LISS Corona grant in the spring of 2020 together with an interdisciplinary team of researchers from three Dutch universities. The grant gave Yerkes and her team free access to the LISS panel to examine gender inequality during the COVID-19 pandemic. Their research focused on the effect of the first COVID-19 lockdown in the spring of 2020 (including the closure of schools and childcare centres) on gender differences in paid work, the division of household and care responsibilities among Dutch parents,  and fathers’ and mothers’ wellbeing. 

The results show that the closing of schools and childcare in March and April had a significant impact on parents and gender inequality between fathers and mothers. For mothers, the lockdown meant a larger decrease in leisure time than for fathers, greater perceived work pressure, and taking on more household and care responsibilities. At the same time, a share of fathers started taking on more household and care responsibilities during the first lockdown. 

Following the first round of results, the research team collected three additional waves of data through the LISS panel, which was made possible by a grant from the Faculty of Social and Behavioural Sciences at Utrecht University. This grant has allowed the team to gather data throughout the COVID-19 pandemic to investigate how Dutch men and women differ in their (experiences of) paid work, the division of household and care responsibilities, and well-being, now also including individuals without children under 18 living at home. Results from the second round of measurements in June showed that the share of fathers that took on more childcare responsibilities increased, but that the share of fathers that took on more household responsibilities decreased. Mothers continued to experience a high level of work pressure, significantly higher than fathers, but in general, parents’ work-life balance improved slightly in June compared to the situation in April 2020.

With the Netherlands in a new lockdown since 15 December 2020, the findings of Yerkes and her team remain timely. The team is currently working on analysing the later waves of data and formulating policy recommendations. What can we learn from their findings to date? The team developed the following initial policy recommendations:

1. Create clear, national guidelines regarding the use of emergency childcare services

The current guidelines allow too much room for interpretation, which can lead to uncertainty among parents concerning their rights to emergency childcare and the possibilities to use such services during a lockdown. During the first lockdown, we found that parents rarely made use of emergency childcare services, usage which is dependent upon parents’ status as essential workers. According to our study, both parents were essential workers in 28% of Dutch households, and in 57% of households, at least 1 parent was an essential worker. These workers had, in theory, access to emergency childcare services. Yet 88% of parents indicated their children were at home full time, suggesting use of emergency childcare was low. These findings are in line with a study commissioned by the Dutch Ministry of Social Affairs and Employment (Verhue en Bouwman, 2020). In the current lockdown, the take up of emergency childcare services appears to be higher according to media reports. However, it remains unclear which parents have the right to access these services, resulting in varying interpretations among parents, childcare providers, and schools. 

2. Consult with social partners (employers and trade unions) to better support parents through leave arrangements

Comparatively speaking, the Netherlands lags behind other countries regarding policy measures to support parents during the pandemic (for example, through paid corona leave). In a rapidly developing situation, it can be difficult to create new policy quickly. Developing new leave policy in the Netherlands is made even more complex due to the strong interaction between national-level policy and collective labour agreements developed by the social partners, often implemented at the sectoral level. Many national leave policies are supplemented by such collective agreements, which are long term instruments that cannot easily be changed in the short term. It would be useful for the government to discuss the situation with the social partners (for example, through the Work and Care group within the ‘Labour Foundation) to develop workable measures that can be implemented quickly. Examples of such measures are a temporary payment of existing parental leave and/or long-term care leave, financed partly by the government and partly by employers. Government co-financing is desirable to reduce potential employer resistance to such a measure. 

When developing policy arrangements in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, it is important to account for differences between groups of employees. We have found significant differences between employees who do and do not work from home during the pandemic. Employees who work from home are primarily higher educated individuals working in the public sector. Low educated employees are more likely to work outside the home and are more likely to have non-essential jobs that cannot be done at home. Consequently, they face a different set of problems. For example, non-essential workers do not have access to emergency childcare services, and at the same time have fewer resources to make alternative arrangements.

3. Fully remunerate birth leave at 100%.

The gender unequal distribution of care responsibilities between Dutch parents is shifting slightly as a result of the external shock of the COVID-19 pandemic. To ensure this shift towards greater gender equality is maintained in the long run, the government should invest in a fully remunerated birth leave for fathers (the current birth leave is paid at 100% for the first week, and 70% for the remaining five weeks). Fully paid birth leave ensures fathers can become involved in the care of their children from birth, allowing for more gender equality in relation to work and leave-taking patterns. In the absence of fully paid leave, significant barriers remain for those families dependent on the fathers’ income. Consequently, the current shift in the division of gender roles will likely be of a temporary nature.

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