Remember the ice bucket challenge? Everyone loved that. How about a new challenge: the gender norm challenge? Here is my proposal.

Two weeks is a long time. Most people around the world think this now. Two weeks is fourteen days of not doing what we were supposed to do. It is enough time to put the largest economy in the world in recession. Clearly, it is enough time for catastrophe to unfold across the world on the wings of a tiny virus. If that is not a big enough piece of news for everyone to seriously reflect on how we think of time in our lives, then I’m not sure what “pressing issue of our times” means.

I have for a while now started to consider the meaning of time for how our world is gendered: how control over time is one of the most powerful ways gender norms turn into gender practices, and into substantial differences in how two categories defined as men and women within a heteronormative society spend the only limited resource we have in this life. In the days before COVID-19 women from the OECD countries on the average performed two more hours of unpaid work per day than men. “Unpaid” here stands for household or care-taking work, whether dealing with children, parents, or other dependents.

If we take the average time of sleep to be 7 hours, that means that men have on average 12% more free time than women in their lives. They have more time to relax, to improve their skills, to develop relationships and to do as they please. They have lifelong privilege in the plainest sense of what a fact is. In places like India, Korea, and Japan, the ratio is far more favorable for men than women. And Portugal, Turkey, Greece, South Africa, Hungary, and China are not far behind in the competition for male privilege in the category “free time.” With the exception of South Africa and China, these are also countries where overall gender equality is a problem in terms of economic power. What makes China and South Africa stand out here is the fact that in China the ideology of gender equality is still the official party line, and South Africa’s ANC has long professed its own commitment to gender equality. I guess except at home.

These extra hours of free time for men have generally translated into an expectation transmitted generation after generation by parents to their children, by modeling boys’ and girls’ expectations differently. Mothers do this by necessity, because who is going to pick up the garbage and cook and wash and help with homework if she is the only adult in the house left to deal with this. Fathers do it by modeling nonchalance and simply not caring enough to take initiative in doing some of the work that, day after day, the nagging mom and wife keeps pointing to. “Honey, can you see to that laundry?” “Honey, can you please take the garbage out?” “Honey can you vacuum while I wash the toilets?” They might “help,” but for most men doing this work is not something part of their regular job as members of a household.

A couple of years ago I published a book that sought to understand how citizenship and participation in politics in Romania were linked to gender norms and practices at home. Based on interviews with 101 women ages 39-84 from a country fully committed (on paper) to gender equality between 1945 and 1989, I presented the case for why lack of free time became one of the reasons these women are not interested in politics. They almost all yearn for partners willing to take ownership at home, yet virtually none has found one. At the multiple book launches I did with my co-author Mihaela Miroiu throughout Romania, right before the coronavirus crisis started, in city after city, a man would get up and ask: “But really, who is to blame if women are just not interested in politics?” It was as if we were speaking to a deaf audience. Tone-deaf in this case.

The truth is that, until this crisis started, for most men those two or more extra hours of free time per day did not seem visible, much less consequential. If you have privilege and it is exclusively yours, do you even see it as privilege? You see it as “normal.” Just as the fact that your wife is busy in the kitchen working while you’re reading the paper. That’s normal.

With this quarantine, we are in a different place now. Whether we want it or not, there are a lot more hours in the day for each of us to spend not doing what we are used to, or doing a lot more of what we are used to. In households across the world, how time is spent every day becomes a task to be set up by those living in that tiny unit. Who is in charge? What does that mean? Who will enforce the stay home rule? How do we manage “boredom”? Is there such a thing as “alone” time any longer? The physical size of our household dictates many choices. But so do gender norms as performed in each household.

What I see thus far, based on what is posted on social media and some of the interviews on the radio (I don’t have a television at home), are some pretty striking differences in terms of performing gender roles. Women are being interviewed about how they organize their children’s homeschooling. But not men. In my research, they also tended to be the parent who went to the school meetings, did homework with their kids, and overall was the go-to parent for any childcare issues. Even when these mothers worked full time out of the home. Men’s lack of participation in parenting responsibilities could not be justified then, so how can it be justified now, when everyone is at home?

Women are writing on FB asking for ideas of what to do with the kids at home, but I have not seen a single male voice inquiring about that. Why? Mostly women (a much smaller proportion of men) post a photo of a delicious dish they were able to scrounge up from whatever’s left in the pantry. I have seen one video of a guy doing art lessons online for children, that is the closest to participating in this side of keeping the home sane I have seen. I have also seen lots of guys (Anthony Hopkins among them) playing music for the world out there. It’s a beautiful thing and I love it. Tomorrow, all of you guys doing that, how about you show us a video of how you’re washing the dishes or your latest feat at cooking? And maybe your partner will be the one posting her clarinet or piano solo.

There is a real opportunity here for unraveling some of this male privilege and turning the household into a partnership. But there is also, for many women (at least 1/3 based on the statistics of violence against women across the world), the fear of retribution against any suggestion that the husband should be doing more in the household or taking more responsibility for the safety of the children. The question of how many “Corinas” will be born 9 months from now has been circulating for a while on the internet. I have my doubts about a bumper crop, though the anti-choice fanatical groups in the States are doing their best to close down all abortion clinics across the country. I am not alone in thinking that prolonged stress results in diminished sex drive. I also don’t think that the thought of bringing a life into today’s world motivates too many women of birthing age at the moment.

My fear is that a lot of domestic abuse will remain unchecked during this period. If you were an abuser with self-control issues living in a closed space in New York City, how likely is it that you will be able to restrain yourself over an indefinite period of time? Cooler heads are having a hard time… And who will come to any domestic abuse victim’s help?

While these are, unfortunately, very likely scenarios, there is also the possibility to turn this trying period into an experiment for building a more harmonious household. We have the time to try new things, to imagine what partnership can start to mean in terms of what everyone does for the family unit every day. So far, the scheduling suggestions I’ve seen on social media pertain to children and household. How about scheduling the parents/adults in the household too? To break the monotony, each member of the household can take turns directing traffic each day, so to speak.

This will likely try everyone’s patience and nerves. But it’s like learning anything: practice makes perfect. And what could be better education for the kids than seeing both mom and dad take turns at doing everything around the house? Not to mention making the children responsible for some of these chores? It can turn out that everyone has strengths and weaknesses and everyone can learn from each other. And if this can be one over several weeks, then why not consider it as a model moving forward, for the next three months, or the next three decades? It takes less than two weeks for a bad habit to be broken.

Time is our most valuable resource. And now it’s been dealt to us as a restriction. But it can be a gift. Take on the Gender Norm Challenge.

Maria Bucur is the John W. Hill Chair of European History, Indiana University, Bloomington.

One thought on “Time and the Virus

  1. Did not think in those terms before I read it. Thank you for the perspective. I do get it and it seems that gender issues are far from going away. I will add to your ideas that while more male die and are hospitalized by Covid-19 women will have a higher role in caring for them while women will have a higher rate of dying within the health care staff.

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