The challenges of childcare in a pandemic and the impact on women’s work

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A woman at a desk with a baby on her lap looks at her laptop screen while the baby plays

As the COVID-19 pandemic spread, 99 percent of the world’s 2.36 billion children faced some restrictions on movement, and 60 percent faced lockdown measures. With many schools and daycare facilities closed, who is taking care of the children?

As part of J-PAL’s Gender and Economic Agency Initiative, we ask this question to underscore gender inequality in caring for children and the disproportionate burden on women. In this blog, we discuss the importance of childcare to enhance women's economic empowerment and highlight innovative research and policies to address women’s unpaid care burden.

Women typically handle the vast majority of childcare and household responsibilities. Before the pandemic, women performed three-quarters of unpaid care work globally, or in other words, three times more than men perform. Recent surveys suggest that the childcare burden on women has increased during the pandemic. In India, for example, women were already doing ten times the amount of unpaid care work than men; now that has increased by 30 percent, according to a survey from the consulting firm Dalberg. Among our economics community, which has recently seen a surge in papers related to COVID-19, researchers at the University of Cambridge found that female economists have not been publishing at the same rate as men, possibly due to competing demands on their time with increased domestic responsibilities.

These statistics paint a picture of the emerging childcare crisis during COVID-19. As we learn more about the situation as the pandemic unfolds, evidence from non-pandemic settings highlight the long-lasting impacts this crisis may have on women.

Increasing policy momentum to offer childcare solutions for women

Working mothers face major challenges in joining and rejoining the labor force due to childcare responsibilities. In 2018, 606 million working-age women were unable to work due to unpaid childcare responsibilities, compared to 41 million men. Additionally, childcare responsibilities may impede women from taking quality jobs and progressing in their careers.

Recognizing that investing in childcare is critical to enhancing women’s labor force participation, several countries have implemented childcare policies. Several governments in GEA’s priority countries in East Africa and South Asia are offering exciting policies and programs related to childcare.

A recent government regulation in Ethiopia requires all public service institutions to provide childcare support at the workplace. One limitation, however, is that this regulation only applies to public sector employers, potentially excluding women employed in the private sector or those who are self-employed.

Additionally, India has several policies to offer childcare to working women, including the National Creche Scheme and Working Women Hostel Scheme. Finally, Kenya’s Women’s Economic Empowerment Strategy 2020-2024 also acknowledges that providing access to affordable public childcare centers is key to supporting women’s transition from care work to productive work, although this has not translated into any laws yet.

While many policymakers appreciate the value and are interested in offering policy solutions for childcare challenges, there is limited evidence on what practical investments to make and how employers (both public and private)—in addition to employees—can reap benefits. Nonetheless, a small and growing base of rigorous evidence offers some promising lessons and insights.

Learning from existing evidence

There are a few promising studies showing that childcare programs can increase women’s employment.

Childcare can offer women more choice in working: A randomized evaluation in Kenya found that providing subsidized early childcare to mothers living in a Nairobi slum increased women’s employment, particularly for married mothers. Conversely, single mothers who were already working cut back on working extended hours and shifted to jobs with more regular hours, without any loss in earnings.

Consider women’s childcare needs for all children: In Chile, researchers conducted a randomized evaluation to measure the effect of providing free after-school care for children ages 6-13 on women’s labor market outcomes. The programs increased women’s labor force participation and employment. It also increased the use of daycare for young children who were ineligible for the program, suggesting that women need childcare for all of their children in order to join the labor market. When daycare facilities for younger children are readily available, like in Chile, childcare for older children may be a larger barrier to women working.

Providing vouchers may be more cost-effective than public provision of childcare: Another randomized evaluation in Brazil found that access to free government childcare in Brazil increased mother’s employment, in addition to household income. However, the gains in income were modest and well below the cost of providing childcare, such that it may be more cost-effective for governments to instead provide households with vouchers for childcare.

Looking ahead

As countries worldwide continue to see a surge in COVID-19 cases, many governments have imposed new sets of restrictions and lockdowns. Addressing childcare responsibilities will continue to remain vital to supporting women’s work as the pandemic continues to ravage economies, and as countries strive to rebuild and recover.

It is clear that childcare solutions can enhance women’s access to employment opportunities as well as help women thrive in the labor force. However, we need more research to understand the most effective, as well as cost-effective, approaches. The GEA Initiative will help advance the generation of rigorous evidence on women’s work, including examining childcare policies in the priority countries, and testing the effectiveness of promising approaches.

We just launched our Spring 2021 Request for Proposal, and we are looking forward to working with interested researchers and policymakers to develop research proposals. For more details, please contact [email protected].