COVID: Three Steps Back for Women

Writing at The Atlantic, Helen Lewis calls the consequences of the coronavirus pandemic, “A disaster for feminism.”

Nahla Valji, senior gender advisor to the Secretary General of the United Nations, sees a compounding negative effect that may hinder multiple generations of women. Speaking to The New York Times, she said, “This really underpins so many of the inequalities that women experience. These [extra home care] hours could be spent on income generation. It’s at the heart of the motherhood penalty, wage inequality, structural biases in recruitment and promotion of women and jobs—and the pandemic is really making [it] visible.”

In a lot of ways, the coronavirus pandemic is like a magnifying glass, both revealing and intensifying pre-existing systemic problems.

For example, we know that Black and Hispanic populations have been disproportionately affected by the virus, with higher rates of both infection and death.

Thus far, women are less likely to experience severe illness or death from the virus, but there is mounting evidence that it is the responsibility of women to assume the burdens of shepherding our economy through the crisis, keeping their families safe from the virus, assuming additional burdens of teaching homebound children, all while simultaneously trying to keep their own careers afloat.

According to the National Women’s Law Center (NWLC), the number of jobs women lost in April alone was greater than the gains from the end of the Great Recession in July 2010. In the hardest hit industries, women are being disproportionately laid off:

  • In education and health services, women make up 77% of the workforce, but account for 83% of job losses.
  • In retail, women make up 48% of the workforce, but account for 61% of job losses.
  • And in local and state government jobs, women make up 58% of the workforce, but account for 63% of job losses.

Because women make up the majority of low-paying jobs, they are often, the first to go.

At the same time, women are a majority of all “essential workers,” those who are most likely to be at risk for exposure to the COVID-19 virus. Ninety percent of frontline healthcare workers are women.

And women entrepreneurs are significantly less likely to have received government help. Reportedly 90% of minority and women small business owners are likely to have been “shut out” of the Paycheck Protection Program.

The work of home has always been more likely to fall to women than men, and this is only being intensified by the pandemic.

A Bureau of Labor Statistics “Time Use Survey”, published before the onset of the pandemic, found that women ages 15 and older do two more hours of domestic labor per day (cooking, cleaning, childcare, etc.) than men of comparable age.

The gap is narrower for working women in dual-employed households, at about an hour more per day, but this is still a 22% difference from the men. Collectively, the “Time Use Survey” finds that the time women spend on this unpaid domestic work per year is the equivalent of $1.5 trillion more than men.

All this is happening while women experience a wage gap with men of nearly 20 cents on the dollar on average, nearly 40 cents for Black women, and close to 50 cents for Hispanic and Latinx women.

And of course, families are now being tasked with caring for and educating their children in the absence of schooling. More than 55 million students across the country have been out of school, and the onus of cobbling together their educations has been an additional burden that primarily falls on the women in the household.

Forty-five percent of men claim they’re doing more of the homeschooling than their female partners. Only three percent of women agree. And while men are doing more domestic work than prior to the pandemic, the gap observed in the “Time Use Survey” remains.

Sixty percent of parents report having no outside help for childcare during the pandemic. This results in tens of billions of dollars in lost income when parents who can’t work remotely (often women) are forced to drop out of the workforce to care for their children.

The consequences to these inequities are clear.

Helen Lewis and Nahla Valji both point to the necessity of policy responses that take these differential effects into account, urging help when it comes to childcare, and more aid to women small business owners, who are much more likely to be sole proprietors working in service sectors and, therefore, hit particularly hard by stay-at-home protocols. They argue that women have been subsidizing economic growth with their unpaid labor for generations and that we must protect whatever gains they’ve made now.

Businesses and organizations that desire to hold on to their talented and productive female employees should prioritize identifying the specific things women need to simultaneously navigate this crisis and thrive in their jobs.

We’re looking at a challenging period for all of us for the foreseeable future. Acting to mitigate the damage, while paying specific mind to the unique challenges women face, will leave us better positioned to recover on the other side of this crisis.


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