What Covid-19 has wrought economically and socially will take years to unravel, analyze and debate. Even more dizzying is the impact the pandemic is having on gender roles and global inequality. From the number of women installed in what are deemed ‘essential roles’ to how much of the load they bear in homeschooling and housework… there is a lot to consider. And the big question will be how this global pandemic might redefine (and even possibly elevate) what we collectively consider ‘important’. A few thoughts:
A women’s work under covid-19 is ‘essential’
What is deemed an ‘essential’ job has taken on many different forms and meanings during the Covid-19 crisis. From the standpoint of governments, an essential job is one that is considered critical to our lives right now…from healthcare to retail and food services. Incidentally, it also means that more than half of the workers on these frontlines right now are female. In fact, in just the healthcare field alone, women make up 77% of all workers. And unfortunately this disproportionate make up comes with disproportionately lower pay.
Of the 5.8 million people working health care jobs that pay less than $30,000 a year, half are nonwhite and 83 percent are women.‘How Millions of Women Became the Most Essential Workers in America’ New York Times, April 18, 2020
And unfortunately the picture of inequality and pay is even bleaker. According to The Atlantic, even during a ‘normal’ period of time, women dominate 23 of the 30 lowest paying jobs. And once a profession becomes heavily represented by women, pay plummets.
Women and covid-19: disproportionately owning childcare and housework
“The Coronavirus is a Disaster for Feminism” author Helen Lewis proclaimed this past March in The Atlantic. While the economy is impacted by the virus, Lewis says, women are more readily the victims of job loss. Or women were already the lower wage earner to begin with in dual-income households and have had to be the one to give up/reduce paid work to accommodate the family. And now we also take on the heroic work of homeschooling children; feeding families; caring for the elderly and cleaning the toilets without anyone really blinking.
The job of caring for families has always been invisible work that isn’t held in high regard. And frankly a pandemic isn’t going to change that (although it might address that age old question posed to stay-at-home moms: ‘what do you do all day’).
For too long, politicians have assumed that child care and elderly care can be “soaked up” by private citizens—mostly women—effectively providing a huge subsidy to the paid economy. This pandemic should remind us of the true scale of that distortion.“The Coronavirus Is a Disaster for Feminism”, by Helen Lewis. The Atlantic, March 19, 2020
The power of estrogen: Women less affected by covid-19
And carry on with the work we can! Because news has it that estrogen might help protect women from the virus. Well isn’t that just dandy; we provide essential services, man the home front, and now have life saving hormones to help us keep up the good work. All the while still facing marginalization and unequal pay. Go figure? And, yes, this headline is real:
Doctors are testing whether estrogen could help men fight COVID-19LiveScience.com, April 27, 2020
In fact, as recently as early April men in New York City were dying at twice the rate of women (source: NPR) Women are known to have more robust immune systems when it comes to fighting viruses (they also suffer more autoimmune diseases as a result). And while it’s too soon to say exactly what the impact of estrogen will be on the disease, it’s damn ironic. Am I right?
Protecting our future: Longterm impact of Covid-19 on Women and Girls
For women in more affluent countries with more stable home environments and in well (or ‘well enough’) -paid jobs, the impact of Covid-19 is not to be sniffed at. But the dire circumstances for women and girls in poorer countries should also keep our attention. As any gains we’ve made over the years in addressing poverty, violence and death worldwide for women and girls will have been eradicated.
According to David Miliband, president and CEO of the International Rescue Committee, and Sheryl Sandberg, founder of LeanIn.org and, of course, COO of Facebook, the setback for equality in poorer countries will be crushing. In an op-ed penned by the duo for Politico, they lay out the crisis before us:
While the impact of unpaid work is a global one, for those in more depressed regions it can also mean illness coming from exposure and fatigue. Accordingly, they say in Politico, women and girls represented two-thirds of all infections during the Ebola outbreak in West Africa (2014 and 2015). And this was because they were the caregivers who were exposed over and over again. So while women are less afflicted by Covid-19 this may be cancelled out by the sheer number exposed through the work of caring for others.
Around the world; whether rich or poor, women are facing a horrific rise in domestic violence as a result of stay-at-home orders. And in developing nations this is proving such a worry that the United Nations has brought the issue to members’ attention. According to the UN, just six more months of lockdowns globally may cause up to 60 million more cases of domestic violence.
It is a growing crisis within the crisis. We need to pay maximum attention to this now… It’s truly disturbing. And if we don’t do anything about it — if we don’t talk about it, if we don’t ring the alarm bell — every three months there will be an additional 15 million cases.UNFPA DEPUTY DIRECTOR RAMIZ ALAKBAROV TOLD CBS, as reported in The Hill
Finally, any women who has given birth knows that on a good day it can be an overwhelming, frightening experience. Even in wealthy nations and with the best doctors available, women can face the unspeakable. Having myself lost a child who was just a week old and then giving birth the next year under the specter of the Swine Flu; I’ve seen darkness even with the best care available. So for all women it’s a frightening time. But for those in locales with reduced resources; the risk of infection and prospect of going at it alone — it’s another horrifying crisis.
In a many ways (and maybe the ultimate one if infected) Covid-19 is a great equalizer. Even those with money and resources have succumb to the disease. But the bigger picture is one filled with greater inequality. And with much of that socioeconomic in nature; it’s a double whammy for women. So it’s critical for all of us to take note; and flex our power of the vote.
Voting is the single most powerful tool women have to support and prop up one another. So, for today, keep healthy, take care of those around you and don’t ever lose site of your civic responsibility. There are ways in which we may just be able to turn that estrogen into something truly more powerful.