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On Monday, March 8 as we celebrated International Women’s Day, I received many empowering messages from my female friends from all walks of life. But at this moment in history, the irony of the situation is that while women have made tremendous strides in the workplace with fulfilling careers and increasing pay in the past half-century, the pandemic has upended all that progress in just one year.
President Biden has called it a national emergency and on that same Monday, March 8 on International Women’s Day, he signed an executive order establishing the Gender Policy Council within the White House to focus on uplifting the rights of women and address gender-based discrimination and violence among many other such goals. But a telling addition to his broad gender policy initiative was its particular focus on addressing the coronavirus pandemic and its disproportionate impact on women by engaging with the White House coronavirus task force.
Here are some sobering statistics from the USC Annenberg Center for Health Journalism. Nearly 3 million women in the U.S. have left the labor force in the past year. Those who are employed make up an outsized share of the high-risk essential workforce, holding 78% of all hospital jobs, 70% of pharmacy jobs, and 51% of grocery store jobs. Two out of three women are caregivers, putting them at risk of depression and anxiety. Nearly two-thirds of mothers are in charge of supporting their children’s remote learning.
“We saw all of these economic cleavages that were underneath those gains laid bare for us,” says C. Nicole Mason, Ph.D., president, and chief executive officer of the Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR). Women fell out of the workforce at four times the rate of men and have a disproportionate number of job losses mainly because they are overrepresented in the hardest-hit sectors like the service sector, leisure, hospitality, education, and healthcare. Black and Latino women in particular make up a little over a quarter of all jobs in the service sector. If you couple this with the lower wages, pay inequality, fewer benefits in those jobs, it has been economically devastating for the women in this country.
We were already dealing with a broken child care infrastructure and the pandemic brought this into focus for many American families. School closures had a disproportionate effect on women as well. In August 2020, when schools did not reopen, 860,000 women exited the workplace because they had to make the tough choice between their families and their jobs.
Many of these women according to Dr. Mason are the primary breadwinners in their family and make less than 40k a year but still had to make this desperate choice because their children were failing virtual school.
Not surprisingly, mothers are also doing a disproportionate share of pandemic parenting, regardless of employment. This raises the question, why are mothers taking on so much more of the parenting responsibilities during this pandemic, even when they have a partner who could share the duties? And especially when those partners see the devastating effect it is having on the mothers, both emotionally and economically.
“This is because of the gendered structures of paid work that existed long before the pandemic” according to Dr. Jessica Calarco, associate professor of sociology at Indiana University Bloomington. This division of unpaid labor that women in families have always done has been starkly laid bare during this pandemic. Women are in crisis. They are tired, depressed, and scared.
Many of the work-from-home mothers described having little choice but to sacrifice their paid work for their families during the pandemic because they were the only parent able to work from home or they earned substantially less than their male partners or because their children demanded more of their attention at home. This leads to a combination of frustration, resentment, and then guilt – all taking a toll on their wellbeing and having an adverse effect on all aspects of their family’s life.
More than a quarter of mothers report more verbal or physical fights with their partners or spouses. 30% say they are yelling more at their kids. Another third says they are more frustrated with their children. Mothers also feel tremendous guilt at the amount of screen time their children are exposed to, because of virtual school and for entertainment.
Dr. Calarco’s research shows that the pandemic is having serious consequences for mothers’ paid work, relationships, and wellbeing. She says these inequalities exposed by the pandemic reflect the gendered inequalities in our workplace and are “not just the function of men not stepping up to do their part”. They are a function of failed policies, of the lack of affordable childcare, and lack of maternity leave. This forced women into lower-paid jobs and part-time work even before the pandemic and now leave them feeling like “they have no choice but to sacrifice their own careers and wellbeing for their husband’s higher earning jobs.”
When the recovery begins, it is very important to create economic policies that support this sector that was hardest hit – women and especially women of color and lower-wage workers. Some of the policies that could help women recover their place in the workplace include a minimum wage increase, especially for women of color. If the Federal government cannot pass this legislation, follow the lead of many states and cities that have done so. Healthcare, childcare support, and paid leave investments are also critical policies that need to be legislated. Education and job training opportunities for women coming back to work after the pandemic is also critical. And most importantly, we need vaccines in the arms of all Americans so that we can safely open schools and daycares and get women back to work.
Corporate America should open back-to-work programs and reduce barriers for women to return to work. Paid leave and childcare facilities could increase flexibility that frankly, most employees with families want. In many cases, the executives who are women and mothers with children at home and are saying to Maria Aspan, senior writer at Fortune, “I am not just worrying about this for my employees, I am living this.”
There is a genuine desire to work on these issues, but, says Ms. Aspan, we have to wait to see if there is “any action behind the rhetoric”.
This is a unifying time for all women, of all socioeconomic levels, that have been hit hard by this pandemic. We need to hold both the government and the private sector accountable. It is time for all of us to band together to advocate for policies that will help all women thrive emotionally and economically. And we will take our partners with us into this more equitable future.
Anjana Nagarajan-Butaney is a Bay Area resident with experience in educational non-profits, community building, networking, and content development and was Community Director for an online platform. She is interested in how to strengthen communities by building connections to politics, science & technology, gender equality, and public education.