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Kennedy School Review

Topic / Gender, Race and Identity

Coronavirus is not just a Global Crisis – it’s also a Women’s Issue

The conversation about coronavirus covers the impact on the economy and healthcare system. What is absent from this conversation is the impact on those most burdened by COVID-19’s global disruption – women. 

Coronavirus coverage is starting to feel like a wall of noise – a hum of threat, change, and fear that is hard to make sense of. A glance through headlines shows journalists, politicians, and pundits discussing every angle of the pandemic from economic impacts to upcoming loneliness epidemics. It’s hard to believe that there is an angle that hasn’t been covered. However, conspicuously absent is a gendered lens: women are on the frontlines of the crisis, bearing the majority of risk and burden of the pandemic.

Although initial research suggests that men are more likely to die from COVID-19, the economic, caretaking, and emotional labor costs of coronavirus fall disproportionately on women.

Women are more likely to work as waitstaff, flight attendants, and other service roles. As the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) encourages people to work from home, these workers are unable to and keep interacting with the public on a daily basis. They are not well compensated for that risk. As a result, women are least able to weather the financial impacts of reduced work and hours from either getting sick or their employers closing. This is the case at the Harvard Kennedy School, where women are only 11% of tenured professors but comprise 74% of non-exempt staff. It is non-exempt staff who may see their pay drop through reduced hours and layoffs. While Harvard has guaranteed dining and custodial staff pay through the end of May, unlike professors or staff with the capacity to telecommute, there is no job security for them past that point.

As restaurants close and air travel becomes infrequent, women are still disproportionately serving the public by providing essential services in pharmacies and grocery stores. Despite their overrepresentation in these needed professions, their pay falls short of male peers. Women comprise 58% of pharmacists but are paid on average $17,000 less than their male counterparts annually. Even in grocery stores, where overall the workforce is gender-balanced, men are more likely to be supervisors while women are more likely to be cashiers, putting them in closer contact with the public. And how much are they paid for this critical service? On average, female cashiers are paid $15,000 compared to their male supervisors’ $50,000 salary.

Women also shoulder the unequal burden of coronavirus at home. As K-12 schools close, women are more likely to take on additional childcare and household chores. Among partnered heterosexual couples, women do 2.6 times the caregiving work as their partners. Among single-family households, 80% are headed by women. As their kids are sent home, they have to balance both their paid employment and childcare.

This care burden extends beyond childcare to the paid and unpaid care sector. Globally, 80% of nurses and two-thirds of the care workforce are women. They are on the frontlines of COVID-19, most needed to care for those who fall ill. If our medical system is overwhelmed, it is nurses who will work overtime to care for patients. In the US, women comprise approximately 60% of family caregivers, a group that will have to care for sick relatives as coronavirus spreads. There are also pronounced racial differences, with women of color being more likely to do paid and unpaid care work in the US.

The costs of COVID-19 extend to women in high-risk groups. Because women live longer than men, those most vulnerable to coronavirus – the elderly – are also disproportionately women. Women over 85 outnumber men at almost a 2:1 ratio. Older women are also more likely to be widowed, live alone, and to be in poverty. The women are most at risk from COVID-19 are the least likely to have paid and unpaid support systems to mitigate that risk.

Finally, initial reports indicate that social distancing has led to an increase in incidences of domestic violence. 4 in 5 victims of intimate partner violence are women. Those trapped in abusive relationships are now forced to be in close quarters with their abusers with fewer paths for escape.

This lack of attention on the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on women has clear consequences. The Federal Government’s initial relief bill, passed on March 18th, includes paid sick leave and free testing. This is undoubtedly a welcome development, however, the lack of emphasis on the disproportionate impact COVID-19 is having on women meant that the protections that would most help women – such as family leave – were drastically cut for the final bill. While family leave has since been added to the Families First Coronavirus Relief Act, it only covers those whose children are home due to school closures and only applies to companies with between 50 and 500 employees, leaving out many women who need this support.

With no signs of the crisis abating, we can help ease the outsized burden and impact that COVID-19 is placing on women both in the United States and globally. Men can step up for their partners – recognizing the often hidden dynamic of female partners taking on most of the household chores and care duties and proactively sharing that responsibility.

As members of our communities, we can provide donations and volunteer support to organizations that serve the elderly, provide food and shelter to people, and support victims of domestic violence. We can also reach out to our neighbors. Informal networks, known as neighborhood aid or mutual aid societies, are cropping up across the country, connecting neighbors who need support with those who can offer resources.

As Americans, we can call our representatives and ask that future provisions for COVID-19 relief target women specifically. We can highlight the need for financial support for the women in the service industry and the care workers – paid and unpaid – who are on the front lines of the pandemic.

If you or anyone you know is affected by intimate partner violence during this time, please reach out to the Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 or text LOVEIS to 22522.

Photo by CDC on Unsplash
Edited by Stephanie Nussbaum