In a matter of months, the COVID-19 pandemic upended the lives of people everywhere. However, while COVID-19 may be a new occurrence, the disproportionate impact on women resulting from a public health emergency is not.
Similar to past infectious disease outbreaks, there are several different outcomes of a pandemic for men and women—not just in terms of health. While women have a lower risk of death after contracting the coronavirus, the overall impact of the pandemic will ultimately threaten their wellbeing, perhaps in less obvious ways. Economic metrics that guide decision-making and recovery efforts often overlook the reality that women are hit the hardest during a global crisis because they are responsible for the bulk of domestic and care work. These inherent gender differences should be part of a much larger conversation—one not only focused on the unfolding public health crisis, but the political and socio-economic one as well.
Women are currently taking a huge financial hit because they hold more of the jobs currently being eliminated. According to the U.S. Labor Department, women make up more than 60 percent of workers who have lost jobs because of the coronavirus since February. Yet, even women that have retained employment are not immune to pandemic pressures. This stress is only intensified for those with children because there is the growing possibility that their careers will be impacted as their focus is split between numerous competing priorities within the home.
Despite progress toward more equitable domestic partnerships, social isolation measures have unfortunately reinforced stereotypical gender roles that have only recently started to become more ambiguous. Unpaid domestic work has significantly increased as people are forced to stay at home, most of which has seemingly fallen to women. A recent survey found that even in two-earner households, 43 percent of employed mothers are taking on the role of primary caregiver during school closures, compared to only seven percent of employed fathers. Women no doubt feel this imbalance acutely and are stretched thin trying to fulfill their work obligations and keep their household afloat.
It will be some time before we have clear data to understand the complex long-term differences of how men and women will be impacted by the coronavirus. However, it is imperative that in the short-term, recovery measures take gender into account with the aim of improving systems crippled by the social and economic aftershock. Otherwise, any progress made in these areas over the last few decades will be obsolete and futile.
In these unchartered times, it is possible that a fundamental shift in the right direction could take place. Prior to this global crisis, there were little allowances that properly address the realities of family life and the complex needs of workers. Under normal circumstances, most caregiving options are expensive and inadequate. Government assistance and policy solutions will be necessary, but their potential implementation will be gradual, if they happen at all. Companies are under extreme financial pressure and uncertainty at the moment, but they will emerge stronger if new policies can be implemented to benefit and apply to all workers. To prevent parents, particularly women, from having to walk away from their careers to take care of their families, employers will need to be invested in developing a comprehensive approach to aid in correcting this imbalance.
Here are a few suggested ways employers can differentiate themselves and help bridge the gap:
- Keep communications open and focus on workers’ needs
- Give working parents a forum by creating caregiver support groups
- Rethink targets (e.g. project deadlines) created before the pandemic. Are there some that can shift?
- In lieu of annual bonuses linked to performance reviews, offer new flexible leave options in addition to remote working (e.g. compressing the work week)
- Encourage asynchronous meetings to allow for additional flexibility
- Create a childcare referral network within existing work communication channels
- Focus on employee well-being by offering online programs (e.g. yoga and meditation)
- Include women in response planning and decision-making
The COVID-19 pandemic has resurfaced certain aspects of gender inequality related to how individuals are affected directly and indirectly, but it will also radically change how we operate as a society—perhaps, eventually, for the better. But right now, parents are no doubt feeling less productive and more stressed about their job performance as they take on different roles and maneuverer ways to manage their children’s schooling needs and daycare. It is uncertain when companies and schools will resume their normal in-person schedule, and as of right now, it’s unlikely things will ever fully go back to the way they were. By adopting and expanding family-friendly policies and increasing the availability of employee assistance programs, companies will be in the best position to navigate the future post-COVID-19.