The Pandemic’s Devastating Toll on Women
We didn’t see it coming.
Like something from a dystopian B-movie, a stealthy sickness we didn’t understand proceeded to shut down much of the planet. Schools were shuttered, graduation ceremonies canceled, weddings postponed, businesses closed, restaurants emptied. We sheltered in place, sprayed groceries with bleach, mastered Zoom and learned to bake bread.
Our daily routines unraveled as legions of elderly people went unhugged, photos of our kids’ first proms went untaken and thousands upon thousands of dreams were left unfulfilled.
And we wept.
We wept for family and friends sick and dying alone in hospitals as we watched with horror as the CNN death toll ticked steadily upward despite the legions of courageous health workers who labored 18-hour days, putting their own lives on the line.
The Covid-19 pandemic impacted millions of lives around the world, leading us to rethink so much of what we’ve taken for granted in our lives – and also what we’ve tolerated and accepted. Because when the pandemic hit, it was women who were impacted most.
Because women already live on the edge.
Women have most of the low-wage jobs in this country and are often the first ones employers let go, oftentimes spiraling families into despair.
Women also comprise a majority of primary caregivers and workers in the service industry, two areas that have been most impacted by Covid-19. And since a majority of frontline health workers are women, they’ve been more apt to contract the virus.
And are paid less for their efforts.
When Covid closed schools and daycares, it was largely working women who had to juggle work with staying home to homeschool children.And with everyone staying home, chores such as cooking and cleaning, increased dramatically for women (who were already doing about three quarters of that work). Add to that, domestic violence in homes became more frequent, severe and dangerous due to the restrictions in movement.
These extra burdens have come with serious repercussions for women’s careers.
Many career women became stay-at-home-moms by default thus rolling back hard-won achievements of the past years. And, as I’m sure you’ve guessed, the disparities are far greater for women of color who have borne the brunt of the pandemic-era job losses.
As a result of the pandemic, 2.4 million left the workforce entirely between February 2020 and February 2021. This sends us back to participation levels last seen in 1988.
Yes, it took less than a year to erase more than three decades of progress for America’s working women.
Clearly, there were already gaping holes in our system – lack of affordable childcare, employers’ persistent failure to close pay gaps, lack of paid sick leave and last but not least, men’s general unwillingness to share the burden of chores and caregiving – but the pandemic revealed these gaps to be chasms impossible to ignore.
So what’s next?
If we squint and look carefully to towards horizon, we can begin to see a glimmer of hope.
Spring is here, vaccines have become widely available and, as we move past the worst moment in our nation’s history, we bring with us a new appreciation for our schoolteachers, frontline workers and a workforce that was mostly invisible to many of us. We can also begin to see the opportunity to reimagine how we do our jobs, raise our families and create new expectations about creating a more equitable playing field for women both at work and at home.
But progress is not uniform or inevitable.
We need women in positions of leadership to ensure that solutions are informed by a diversity of views and experiences.
Creating greater equity will require sweeping policy changes – some of which are included in President Biden’s proposed stimulus package – as well as sustained efforts by employers to change how they recruit, promote, pay and hire back women. And yes, it will also mean that men will have to pick up the slack and do their share of childrearing and housework.
It may sound cliché to say that women will once again draw upon their inner strength and come out of this mess stronger. But I’ll say it anyway.
Because damned if it isn’t true.