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When the coronavirus outbreak first started to spread in the U.S., some referred to it as “the great equalizer” because of the health risk it posed to everyone. But that sentiment hasn’t been borne out over the course of the pandemic. Racial, economic and geographical factors have shown to play a major role in how severely different groups are affected.
Another determinant is gender. On the whole, men have experienced the bulk of the health impacts of the virus. As of last week, about 16,000 more men than women had died of COVID-19 in the U.S. Women, on the other hand, have felt a disproportionate amount of the economic pain during the recession caused by the virus.
Disparities that existed before the pandemic have been exacerbated by business closures and increased at-home responsibilities that have taken a larger toll on women. Women are more likely to work in industries that have struggled during the recession, such as hospitality, health care, education and retail. More women than men have cut back on their hours or left the workplace entirely to take care of their children, with schools and childcare centers closed in many parts of the country. In September alone, more than 617,000 women dropped out of the workforce, as opposed to just 78,000 men.
When women temporarily leave the workforce or take a lesser role, they often never catch up to their male counterparts. Experts fear that the professional setbacks women are experiencing right now could set the cause of gender equity in the workplace back for years or even decades.
Why there’s debate
There are ways to help women make up the ground they’ve lost during the pandemic, experts say — some of them immediate, others long term.
The most direct solution would be to get the spread of the virus down to a level where service sector businesses are able to open and children can return to schools. With that reality potentially many months away, some progressives have argued for Congress to allocate funds to bail out businesses and help schools put safety measures in place. Proponents say that both these measures would provide a disproportionate benefit to women.
Employers can also make a difference by making a specific effort to combat stereotypes against working mothers and provide more flexible schedules so parents can keep their jobs and care for their children.
When the virus eventually is contained, the country should prioritize recovery strategies that will specifically benefit women to help them catch up, some argue. Government subsidies to businesses, for example, could come with stipulations that require gender equity in hiring and retention.
Lessons learned during the pandemic could also help improve equality as things return to normal, progressive activists argue. Employers could keep policies that allow flexible schedules and remote work to make jobs more accessible to working parents. Free universal childcare would allow more women to advance professionally.
The likelihood of some of these policy ideas becoming reality may depend on the outcome of the presidential election. Joe Biden has included a bailout for the struggling childcare industry as part of his economic recovery plan. He has also called for free universal pre-kindergarten for 3- and 4-year-olds, as well as subsidies to help low-income families afford childcare. President Trump’s 2021 budget proposal calls for a modest increase in federal childcare spending.
Women won’t be able to recover until the coronavirus is under control
“The longer the pandemic and economic crisis endure, the more all Americans, but especially women, will suffer economically.” — Editorial, New York Daily News
Helping women should be the primary focus of recovery efforts
“We completely ignore or undervalue the role that women are playing, not just in their own families as breadwinners but also as economic drivers of the economy. If women don’t benefit, the policies need to change because we’re all going to lose.” — Closing the Women’s Wealth Gap executive director Heather McCulloch to USA Today
Free universal childcare will open more opportunities for women
“A broad-based recovery must include a strategy to support working women as caregivers. This includes universal access to paid family leave, sick leave and childcare. Better childcare options can help women rejoin the workforce, improve job prospects and boost GDP.” — Rhode Island Gov. Gina M. Raimondo and Mary Kay Henry, Washington Post
Congress should pass stimulus specifically designed to get women back to work
“It doesn’t have to be this way. We are a wealthy nation; resources could be funneled into renovating schools and childcare facilities so they are well-ventilated and physically safe for students and teachers. Our government could bail out businesses, including those that employ a large number of women, preventing mass layoffs.” — Jill Filipovic, CNN
The pandemic has shown that helping working parents benefits society as a whole
“I’m optimistic about the possibility of creating a more equitable economy and bringing some of the issues that many women and families had to deal with by themselves so it was seen as an individual issue, not a structural, institutional issue.” — Institute for Women’s Policy Research president C. Nicole Mason to Guardian
Businesses need to change to allow more space for working parents
“I think that when/if we go back to normal, I don’t think we can return to what it was — because work wasn’t working for anyone before. And so this is an opportunity to see: How can we reshape work? And, in doing that, how will that impact families and gender equality?” — Brigid Schulte, NPR
Bias against mothers in the workplace must be addressed
“Maternal bias will creep into performance reviews unless companies proactively put in place policies to keep that from happening. They could start by raising awareness about these stereotypes, stigmas, and penalties, so employees and managers can be on the lookout for them. Anything that is ambiguous must be made concrete.” — Marianne Cooper, Atlantic
Women should be given opportunities to transition to growing industries
“Many who lost their jobs in this crisis might not be able to return to a similar role. … Offering training in digital skills, and encouraging studies in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, will empower women across the employment spectrum.” — Elisa Martinuzzi, Bloomberg
Government subsidies should include gender equity standards
“Companies that receive public funds should have to commit to providing equal pay for equal
work and to closing median pay gaps across their firms. Additionally, all firms that receive recovery-related public funds should be required to implement diversity, equity and inclusion strategies that reflect industry best practices.” — Jennifer Siebel Newsom and Heather McCulloch, CNN
Families must reconsider antiquated ideas about gender roles
“As social distancing and under-quarantine measures drag on, it becomes even more important to think about how to avoid patriarchal gender stereotypes at home. Being self-sequestered provides the opportunity to develop new routines and habits that create a fair and equitable balance.” — Soraya Chemaly, NBC News
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