“The pandemic has magnified gender inequality at home and at work. Many mothers are exhausted by what was thought at first to be a few weeks, then a few months, and is now a way of life for the near future,” said Senior Research Scientist Wendy Wagner Robeson, Ed.D., during COVID-19 and Gender Equality, a virtual Social Change Dialogue hosted by the Wellesley Centers for Women on October 14, 2020.

Dr. Robeson was joined by Senior Research Scientist and Economist Sari Pekkala Kerr, Ph.D., and Visiting Scholar Karen Craddock, Ph.D., for a #WellesleyVotes conversation moderated by Layli Maparyan, Ph.D., executive director of the Wellesley Centers for Women. Throughout the program, panelists discussed the compounding ways that COVID-19 is impacting women’s work-life balance, economic opportunity, and mental wellbeing.

Business closures tied to COVID-19 hit female-dominated industries like retail and hospitality particularly hard, and many women are facing long-term unemployment as a result. This is a major economic concern, according to Dr. Kerr, because lost work experience means fewer opportunities for promotions or wage increases in the future. That work experience, Dr. Kerr said, “is permanently lost for this generation of women who have suffered during the COVID crisis.”

Dr. Kerr, who studies issues related to women in the workplace, also talked about the unequal split of household responsibilities in heterosexual couples with two earners. Before the pandemic, she noted, women were already taking on more of the child-rearing and household work. Since the pandemic, that split has become even more one-sided.

The closure of child care facilities and schools is one of the drivers behind this growing imbalance of unpaid work between men and women. Dr. Robeson, who studies child care policy with WCW’s Work, Families, and Children Research Group, stressed that access to child care is critical for all working parents — and the country cannot move forward without addressing this issue. She noted that the child care industry needs financial support to recover and this could be an opportunity to rebuild by taking a more systemic approach to child care in the U.S. She said, “One can't separate child care when speaking of an economic recovery. Child care is not a women's issue, but should be thought of as a public good.”

Like many impacts of the pandemic, lack of child care is greater for women of color and for lower-income households. Women of color have also been more likely to face unemployment, to be working on the front lines, and to face health disparities related to COVID-19. Dr. Craddock, whose work is centered on issues of equity and wellness, stressed the importance of considering the intersectional nature of race, ethnicity, and gender to better understand the lived experiences of people of color and issues of division and inequality.

Specifically, Dr. Craddock called attention to both the direct and indirect impacts of COVID-19 among African American and Indigenous communities. She pointed out that cases, hospitalizations, and deaths related to COVID-19 are highest among these two populations. On top of that, she noted, COVID-19 has indirect, negative implications for Black women’s maternal health and violence against Native Indigenous women, two longstanding issues that were prevalent before the pandemic.

“I think folks are saying, this is not about returning to any ‘normal.’ Normal for many has been a chronic state of being marginalized and with all types of psychic and emotional and physical violence,” said Dr. Craddock. “So how do we take this moment to look at what's happening and build back better?”

Dr. Craddock and Dr. Robeson also pointed to the additional stress that many women and families are facing in the current moment. According to Dr. Craddock, feelings of isolation and disconnection are major stressors right now. Dr. Robeson shared findings from focus groups with parents, highlighting the anxiety that parents are feeling for themselves and their children.

In response, Dr. Maparyan said, “I think that we will have to look at this as an age of anxiety for our nation and the world because there are so many unknowns and it's just a perpetual state of adaptation without easily being able to plan for the future.”

When asked about policy changes that could help women weather the impact of COVID-19, the panelists stressed the interconnectedness of these issues. They encouraged policymakers to look beyond the short-term impacts of the pandemic and enact changes that can advance gender equality and social justice in the long term. Specifically, they pointed to the gender wage gap, support for child care providers and small business owners, education and health systems that meet the needs of Black and Indigenous women, and anti-discrimination policies. They also encouraged employers to reconsider what they expect of employees during the pandemic and to offer benefits that can truly increase work-life balance, like family leave and flexible work schedules.

“It really sounds like we're in the midst of a tidal wave of change now,” said Dr. Maparyan. “It's hard to see it because it's going on right around us, but ten years from now, we're going to be able to look back and see a real tidal wave of change.”

October 19, 2020

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