COVID-19 Is Setting Women Back at Work

The global pandemic is hard on everyone. But it’s especially hard on women.

The ill and dying, and those watching their loved ones suffer, are of course experiencing the worst of it (by many magnitudes). But I’m talking about those who don’t have the virus, and are simply trying to soldier on under dramatically new and stressful circumstances. Among this group, it appears that women are bearing the brunt. 

The Pandemic’s Impact on Women

This is not news to me — I’d be willing to vouch for it, personally, based on my own experience and that of my friends. But a flurry of recent articles supports the argument that women are taking hits from every side. For example, a Forbes interview with Lori Sokol, a journalist with expertise on issues related to women, touches on these salient facts:

  • For reasons, including the fact that they comprise a majority of workers in caregiving and service industries, 55% of U.S. women lost their jobs in April, compared to 13% of men. 
  • Since it is also the case that a majority of frontline health workers are women, those contracting COVID-19 from this dangerous work are more likely to be women. 
  • Women are losing access to vital reproductive health services, as clinics (which provide much more than abortions) around the country are closed down under the guise of safety. 
  • Domestic violence — victims of which are far more likely to be women — has also spiked, thanks to an increase in stress and alcohol consumption, as well as more women finding themselves suddenly thrown into 24/7 contact with their already-abusive partners.
  • 53% of women responding to one survey said that Covid-related stress has had a negative impact on their mental health, compared to only 37% of men; when comparing mothers to fathers of children under 18, the percentages are 57% vs. 32%, respectively. 

Sokol also mentions that at home, even in these “enlightened” times, women still perform over 76% of unpaid caregiving work. An article in Working Mother hits this particular nail on the head with its title alone: Working Moms’ Chores Have Almost Doubled to 65 Hours a Week During the Pandemic

The article admits that working dads’ chores have also doubled, but since the men started out spending just 25 hours/week on household chores and caregiving pre-pandemic — compared to women’s 35 hours — it hardly adds up to the same thing. Not surprisingly, almost half the women surveyed in the study Working Mother describes reported that their additional responsibilities at home interfered with their work performance, and more than a third said they were concerned about their performance reviews. 

Another, even more expressively titled Working Mother article, ‘Clusterbomb,’ ‘Catastrophe,’ ‘Disaster’: Experts Predict a Dire Fall for Working Moms, reports that 50% of childcare centers have now closed — and experts predict that many of these will never have the resources to re-open. Disaster, indeed — and one that will have ramifications for women lasting well beyond the day we kick this whole Covid thing. (For those who will jump in to say this should affect dads as much as moms: I refer you to the previous paragraph.)

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Far-Reaching Aftershocks

Finally, an article in The Lily makes plain the far-reaching aftershocks of this cumulative earthquake. According to various experts and studies cited:

  • Mothers have reduced their work hours 4 to 5 times more than fathers during the pandemic, “widening the gender gap in work hours by as much as 50 percent.” Many women are simply likely to drop out of the workforce as a result of this disparity, because history tells us that’s what women do when they are experiencing extreme work-family conflict. Also because if one parent has to drop out, it makes sense that it be the one whose work is already precarious. 
  • The disparity in work hours will also likely make women much more obvious targets for layoffs, which will undoubtedly be plentiful as the recession continues, especially if schools don’t re-open in the fall. Mara Bolis, the associate director of Women’s Economic Rights, Gender Justice & Inclusion Hub, for Oxfam America, sums up this particular clusterbomb:

“There’s going to be an erosion of that willingness to provide flexibility at work, and as employers call parents back to work, and the childcare and homecare needs remain, we’re going to see increased attrition — either forced, when women are pushed out of the workforce because they’re not being seen as meeting their productivity goals — or voluntary, because they can’t manage the pressure of all of the unpaid work on top of their paid responsibilities.” 

What Can Employers Do?

Because the promise of gender equality has never been fully realized, it was probably inevitable that such a catastrophic event would disproportionately set women back. And many of the problems women face can only be addressed through public policy and targeted social initiatives. Yet there are still some things employers can do to stave off the worst of these effects:

  • Remain flexible. If you resist the tendency to fall back on old habits, you may find that this crisis has revealed a whole new way of working that works. Allowing employees to get the work done when and how they can best do it will keep you from losing otherwise strong employees. It may also open up new possibilities for hiring and retaining great workers.
  • Make sure your flexibility is inclusive of men. Are your leave policies gender-neutral? Do your male leaders model flexible ways of working? Do you have a different attitude toward a man who jumps off a meeting to attend a crying baby than you might towards a woman? 
  • Consider diversity and inclusion if doing layoffs. Remember that inclusion is not just a “nice to have”; it’s a business advantage. And if ever there were a time when businesses needed every advantage, it’s right now!
  • Take an incisive look at your pay policies. In a world in which women routinely earn less than men, their work is always going to be more expendable. Some companies have found gender inequities in particular departments or roles. Many are still asking about salary history in interviews, a near guarantee of long-term pay inequity. 

The deck is stacked against women right now, and no single effort is going to change that. But employers can play an important role in inching us toward a brighter, more equitable future. 

Robin Hardman, owner of Robin Hardman Communications, helps companies of all sizes win recognition by helping them put together the best possible “best place to work” and other corporate awards submissions — from Working Mother and Fortune to the Stevies and IABC. When she's not doing that, Robin is helping companies communicate to their employees with compelling and easy-to-read benefits, HR, and general-topic employee communications. Contact her at robin@robinhardman.com.

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