Pandemic’s Impact on Women Highlights Opportunities for Change, Professor Says

New Co-Authored Paper From Naomi Cahn Outlines ‘Feminist Recovery Plan’
Person wearing a mask

Naomi Cahn is the Justice Anthony M. Kennedy Distinguished Professor of Law and the Nancy L. Buc ’69 Research Professor in Democracy and Equity at UVA. Photo by iStock

October 19, 2020

From the workplace to family life, the COVID-19 pandemic is profoundly affecting women. But the health crisis also presents an opportunity to reduce gender-based inequalities, according to new research by professors Naomi Cahn of the University of Virginia School of Law and Linda C. McClain of Boston University School of Law.

Cahn, director of the school’s Family Law Center, focuses on the issue in the article “Gendered Complications of COVID-19: Towards a Feminist Recovery Plan,” forthcoming in the Georgetown Journal of Gender and the Law.

Naomi Cahn
Naomi Cahn

Cahn credited the research assistance of third-year law students Maria Luevano and Jolena Zabel with strengthening the article’s arguments.

Women are disproportionately affected by the crisis in part because they hold 76% of jobs in health care, and are an even higher percentage of registered nurses, psychiatric workers and home health aides, Cahn and McClain note. The pandemic has “made preexisting disparities worse,” they write in the paper, and affects “all aspects of women’s lives.” They argue the pandemic has compounded effects of inequality for women of color and the LGBTQ+ community.

How is the COVID-19 pandemic affecting women in particular?

According to a recent McKinsey report, while women made up 46% of the labor force before COVID-19, women have disproportionately lost jobs, and account for 54% of job losses. This is due not just to women’s particular jobs but also to factors like women’s responsibility for child care. Indeed, working mothers were more likely than other working women and working fathers to have reduced their work hours. And, as a New York Times article recently reported, the pandemic appears to be having an impact on women faculty members’ productivity.

How do existing inequities play a role?

For one thing, even before the pandemic, women provided more child care and household work.

Those unequal burdens flowed both from women doing more work in dual-parent heterosexual households and from the fact that almost five times as many children live with a single mother than with a single father. As with child care, the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the care needs of older Americans and of the precarious condition of the undervalued — and predominantly female — workforce that provides elder care.

Moreover, even though women are more likely than men to graduate from college, the gender pay gap persists. The gap, which has numerous causes, means that women’s average earnings are less than men’s.

Why are women of color disproportionately affected?

As a general matter, non-Hispanic whites are more able to telework than Blacks and Hispanics. 

Second, as the paper explains, women of color, particularly Black, Latina and Native American women, are at the intersection of the inequities in the emerging stay-at-home economy. They are a prominent part of the female workforce in low-paid and undervalued frontline jobs — including care work. That work is vital to the economy, but people in those roles lack the flexibility of being able to work from home and have been disproportionately affected by the so-called “shecession” of pandemic-related job loss.

Third, more women of color are single mothers, and single mothers report added stress juggling work and parenting during the pandemic, as many shoulder sole responsibility for meeting their children’s needs. Low-income, Black and Latinx families experienced the greatest impact from school closures, when factoring in access to computers, home internet connections, school-provided meals and direct instruction from teachers. Further, Black families began the pandemic with only one-tenth of the wealth of white families, and, with the loss of jobs and school closings, the pandemic has worsened their future economic outlook.

You highlight some promising responses to the pandemic that could help women long term. What are some of those?

The Families First Act Coronavirus Response Act included two-week emergency paid leave for COVID-19 related quarantines and sickness (and unavailability of child care providers) as well as paid Family and Medical Leave Act leave for care of children whose schools were closed (or whose child care provider was unavailable because of pandemic-related causes) for employers with under 500 employees, for nine months, beginning April 1, 2020. This is the first time that Congress provided paid leave for private-sector workers, but it is a very modest step and contained a number of exclusions. However, as the paper discusses, some states already do require paid sick and family leave, and the pandemic is spurring other states to consider doing so.

It may also be that, as more people spend time at home, the value we accord child care and teaching increase.

Your article proposes a “feminist recovery plan.” What does that look like?

It argues that crucial policies include workplace flexibility, paid family and sick leave, accessible health care, and affordable and high-quality child care, as well as reforms addressing familial and equity barriers to remote learning, and mandating greater recognition of — and better working conditions for — essential workers. A feminist recovery plan recognizes that these reforms benefit all members of society and build resilience. The article briefly touches on the so-called “business case” for gender equality, recognizing that such equality is not only a social need but critical for businesses.

It is also feminist in arguing that part of the problem with the current response in the U.S. is both “dangerous conceptions of masculinity,” in which wearing a mask is considered weak, and the gender gap in political representation at every level of government. It turns out that women are more likely than men to take preventive actions, such as wearing masks, to avoid becoming sick with COVID-19. While the paper recognizes that adding diverse voices and stirring will not necessarily make a difference, it argues that it is critical to ensure that caretaking — which has typically been associated with women — and that work on the ground in essential industries — often performed by women of color — is central to any future planning.

As you researched and wrote this article, did you find any surprises?

One disturbing statistic we found is the increase in domestic violence. As more people stay home, women spend even more time with abusive partners. This is true both in marriages and in cohabiting relationships.

We were also surprised by the surveys of which nations have had some of the “best responses” to the pandemic; for example, a study of the early phase of the pandemic that compared countries based on population size and health expenditures, among other factors, showed that those women leaders were likely to impose lockdowns earlier and have fewer deaths (consider Hong Kong versus Singapore). 

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