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Coronavirus could hurt women the most. Here's how to prevent a patriarchal pandemic.

Because women do the bulk of unpaid domestic and care work, they are also particularly hard hit by public health crises and pandemics. And this one is no different.
Image: Woman Looking at Pie in Oven
At home, women feel gender imbalances acutely.Bettmann Archive via Getty Images file

Now that the reality of self-isolation, social distancing and quarantines is setting in, so, too, is a growing awareness that women, the culture-holders of care, are stressed to the limit. The novelty has worn off, as has much hope of getting our “normal” lives back anytime soon. Because women do the bulk of unpaid domestic and care work, they are also particularly hard hit by public health crises and pandemics. And this one is no different.

A study released in March described the potential consequences this pandemic could have for women’s lives and gender equality more broadly.

A study released in March described the potential consequences this pandemic could have for women’s lives and gender equality more broadly. Women’s economic lives, the authors predict, will be negatively affected disproportionately over time. Women are more likely to lose jobs, need more flexibility to take on more care, and take longer to recoup job losses. On the positive side, the researchers wrote, “there are also many fathers who now have to take primary responsibility for child care,” which may help force changes in social norms that perpetuate unfair distribution of work related to care and domestic life.

Despite moves toward more equitable domestic partnerships, taking care of people’s bodies is still overwhelmingly understood to be “women’s work.” This is true both in terms of unpaid and paid labor. Women make up more than half of low-wage workers in every state, leaving them in particularly vulnerable positions as the economy sheds jobs at an unprecedented rate. Almost 90 percent of nurses are women, as are the majority of child care workers, housekeepers, cleaners, maids, nursing assistants and home health aids in elder care and rehabilitation facilities.

Additionally, food preparation and service jobs are held mainly by women. This means many of the job sectors dominated by women, particularly low-wage women of color, are being hit hard by layoffs. To date, women make up more than 60 percent of workers who have lost jobs because of the coronavirus, according to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research. Many if not most of these women, working for pay or not, have families to take care of. In both the short and long term, these gendered expectations increase women’s exposure to harm across the board. Studies of long-term effects on women and their equality, drawn from earlier epidemics and disasters, don’t bode well.

At home, women feel the imbalances acutely. A few years ago, almost half of all women reported doing housework, compared to one-fifth of men. Women and girls still average two hours more in chores and domestic work in families. Roughly 70 percent of children in the U.S. live in families with two parents. In heterosexual households with children, mothers spend nearly twice as long as fathers on unpaid domestic work. Additionally, more than 40 million Americans, mostly women, provide care for older adults and relatives. As this pandemic unfolds, this caregiver second shift is becoming a third and fourth shift. Children are home from school, partners are home from the office, and elderly parents are at high risk of COVID-19 infection.

As this pandemic unfolds, this caregiver second shift is becoming a third and fourth shift.

And so 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. This means being clear about what work has to be done and establishing a schedule if possible. If you live with kids, make sure chores do not get classified using gendered language. Studies show that, even in LGTB families, chores are often done along “masculine” and “feminine” lines: for example, men and more masculine people taking the garbage out and changing light bulbs versus women doing the vacuuming, cleaning bathrooms and cooking. Feminine people aren’t born with a natural affinity for scrubbing toilets or changing diapers, and yet here we are, doing most of the toilet scrubbing and diaper changing.

Not only is there nothing inherently gendered about chores, there are many benefits to crossing traditional lines. Studies have found that daughters of men who do “women’s work” are more ambitious and diverse in their ambitions and that girls and boys whose parents are egalitarian grow up to be more fair about allocating housework as adults. If you pay kids an allowance for doing housework, make sure you are paying girls and boys equally. Boys tend to get allowances more often and also get higher allowances. One study of 10,000 families found that boys earn, on average, twice what girls earned for chores. They were also, somewhat disturbingly, more likely to be paid to brush their teeth and bathe.

There is one area of unpaid work that has become more egalitarian over time: nurturing children and caring for elderly family members. While girls still do more unpaid work at home than their brothers do, during the past 10 years, girls and boys have been spending roughly the same time caring for siblings, parents or grandparents. More involved fathers and sons are showing boys and girls that men can do work that many people believe women “naturally” gravitate toward doing.

There is nothing fair or healthy about patriarchal norms and the expectations they generate, so why perpetuate them in our families? This is a stressful time for absolutely everyone and there is little that we can control about the circumstances that we are now living in. We can, however, control the gap between what men and women do at home. In families that cultivate intimacy, kindness and mutual respect, closing gendered gaps is about taking care of one another. It is about developing empathetic interdependence.

Changes like these in our homes also have significant pervasive effects. Sexism in homes predicts societal sexism. Societies that value women and their time, work and health tend to be the world’s healthiest, for women, children and men. The United States is not among them.

The idea of focusing on gender may seem superficial or unnecessarily stressful right now, particularly when families are facing dire situations, impoverishment and illness. There is nothing trivial about the problem, however, and women already report more than twice the levels of stress related to the cultural expectation that they care.

This also isn’t just about who makes the bed or empties the trash. It’s critical to understanding the risks we currently face. Take, for example, the fact that men seem more likely to die from the coronavirus. Scientists debate what exactly it is about our biology that is effecting this outcome, but according to professor Sarah Hawkes, director of the Centre for Gender and Global Health at University College London, gender norms may have a significant impact. Men smoke and drink at much higher levels, resist being told what to do and are far less likely to wash their hands, all factors that increase infection and mortality. They also tend to be outside more and to take higher risks, often to validate their masculinity. Risk assessment and response are very much related to gender roles, responsibilities and experiences. They are consequential whether we are sitting in our kitchens or around a COVID-19 Task Force conference table.

Gendered power relations are also recognized as among the most powerful determinants of individual and societal health inequalities over lifetimes. They ground and compound the effects of systemic racism, xenophobia, ageism, ableism, homophobia and transphobia. If we “set aside” these issues in our own homes, we reinforce and reproduce, by default, unhelpful, unfair and unhealthy patterns.

This pandemic, a slow-motion disaster, will ripple through our lives for years to come. But global crises also tend to spur unprecedented social changes. We are all participating in an experiment that affords us the opportunity to consider how we want to live and move forward after this crisis passes. In a time when life can feel overwhelming and apocalyptic, there is a lot to be said for the power of small changes.