Assessing the Impacts of COVID-19 on Gender Equality in the U.S.

Jenny Hyde is a 2020 graduate of George Washington University with a Masters in Public Policy with a concentration in Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies.

Over much of the past year, we have watched COVID-19 expose systemic weakness across our country. The novel coronavirus has put a serious strain on everything from our healthcare system to our economy, simultaneously exacerbating social inequalities across our communities. Unfortunately, gender inequality is often left out of broader discussions on how to ameliorate the both short- and long-term impacts of the crisis. Some experts fear that the women’s movement for equality has already been set back decades as a result of the pandemic. As government officials and policy makers piece together a response to the health crisis, gender-sensitive solutions should be a priority. Among the areas worthy of critical analysis are economic inequality, our nation’s care deficit and a rise in domestic violence. 

UNEMPLOYMENT AND THE GENDER PAY GAP

The pandemic has caused a rise in the country’s unemployment rate but women have disproportionately lost work. As shutdowns across the country have forced the closure of restaurants, schools, and hospitality work, among other industries, women have been disproportionately affected, as they tend to hold the majority of these jobs. Both globally and within the U.S., women currently hold the majority of low-wage positions––and economists agree that during times of recession, these jobs are often the first to be cut. In January, women outnumbered men in the American workforce for the second time ever in the history of the American economy. Unfortunately, this progress has quickly been undone. According to data from the Pew Research Center, the official unemployment rate for women reached 14.3 percent in April, slightly higher than the male unemployment rate at 11.9 percent. 

Time away from work not only has the effect of decreasing female participation in the labor force, but it is likely to exacerbate the gender pay gap. The pay gap between men and women in the U.S. has been well documented over time. Before the pandemic, women made approximately 82 percent of the average male salary, with women of color facing the most substantial discrepancies in pay compared to their white colleagues. This gap in wages can have long term effects, as women struggle to care for their families, and create substantial savings for emergencies (including medical bills caused by COVID-19) and retirement

The Child Care Crisis

When and if women can return to work in the near future, accessing child care remains an issue. Many schools across the country have announced their decisions to remain virtual for the remainder of the year, or practice distance learning, out of the interest of students’ and teachers’ safety. For many families, particularly for single parents, this presents a near impossible dilemma as they struggle to provide for their families financially while still caring for their children. In the U.S., child care remains an extremely expensive commodity, which over half of American families struggle to access. Even before the pandemic, many 2020 presidential hopefuls noted this crisis as key to winning the election in November. In addition to academic instruction, schools provide many valuable resources to students, from meals to socialization, and many parents and guardians are now being asked to fill these gaps. 

Women continue to shoulder the vast majority of unpaid care work today, despite their historically increased involvement in the workforce. Unpaid care work includes any activity that allows for the maintenance of daily life, such as cooking, cleaning and raising children. In 2018, women in the U.S. spent 37 percent more time performing unpaid care work than their male counterparts. It’s likely that many paid caretakers, particularly older Americans, will leave their current roles in the interest of their own health and safety, as well as for their families’, potentially making the child care market even harder to access for those in need. As child care costs rise and wages remain stagnant, many women will continue to make the economic decision to forfeit their jobs or advances in their careers to care for their children. As COVID-19 has increased demands on many families for sourcing their own child care, women are more likely to suffer the brunt of the concurrent economic fallout. Without some form of assistance or intervention, child care will present as a major issue to gender equality in the foreseeable future.

Domestic Violence 

One of the most immediate concerns for gender justice advocates at the beginning of the pandemic was domestic violence. Many feared the consequences of lockdown measures and stay-at-home orders for victims of domestic abuse, who would be restricted to sharing a space with their abusers. In times of stress and economic hardship, domestic violence has a pattern of increasing. While it is difficult to gauge the exact increase in domestic or intimate partner violence (IPV), as instances are often underreported, cities like Houston saw a 20 percent increase in reports to police between February and March alone. Statistically, women are most vulnerable to domestic violence and isolation during lockdown, which can create further complications in accessing resources, friends, or family members for assistance. As shelters or local services for victims are forced to close or minimize their outreach efforts during the pandemic, women may struggle to find much-needed support.   

Policy Solutions

While these three areas do not cover the full breadth of challenges women face amidst the current coronavirus pandemic, they demonstrate how the crisis continues to fuel gender inequality. As we search for policy solutions to the multitude of problems caused by COVID-19, there should be specific guidance developed to support women, whether they serve on the front lines or remain isolated within their homes. The federal government should follow the lead of states like Hawaii, which has made an ardent effort to recognize the unique ways in which crises disproportionately impact women, already putting forth a feminist economic recovery plan for COVID-19. In addition, we need to involve women in policy decisions to ensure their interests are represented as we move forward.

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