Untangling From COVID: The Toll On Women and The Solutions Moving Forward

Issue 160 — February 7, 2021

We await near-universal availability of vaccines and see the daily morbidity and mortality toll of COVID, while the economy takes a dive and frontline workers are nearing their breaking point. In the U.S. we certainly see the liabilities of a fragmented healthcare system and the deadly consequences of our stubborn resistance to universal healthcare.

And meanwhile an initial solution to slowing the spread of the disease — working from home and schooling at home — is taking its tangled toll on families, creating a whole new set of problems.

Two articles from this past week lay out that story in detail.

In her Washington Post commentary, “The pandemic is devastating a generation of working women,” Helaine Olen says, “Decades from now, women will still be worse off — all because of what happened to them in 2020.”

I am deeply worried on two levels. First, this is a very real possibility. Very real, and very potentially devastating.

But second, women have spent endless emotional energy worrying about whether they can “have it all.” The pervasive narrative has for years drummed into women that they cannot have a full life of their choosing that includes satisfaction in both family and career. As Olen notes:

“Even before the pandemic, women experienced a harder time in the workforce. Women are less likely to be promoted than men, and they are judged more harshly for failures. Motherhood causes women’s income to fall, but fathers earn more than childless men. Female employees with children are viewed as less competent on the job. Child-care costs more than in-state public college tuition in a majority of states.

Covid-19 took a bad situation and made it much worse. Remote working, celebrated for offering flexibility, results in many, many more hours on the work clock. And of course, in the majority of homes, women continue to perform more child care and housework than men. The motherhood employment crisis, for many, is now a four-alarm fire.”

This is exactly the case for why we must #putwomenatthecenter of the recovery. It’s one of those moments when our entire structure can be and should be rethought. So many systemic inequalities can be corrected in a disrupted economy if we start with the intention to grab the energy of the chaos and disruption to propel new solutions forward.

As the recent job reports have noted, women constitute the overwhelming majority of job losses and specifically women of color are bearing the brunt of the majority of women’s job losses.

One thing is for sure, now that the problems have been laid bare, let us not fall prey to focusing solely on them but rather leverage the moment to create change, perhaps to test out a variety of solutions.

We’ve known for many years that having children isn’t what holds women back, but rather that the burden of childcare continues to be assigned to women in our culture. And despite men saying they think childcare responsibilities should be shared — and many even think they are sharing — the reality is what Jessica Bennett writes about so powerfully in the New York Times, Three American Mothers, On the Brink.

Through the stories of three women, diverse in every way but with one thing in common: they are experiencing significant mental and physical health challenges as a result of working, childcare, and schooling from home during the restrictions of the pandemic, Bennett illustrates the utter exhaustion so many women are feeling.

While not all problems can be solved with systems changes, I am heartened that the Biden administration has signaled a commitment to addressing policy solutions through a Gender Policy Council in the White House. It’s a start. But frankly the Obama administration’s laudable attempt to create such a cross departmental council was always hampered by lack of resources and diffused responsibility. So it will require vigilance and pressure from the grassroots to get tangible results from this model, in my opinion.

I’m not going to try to address all the tangled problems of the pandemic today. This will be the first of several Sum conversations I want to spark with you and others who share the concerns and the focus that Take The Lead and I are inclined to prioritize, on solutions. This is not a simple problem and there is not a one size fits all solution.

I leave you with a question and a request.

The question is simply: If the institutions of the family and workplace had been created by women, what would they look like? How would they be different or the same as what we have now? Let’s design from there. It’s not like having children is anything new in this world. So why is it so hard to figure out how to integrate caregiving and careers? Please share resources and ideas, no matter how big or wild.

The request is that we build support for this idea by using the hashtag #putwomenatthecenter of the recovery. That will help frame a mindset that does seek the best and most equitable solutions rather than bogging down in the depressing statistics of the problems we are facing.

To be continued…

GLORIA FELDT is the Cofounder and President of Take The Lead, a motivational speaker and expert women’s leadership developer for companies that want to build gender balance, and a bestselling author of four books, most recently No Excuses: 9 Ways Women Can Change How We Think About Power. Former President of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, she teaches “Women, Power, and Leadership” at Arizona State University and is a frequent media commentator. Learn more at www.gloriafeldt.com and www.taketheleadwomen.com. Tweet Gloria Feldt.