Let me start by saying that a global pandemic is a terrible time for everyone. Obviously. But, the abrupt shifts in daily life caused by COVID-19 have impacted women in powerful and far-reaching ways. In these unprecedented times, women are under unprecedented stress. Consider these seven reasons why:
1. Women are on the frontlines at work.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 75% of hospital jobs are done by women, and 79% of health services outside hospitals (doctor and dentist offices, nursing facilities, etc) are done by women. In pharmacies and drug stores, 65% of the
workers are women.
Nurses (90% of whom are women) are feeling an inordinate amount of stress as they put themselves at risk every day, often without sufficient personal protective equipment (PPE). In addition to the stress that comes with that risk, they must adapt to ever-evolving protocols in an environment they’ve never seen before.
Sheila, 42, a registered nurse at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston said, “Our standards of care are going out the window and suddenly we are preparing for crisis management. All the typical quality control checks and balances and documentation requirements have gone completely out the window.”
Lori, 35, works another front lines job: she is a crew member at Trader Joe’s. Despite the fact that Trader Joe’s has begun issuing masks and is installing Plexiglas barriers at registers, Lori says, “I feel very at risk due to the fact I work with the general public 40 hours a week. The psychological stress of my job has affected me greatly.” (Shortly after making that statement, Lori’s store was closed because a crew member tested positive for COVID-19).
2. Women are being asked to overhaul education overnight.
The vast majority of education-sector jobs (70%) are done by women. With school closures, teachers have had to shift to an exclusively-online learning platform literally overnight (in addition to managing their own households). This has meant curriculum updates, a technology learning curve, and coordinating with parents in a whole new way to continue to engage students and ensure that one constant through this chaos is their educational development.
Megan, 40, a kindergarten teacher and mother to two elementary-aged kids, said, “I’m finding it especially hard from the parent side — helping them navigate their own virtual classrooms, remembering their due dates and class meetings, proofreading essays. This all happens while fielding calls and emails from frustrated colleagues and scared parents and holding virtual office hours and still attending a college course for my specialized literacy certificate, albeit virtually, and it is enough to make the calmest person a bit mad.”
3. Women are most vulnerable to job loss.
In addition to working most of the frontline jobs and being responsible for helping to educate our children, women also make up the majority of the work force in the service sector, which is being hit hard by restrictions related to COVID-19. Jobs in food, hospitality, and tourism are feeling harsh economic effects (millions of Americans have filed unemployment claims in the past few weeks).
Generally speaking, women are more likely to lose jobs than men, according to UNCTAD (United Nations Conference on Trade and Development). The reason for this is that the majority of part-time jobs are done by women—and those part-time jobs are often the first to go. To add insult to injury, part-time employees do not usually have company-paid health insurance or paid leave, and they do not qualify for unemployment benefits.
At this point, it goes without saying that small businesses are struggling. A recent Goldman Sachs survey of small business owners found that more than half of them said they didn’t think they could continue operating their businesses for more than three months amid the current conditions. Day care centers, preschools, and other child care service businesses have had to close their doors—and 94% of their workers are women.
Gift and novelty stores, florists, salons, clothing stores—the majority of workers in these “nonessential” businesses are women. Teresa, 52, a hair stylist for the past 34 years, said, “My industry survives every economy, but not this one. I have zero money coming in.”
Even small businesses that are still open are at risk. Melia, 40, a physical therapist who owns and operates a clinic where the majority of patients pay out of pocket, said, “As more people are impacted by all of this, they will not have the extra income to spend on their self-care. And I am already seeing these changes as patients are cancelling due to not having the financial freedom to come in. I moved into a new clinic and took on some higher payments a year ago so this is all a concern.”
According to UNCTAD, women entrepreneurs have more to worry about than their male counterparts: “Women entrepreneurs are often discriminated against when attempting to access credit. This will be a challenge as credit will be of paramount importance in the survival of firms. Without open and favorable lines of credit, many female entrepreneurs will be forced to close their businesses.”
4. Women are doing the lion’s share at home.
Decades ago, the development of schools, daycares, and after-school clubs enabled women to enter the workforce. With these facilities closed, the responsibility for children has returned to where it started—with women.
In families where women have lost their jobs, or seen a reduction in their work hours, it might make sense for women to be tasked with the majority of the child care, but that does not mean that women are not feeling stress in this role.
According to the US Department of Labor, 70% of mothers with children under 18 work, with over 75% of those women employed full-time. This means that the vast majority of women are used to relying on some kind of child care. They are not accustomed to being full-time mothers.
Melia said, “Because my hours have dramatically reduced, I am largely in charge of child care.” And, of course, it’s not just child care, but homeschooling too (Melia: “My children are at a Spanish immersion school and I don’t speak Spanish!”).
Even for women who have continued to work, many find themselves doing the majority of house work and child care. You might think that if both parents work, then they divide child care equally. This has not been shown to be the case. The most recent time-use diary information collected by Pew Research and the Bureau of Labor Statistics in the U.S. finds that women who work outside the home shoulder 65% of child care responsibilities, and their male partners 35%.
Furthermore, if parents have flexible working situations (like working from home, which has become the new norm for many who still have jobs), the traditional division of labor tends to remain (meaning women do the majority of house work and child care).
A 2019 Harvard University study found that women also hold the “cognitive labor” for household tasks, including anticipating and monitoring what needs to be done. In our current situation, with all that needs to be done (homeschooling, preparing all the meals, figuring out how to obtain groceries and other essentials, cleaning up after housebound family members), this is extremely taxing.
Amanda, 34, a wife and mother who continues to work from home full-time (in addition to juggling child care), says, “The overall operations of our home and family is my responsibility—just ensuring everyone has what they need, meal planning, paying bills. It’s funny because COVID has forced us to avoid swim lessons, gymnastics, t-ball, school … but I have never felt busier.”
It’s not just women with children who are feeling extra burden at home either. Carrie, 40, a mental health therapist who was in a long-distance relationship until COVID-19 led her to move in with her partner, said, “Changes in my partner’s work situation have impacted me in that he does not have consistent work. His anxiety has spiked due to fears of not being able to keep his business afloat, which results in decreased bandwidth to handle day-to-day tasks, which results in me taking over.”
Meena Harris, founder of the Phenomenal Woman Action Campaign, recently tweeted, “Being at home this last month and trying to juggle literally everything at once has proven so glaringly that it is humanly impossible for women to just lean in and have it all. I hope no one is ever able to scam us into having that BS debate again.”
Dr. Huong Diep, a board-certified psychologist practicing in San Diego, says, “Women have been lauded and praised for ‘doing it all.’ But I don’t think this expression or concept also included doing it all in the midst of a pandemic. I encourage my clients to pay attention to the increase in mental chatter during this time (eg, ‘I should be doing more for my family,’ ‘Why can’t I have more energy?’ ‘Why is Susie able to homeschool her kids and create meals for them?’ ‘Why don’t I have energy for sex?’ ‘Why does my husband annoy me so much?’). We need to be kind to ourselves and remember that we are all having a very normal reaction to a super abnormal event.”
For some women, the pressure to “do it all” is simply too much: “Some women may be forced to make difficult decisions to leave the labor market or opt for part-time jobs, as juggling between caring for family members and paid work becomes untenable,” explain UNCTAD. And, when this happens, we will slowly be migrating back to square one, with fewer women in the workforce. If we’re not careful, COVID-19 could add feminism to its death toll.
5. Single moms have it especially hard.
There are approximately 11 million single moms in the U.S. Data released last year showed that single mothers haven’t taken the work force by storm, with 80% of single moms between the ages of 25 and 34 working. That is, of course, great, but what are single working moms supposed to do now?
A further complication: Jobs in nursing had the highest growth in employment for young single moms between 2015 and 2018. If a mother is a nurse and has children who can no longer go to school or daycare, what is she supposed to do? Her life becomes, in effect, a logistical nightmare.
Ashley, 38, a part-time nurse who also runs her own online retail business, is recently divorced with 3 children. She said, “I’ve opted to keep the children during this time to lower their exposure and because I have the bigger home and yard.” But she said there is still “confusion of what to expect of a co-parent during this time.”
Ashley has been sick with a cough and sore throat for several days, so she has had to cancel her nursing shifts, but she has continued to run her online business, as well as take care of her three children (two of whom are homeschooling and one who requires her to play toy dinosaurs for hours a day): “It’s an impossible feat to even make balance a goal. It’d be like trying to balance the weight of a car on one hand and the weight of a house on the other. Right now feels like there are too many balls in the air and they’re all made of glass.”
When I asked her if she thought she had COVID-19, she said. “It’s possible. I’m finally going to the doctor tomorrow. I found someone who is willing to come out to the car to do the nasal swab. I didn’t feel right taking all three kids into the office with me.”
6. Women are responsible for the future, literally.
As the world faces its greatest health crisis in our lifetimes, pregnant women are feeling the stress of trying to keep themselves (and their unborn babies) safe and healthy, all the while knowing that regular doctor’s appointments make it impossible for them to completely isolate.
Rachel, 36, who is due with her first baby in July, said, “You want this to be special and meaningful and instead it’s stressful and scary. The hospital is like a war zone with tents outside.” Right now, Rachel’s husband would be allowed in the delivery room, but that could change any day, something that keeps her up at night. She said, “Currently there are no other visitors allowed at all, so what does that mean for my mom and mother-in-law and our families? This is the first grandbaby … how long will they have to wait to meet her?”
During her pregnancy, a time when she would like to connect with loved ones, the restrictions related to the pandemic have led to grief over the experience she will not get to have: “We won’t have a shower. It’s not that we need the presents, it’s just so sad that I won’t get to celebrate with our friends and family.” All of the prenatal classes offered by her insurance plan have been canceled.
There is little information available about caring for a newborn during a pandemic—from very real health concerns, to practical concerns: “Will I be able to get help from the grandparents? Who will give me a break to shower or nap or feel human again if I can’t have anyone over?”
For women attempting to become pregnant, the pandemic is a wrench in plans that could change the course of their entire lives. Tens of thousands of women across the country have had their treatments put on hold indefinitely due to recommendations recently issued by the American Society for Reproductive Medicine.
Sheila, the nurse at Brigham and Women’s, revealed, “In the midst of all this, I have been doing IVF. I had a transfer the day they shut down the IVF program (first time ever in the history of the department). Now I await the dreaded results. If it didn’t take, God knows when I can try again. And my clock is ticking. I’m no spring chicken.”
7. Women are carrying most of the anxiety.
In a national poll, the Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF) found that women seemed to be the most affected by COVID-19 in terms of stress and worry. In a statement, KFF said: “The findings of the survey reinforce much of what we have known about the impact that balancing multiple responsibilities—often without a safety net—has on women. The COVID-19 pandemic has put a spotlight on the gaps in workplace supports, such as paid sick and family leave, as well as the lack of affordable childcare and long-term care supports.”
Even in normal times, women are twice as likely as men to have an anxiety disorder, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America. Furthermore, recent research suggests that women are more sensitive to low levels of a hormone that
organizes stress responses, making women twice as vulnerable as men to stress- related disorders.
Melia, like many women, is kept up at night by questions: “When will this be over? How do we come back from this financially? Can I sanely continue to have my children home through to the fall and keep up with their education?”
Amanda echoed similar sentiments: “I fear I won’t see my parents, or worse, that one of them will get sick and I won’t be there for them. I worry about the economy. I wonder if my husband and I will ever have a date night again and if my son will stop asking, ‘when will the flu be over?’”
In normal times, many women have ways to alleviate their stress and anxiety—exercise classes, happy hours with friends, coffee dates, shopping excursions, movie outings. Now, many of those stress-alleviators are not available. Or, even if they are available in another form (Zoom yoga, for example), life circumstances make them inaccessible. As Ashley said, “Before COVID-19, I was very active and attentive to my healing from my divorce; I attended weekly—sometimes bi-weekly—Al-Anon meetings, was going to therapy weekly, meditating daily, reading and writing. Some of those things are possible given technology but the mind space needed is not there with children. They’re loud and they need me what feels like constantly.”
A silver lining …
One pro of being a woman right now: In general, women seem to have the upper hand when it comes to resilience and longevity, and are dying of COVID-19 less frequently than men.
As Dr. Sharon Moalem wrote for The New York Times: “This isn’t just the case during once-in-a-lifetime pandemics. This innate biological advantage is apparent at every age and stage of human life: Baby girls are consistently more likely to make it to their first birthday; 80 percent of all centenarians today are women; an incredible 95 percent of those who reach the formidable age of 110 years old are women.”
This does not surprise me. We, as women, know we are strong, despite the patriarchy’s attempts to disavow us of this knowledge. While this crisis is a direct threat to feminism, it can also give a boost to feminism by demonstrating, once again and so overtly, the fortitude of women in the face of seemingly impossible circumstances. We, as women, will persevere, because we always have, because it is our not-so-secret superpower.
It is the women who are caring for the sick people, the women who are educating the children, the women who are preparing to give birth in a future that is largely uncertain. It is my hope that we will stand at the end of this, emboldened more than ever before to speak the truth of all that we do for our families, our employers, our society as a whole.
And maybe, just maybe, the confidence we gain through our own resilience will empower us to do something truly revolutionary—care a little bit more for ourselves.