We’re in the middle of a crisis, and the interesting thing about a crisis is that, in addition to all the upheaval it brings, it also seems to highlight our strengths and weaknesses. We’ve seen the resilience and creativity of the human spirit, no doubt, but the coronavirus pandemic is also shining a light on opportunism and inequities as well.
In addition to the assholes who don’t seem to think the rules about social distancing apply to them and the jerks who hoard toilet paper, there are also the massive systemic inequities that we can’t escape right now. Obviously those inequities and injustices were there before, but they are exacerbated and more obvious now.
Besides the healthcare workers who are literally saving our lives right now, there are all the food industry workers, grocery store clerks, and truckers who are leaving the safety of their home to make sure we have what we need. Many of these essential workers are also among the lowest-paid workers in the country. What’s more, many of the jobs that have been lost come from the service sector, such as cleaners, child care providers, and restaurant waitstaff. And those employees who do still have a job may have had their pay cut in recent weeks.
Guess who suffers the most individually when the nation suffers collectively?
That’s right, women.
First and foremost, women are more likely to be low-wage and part-time workers than men, even when we aren’t in the midst of a crisis. In fact, 62% of minimum-wage and low-wage workers are women. According to data obtained by the American Payroll Association in 2019, 74% of American workers would find it difficult (either “very difficult or “somewhat difficult”) if they miss a paycheck, and a 2017 survey by CareerBuilder found that 80% of women live paycheck to paycheck. So any disruption to the economy will impact women harder.
Women are also more likely to be caregivers. Not only do women, on average, do 241 minutes of unpaid labor (cooking, cleaning, caregiving) a day compared to 145 minutes for men, but women are also more likely to work in the sectors that are seeing massive job losses right now.
Matthias Doepke, an economics professor at Northwestern University and one of the authors of a new research paper on the impact of the current crisis on females, told the New York Times, “The sectors that are going to be most affected — for example, the restaurants, which are all closed, or the travel sector — have fairly high female employment. More women will lose jobs.”
The coronavirus pandemic makes it crystal clear that we live in a world of haves and have-nots. Not that this notion was ever up for debate, but it is even more apparent when we say things like “stay home” and there are more than half a million people in the country who don’t have a home to stay in. Some folks are struggling to get a modicum of work done at home with their children crawling all over them while others — 10 million to be precise — are applying for meager unemployment benefits.
Living paycheck-to-paycheck, by definition, means there is no safety net, no rainy day fund to cushion the blow when a crisis arises. Many families don’t have the savings to pay for the extra child care they now need to pay for because schools are closed, or to pay this month’s rent because they were laid off from their job. While the novel coronavirus has undoubtedly impacted us all, it clearly has impacted some folks more than others. Families who were already struggling financially before the pandemic are now in a hole so deep that the unemployment checks and the CARES Act stimulus check can’t begin to get them out of it.
This isn’t due to lack of planning or hard work either. This isn’t a “bootstraps” issue; this is a compassion and ignorance issue. This is a lack of adequate wages for workers who we now understand are utterly essential. It is a failure to value the contributions women make to a workforce and a household.
This isn’t just a U.S. problem; worldwide, economic inequality is absolutely staggering. According to OxFam, in 2019, 2,153 people had more wealth than 4.6 billion people. Most of this wealth is held by men, and OxFam also reports that the 22 richest men have more than all the women in Africa. Read that again: 22 men have more wealth than all of the women in an entire continent.
If you weren’t frustrated enough already, here’s one more horrifying tidbit of information – globally, the value of unpaid work performed by women aged 15 and over account is at least $11 trillion dollars annually – an amount that is three times the size of the world’s tech industry. So not only are women making less than men for the paid hours we work, but we’re also doing a shit ton of unpaid work.
“[This] unpaid work is fueling a sexist economic system that takes from the many and puts money in the pockets of the few,” the OxFam report states.
With schools closed and many parents working from home (those who aren’t considered essential workers and still have a job, at least), the value of this unpaid work is glaringly obvious. It takes a ton of time to care for kids, get food on the table, keep the house reasonably clean (“clean” is all relative though, I suppose), and tend to the thousand other things that need tending in a household. Bills still need to be paid. Easter baskets don’t fill themselves. And as much as I would like, a laundry fairy doesn’t exist. I’m fortunate that my husband fully shares in these obligations and still it feels damn near impossible some days.
Professor Doepke reiterated this to the New York Times, saying, “The much bigger thing for most people who live with children is the extra child care needs — everybody with young kids has to provide all of the child care all of a sudden. And we argue that the vast majority of this extra work will fall on women, therefore making it difficult for them to work as usual.”
Like I said, a crisis tends to show the best and worst, strengths and weaknesses. Hopefully, when we emerge from this crisis – and we will emerge from it – we come out with a better appreciation for all the unpaid and underpaid work that women do, and a better understanding of just how essential many workers really are.