Is COVID-19 the new war for women?

(Courtesy of Lown Institute)

It is 2021, and the COVID-19 pandemic rages on — seemingly with no end in sight. The rise of online schooling has led to children staying at home more often, with parents forced to arrange some form of supervision for their children or stay at home themselves. Often this leads to conflicts with workplaces and — in some cases — unemployment, with women being especially impacted.

“I think we are going to have to learn how to live very differently. I don’t think we are going to go back to the way we used to live,” says Helene Mialet, associate professor of science and technology studies. “I think we will have to learn how to live with viruses. Hopefully, something good will come out of this pandemic.”

Mialet adds that social issues have been highlighted amid the pandemic. “They force us to grasp our ecosystem’s complexity and the interdependence of all the different beings that compose it. It could help us respond to the next big threat: climate change,” Mialet says. “We are suffering, but we are also experimenting and inventing the world of tomorrow, which is taking place as we speak.”

World War II was another global life-changing event that changed human society’s landscape on a massive scale. Before World War II began, only 600,000 women in Canada held permanent jobs out of a population of 11 million people. This figure doubled to 1.2 million women during the war. 

The war attributes this shift in women’s roles, during which there was a shortage of male workers in Canada due to the men being overseas fighting. However, these women were expected to quit their jobs after the war. 

Women were instrumental in running the economy and the workforce at home during World War II while the men were off fighting. Is there a similar pattern in the pandemic? Is COVID-19 the new World War II for women? 

According to The World Health Organization (WHO), 70 per cent of the global health workforce are women. In the United States, while women make up 47.4 per cent of the overall workforce, they make up 64.4 per cent of workers in frontline industries, 76.8 per cent of healthcare workers, and 85.2 per cent of childcare and social workers. They are a vital part of the COVID-19 response and are undoubtedly the backbone of society.

“From a very young age, society puts pressure on women to be motherly and caring to their husbands and children.”

In Canada, as of 2019, 91 per cent of registered nurses are women. Many of whom provide direct care to COVID-19 patients. 

When asked whether she thought women were the unacknowledged backbone of society, Lace Parsons, a second-year psychology student, says: “I absolutely do. When the pandemic started, many women were in essential worker roles while at the same time generally taking care of a bigger chunk of the house chores. I have seen a shift in some couples with men standing up trying to fill the void, but a frozen ready-made dinner is not the same as a nutritious home-cooked meal.” 

Female-led countries such as New Zealand, Norway, and Taiwan have had some of the best responses to the COVID-19 pandemic. For example, in New Zealand, to date, there have been only 2,409 COVID-19 cases and 26 deaths in an estimated population of five million. Their success is attributed to Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s government-issued lockdown, locking down earlier than other countries, which led to life resuming with minimal restrictions. 

Led by Prime Minister Erna Solberg, Norway has handled the COVID-19 pandemic with strict regulations and lockdown compared to its neighbour, Sweden. The swift response from Norway has paid off. To date they have reported a case count of over 78,000 with a population of around 5.3 million, while Sweden has reported over 707,000 cases with an estimated population of 10 million.

Despite female world leaders outperforming their male counterparts in COVID-19 response, the number of female heads of state is low worldwide, with only 19 out of 200 women-led countries. Unfortunately, the effectiveness of female leaders has not translated into an equal political playing field overall. 

North America sees women as the norm when it comes to housework. In a study conducted in 2016 by the American Sociological Association (APA) in the United States, 75 per cent of respondents believed that the female in a heterosexual couple should take care of laundry.

Eighty-two per cent believed that females should take care of a child’s physical needs. Seventy-two per cent thought that the female should take care of the child’s emotional needs, while 62 per cent believed that the female should be the stay-at-home parent. 

“I think most women do work at home, even though most are employed. From a very young age, society puts pressure on women to be motherly and caring to their husbands and children,” says Kristina Budisa, a fifth-year french studies student at York.

“In my experience, when I was younger, my mother would show my sisters and me how to bake cookies, and would tell us we are expected to know how to cook for our husbands one day,” continues Budisa.

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought certain gender inequalities to the forefront, including the massive societal disparity. Women find themselves doing most child care and housework while also holding down jobs and full-fledged careers. This phenomenon is known as the “double burden” in cultural anthropology: a phenomenon that has only worsened since the start of the global pandemic.

“…studies show that women spend more time doing non-paid work for the household while men have advantages in the workplace, as seen by the persistent pay gap.”

“Whether we realize it or not, we live in a gendered society brought up with societal biases of what women and men ‘should’ do. Society expects women to take care of kids and the home while men are the breadwinners. These expectations are less overt than they used to be,”  says Tatiana Espinosa-Merlano, project director of the York organization Empowered Women in Health.

“Of course, there are exceptions, but studies show that women spend more time doing non-paid work for the household while men have advantages in the workplace, as seen by the persistent pay gap.”

This disparity is even more apparent in BIPOC communities. I spoke with Emma Posca, a PhD candidate in the School of Gender, Sexuality, and Feminist Studies, about this discrepancy, particularly when it comes to Black and Indigenous mothers. 

“The rate of single-parent families is higher in racialized communities. It’s a single burden on one person — the woman! — to take jobs, take care of children, and the home. Many of these women will go out and do front-line work such as nursing, personal support work, waitressing, which puts them in the line of fire with not only COVID-19, but also with their families. So they end up taking this doubled workload,” Posca says.

Despite statistics indicating that women still bear the brunt of the housework and childcare, there has been slow but steady progress in this regard.

After World War II, women were expected to leave their jobs and go back to being housewives, while the women who retained their jobs were demoted and/or paid lower salaries. In the 1950s, women in the United States made up 29 per cent of the workforce. 

By 2015, in Canada, women averaged 2.8 hours of housework per day (a decrease of 42 minutes in the past 30 years), while men contributed an average of 1.9 hours of housework per day (an increase of 24 minutes in the past 30 years). It is safe to say that men are contributing to housework and childcare more than before. 

In Canada, the profile of the stay-at-home parent is, over the years, undergoing a rapid change. According to Statistics Canada, one in 70 stay-at-home parents were fathers in 1976. In 2015, that number changed to one in 10. 

COVID-19 has brought positive change to the inequality of housework. In the United States and Canada, men are doing more housework than ever during the pandemic. This change could be because women make up the majority of frontline workers. However, this shift in equality could bring about a permanent change in gender norms.

Lace Parsons certainly hopes that the pandemic has changed gender dynamics in Western society. “I hope that genders are starting to become more equalized throughout societies, as both males and females have had to take on and share roles that were traditionally allocated to specific professions,” she says. 

Budisa agrees that COVID-19 has changed pre-existing gender norms. “If both partners work from home, it is easier to split tasks at home, you can do chores around the house during your lunch break, and it is easier to track who is doing what and to split chores around the house,” she says. 

While the pandemic has brought many social injustices to the forefront — particularly the gender disparity between males and females — it has also changed these underlying societal dynamics. While full gender equality, in terms of household and childcare duties, still has a long way to go, this is the beginning of massive transformations within Canadian society.

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By Meenakshi Gopakumar

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Deepa N

Excellent article! Time for society to adapt to reduce and eliminate women’s double burden.