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COVID-19 and its Effect on Gender Roles

Due to school and workplace shutdowns, the pandemic not only altered our everyday lives, but increased hardships for women compared to men.

By Mia Mercer ‘23

Photo of woman with mask

Research shows that women are struggling more with the effects of COVID than men. Joan Wolf suggests that to change this problem, we first need to acknowledge how much work women already do at home.

When the pandemic forced schools to shut down and workplaces to move online, research revealed that the majority of the additional parenting and household upkeep fell to women. 

Although the COVID-19 pandemic has affected everyone differently, some COVID-19 related challenges have broadly affected women in the same way. Professors from the College of Liberal Arts found that due to the structure of both the home and the workplace, as well as the added stressors brought on by the virus, COVID-19 has taken a more significant mental, emotional, and physical toll on women compared to men.

“The world expects women to be caretakers at home and at work,” associate professor of women’s and gender studies Joan Wolf said. “What the pandemic has revealed is that the gains that women made before COVID were tenuous because the minute something like this happens, the successes women have made are rolled back. I don’t think we’ve been flattened, but COVID has knocked us way back.”

The reason more stress, household work, and childcare duties have fallen on women than men harkens back to in-office societal norms, Wolf explained. 

“If men take flex time, they are also penalized because they aren’t seen as real men by doing this. People may ask, ‘Why isn’t your wife doing this or the mother of your children?’ When men have to leave work early to pick their kids up at school, what do you think that says to their other male coworkers? ‘This man is leaving to go pick up his kids? Where is his wife, girlfriend, or partner?’ So they are rightly hesitant and reluctant to take [additional household and childcare duties], because they know it will hurt them. However, women should be reluctant too, because it also hurts them. Women aren’t reluctant though, because we expect women to be the caretakers and so they feel like they have no choice. It is going to take substantial changes in how workplaces are structured, and also public policy (such as what Senator Elizabeth Warren is proposing) for care to be recognized as a shared obligation.”

Increased childcare and household-related workloads are not the only pandemic challenges women are facing at a higher rate than men, associate professor of psychological and brain sciences Rebecca Brooker explained.

“Women comprise a very large percentage of frontline health workers, meaning that they are shouldering a large burden of frontline care and work-related COVID-19 exposure,” Brooker said. “We are also seeing restricted access to family planning and pregnancy care/delivery services for women during the pandemic, for which low income and minority women seem to be particularly suffering. There is also a high degree of concern about increased rates of domestic partner violence during the pandemic, as encouraging people to stay home in the name of public safety can limit access to resources for women in violent partnerships and less social interactions may mean less accountability for perpetrators along with fewer opportunities for others to intervene.”

According to Wolf, COVID-19 is a trauma for women. On top of the trauma of COVID-related sickness and deaths, the pandemic has exacerbated women’s mental and physical problems from before the pandemic.

Photo of woman working at home

According to Wolf, women are considered the caregivers of the world and the pandemic has done nothing to ease the burden of their jobs. However, thanks to the pandemic, the hardships that women and mothers face, have been brought to light.

  “Before COVID, women were doing the overwhelming majority of childcare, housework, and the mental labor of running a household,” Wolf explained. “You have the physical labor, which is actually changing the diapers or getting kids into the bathtub. Then you have the mental labor of thinking through who’s going to do what and when? Where do I have to be? Who needs to be where under which circumstances? Once COVID hit, men (looking at heterosexual couples) come home and for them the overall dynamic didn’t change. Men are doing a little more, but mostly they are at home doing their work and women are home trying to do their work while also doing the ‘care’ at the same time.”

On top of increasing household responsibilities, COVID has also affected women’s performance in the workplace. For example, a study from the National Academy of Sciences supports the idea that women in most professions are being promoted at a far slower pace and are devoting less time to their work than men due to work moving online. 

 “Within the first 3-6 months of the pandemic, women’s academic production had dropped significantly,” Wolf explained. “If you are seeing a decline in the number of submissions or publications from women, this has serious long term consequences. It will take them longer to be promoted and also casts them in the workplace as someone who doesn’t care as much about work as they care about other things.”

While these issues are only recently making headlines due to the pandemic, Brooker conducted research at Texas A&M that suggests they aren’t necessarily new. However, as the media continues to call attention to the challenges women are facing at home and in the workplace, both Brooker and Wolf said it provides an opportunity to address changes needed to help women overcome the hardships and challenges brought to light by COVID-19. 

“Research from my (and other) developmental science labs suggests that enhanced social support networks or diminishing stress might benefit women in terms of mental health, but I think the better question might be what structural changes we can make as a society to mitigate challenges and hardships related to parenting and mental health,” Brooker said. “In the United States, there’s a history of inattention to women’s health and mental health issues. In general, we say that as a society these are things that we care about and value. So it is less about what we might expect women to do in order to overcome challenges and really about what adjustments we would be willing to make in demonstration of our commitment to this that will remove the challenges that are in place.”

The pandemic has provided a new opportunity to examine modern societal gender roles. 

“It has really made us re-evaluate how quickly gender roles are/were changing relative to what we thought they were,” Brooker shared. “Certainly, we should see promise in trends like fathers increasingly serving as primary caregivers, but I think the pressure of the pandemic really exposed the persistence of our view of women as the default caregivers even if that comes at the expense of their career.”