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NOTEBOOK: Women fare worse than men in a pandemic: What can businesses do?


Like most Americans working remotely during the pandemic, I’ve been comparing notes with colleagues and friends on how we’re keeping everything together. Particularly with women, there is a theme to the conversation. After discussing how hard it is to keep up with the ever-changing news cycle and how we are handling the terrifying possibility of the virus affecting our families and loved ones, invariably the conversation turns to the herculean tasks of juggling work, caring for children and managing household responsibilities — you know, the normal challenges of working women.  

These conversations prompted me to consider how the coronavirus will affect women differently than men. The answer is important to all of us, in particular to businesses, which must support women and families more than ever. 

From a mortality perspective, according to a March 24 report by the World Economic Forum, research from China suggests that “while COVID-19 is infecting men and women in about equal numbers, women appear less likely to die from the virus than men.”
But while there’s a lower mortality rate for women, other inequalities persist. Research indicates that pandemics do affect men and women differently; a pandemic actually magnifies all existing inequalities. In this situation, women will undoubtedly suffer greater blows to economic well-being and health — and that affects business. 

In a March article in the Atlantic, “The Coronavirus is a Disaster for Feminism,” the author looked at recent pandemics (Ebola; Zika and recent outbreaks of SARS, swine flu, and bird flu). Academic research revealed that “they had deep, long-lasting effects on gender equality.”  

One striking finding: While income across the board was affected by the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, “men’s income returned to what they had made pre-outbreak faster than women’s income.” Indeed, there was a ripple effect that hurt women — declining rates of childhood vaccination led to children contracting preventable diseases, which then forced their mothers to take time off work. 

In the coronavirus pandemic, a similar ripple effect will also affect women, who traditionally do three times as much unpaid care work than men. Providing special care or assisting relatives who may be vulnerable or relatives with the virus increases that care burden.

School closures had consequences in other pandemics and will likely affect women disproportionately today, because despite advancements, women still bear more responsibility for child care. Past pandemics have also led to more girls dropping out of school, often exacerbated by teen pregnancies, and there was rise of domestic and sexual violence against women. While these behaviors have not yet been reported, they are almost inevitable under sequester and stress. 

Reports of past pandemics also showed that overall women’s health declined because all resources were diverted to the outbreak. In particular, maternal health outcomes suffered. This is already happening today. Elective surgeries and annual OB-GYN exams are being canceled or delayed. Abortions are being considered elective despite the time sensitivity of the procedures. And women giving birth in hospitals are at high risk.

Finally, and perhaps most saddening, is the fact that women make up the majority of health and social care workers. Women even more than men are on the front lines of the fight against COVID-19. Caring for others may come at a steep price.

What does this mean for us as a society of men and women together, and for businesses? Awareness and action are key. If a pandemic exacerbates underlying inequities, we must first acknowledge those social inequities or obstacles for women and we must be vigilant in addressing them.  

For businesses it means continuing programs to support and advance women, even at a time when budgets are being slashed. Women and families will need support more than ever, in wage equity and in flexibility for child care and caregiving. 

As a society, we must not waver in providing education, access to health care, and protection for women. In our households, it means striving to divide labor in a truly equitable way. 

Knowing the outcomes from past pandemics, we can take a hard look at our own workplaces, communities and personal actions and ask: Are we bound to repeat history, or will we step up and support women this time around?

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