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OPINION: The pandemic has shattered illusions of workplace gender equality



The COVID-19 pandemic is reversing progress towards gender parity in the workplace. As children stay home and elders become increasingly vulnerable to illness, women are disproportionately bearing the brunt of increased caretaking responsibilities in the home.

“As high as 25% of women in the workforce have either scaled back or left the workforce entirely as a result of COVID,” said Shruti Rana, assistant dean of the Hamilton Lugar School at IU.

An analysis of the current situation renews the call for an economic system which values the societal and economic contributions of caretakers and removes barriers for women seeking sustained employment in the traditional workforce.

It is likely no surprise that in households with a mother and father present, women are more likely than their male partners to leave the traditional workforce when a child or elder is in need of caretaking. This was true long prior to the pandemic. In 2013, 42% of mothers with work experience reported reducing their work hours to care for a family member, compared to only 28% of fathers.

While caretaking is a necessary and valuable societal contribution, it should not be automatically expected of women. This is not a condemnation of women working in caretaking, but a protection of a woman’s right to be valued for her work, whether in the home or the traditional workforce.

As COVID-19 has closed schools and many parents have opted to home-school children out of safety fears, the disproportionate effect of caretaking on women has skyrocketed. A New York Times survey in May found that 45% of U.S. fathers with children under 12 reported spending more time with their children than their wives have since the onset of the pandemic.

Only 3% of women agree. Instead, an overwhelming 80% of women report fulfilling the majority of caretaking requirements in their household. It would be comical if it were not devastating to workplace gender parity.

To mitigate COVID-19’s exacerbation of workplace gender inequity, it is crucial to examine the forces which compel women to disproportionately bear caretaking responsibilities.

First, the severe pay gap between men and women devalues the work of women, incentivizing women to stay home, allowing the family to retain a male partner’s higher salary.

“If you have two people in a family that are in the workforce and one of them has to stay home for care work, usually the person making less money is the one who does that, and because of pay inequality, most often that’s a woman in the household,” Rana said.

In fact, women as a whole earn 39% less than men. Traditional iterations of the wage gap place that number lower, at 20%, but this figure does not account for the large amounts of unpaid labor women perform in the form of caretaking. It is not enough to just address the pay gap between men and women in the traditional workforce.

The disparity between overall earnings necessitates a more radical solution: compensating women for caretaking in the home, placing economic value on work that allows society to function. Six Democratic presidential candidates in the 2020 election supported sending monthly payments to parents working within the home as caretakers, an idea already in place in Canada and Australia. Coupled with an expansion of paid maternity and paternity leave and family medical leave, this system would reward women for caretaking and mitigate barriers to entering the traditional workforce.

Second, many families lack access to alternative childcare opportunities, causing parents, primarily women, to take on those roles even when they would not voluntarily do so. This issue affects women at home in Bloomington.

“Bloomington has been known as a childcare desert in the sense that there are not enough childcare spots for the people who need them, and there are certainly not enough affordable childcare spots,” Rana said.

Lack of child care access exacerbates existing fault lines of inequality, as high-income families are four times as likely as low-income families to send their children to childcare programs and twice as likely to send young children to preschool. When low-income families lack access to childcare, they forgo a necessary source of income when a parent must stay home to care for a child instead. President-elect Joe Biden’s campaign support for free universal prekindergarten could be a step toward increasing options for external child care support.

Finally, the current disparity calls us to embark on a longer journey to dismantle societal gender stereotypes. Aside from practical policy incentives, the association between women in heterosexual parenting dynamics and childcare is a deeply embedded societal norm.

“There’s some research out there saying that care work in same-sex couples is more equitable or at least they play out in different ways because there are fewer gender roles at play,” Rana said.

Dismantling gender stereotypes and building supportive economic structures for women, whether in the traditional workforce or caretaking roles has always been vital to achieving gender parity. In the age of the pandemic, it is non-negotiable.