Sharp Contrast

The pandemic has widened the inequality gap for women, and the U is working to change that


Ask yourself, is it as socially acceptable for a man to hold a baby on a work video call as it is for a woman? That’s just one scenario Jennifer Workman found herself wondering about last spring when the pandemic unexpectedly pushed her and her husband to work from home with no childcare.

“I think gender roles really come into play here,” says Workman, a clinical researcher in pediatrics at the U. “If a baby cries during a Zoom meeting with the father on the call, the subtle undertone is: Shouldn’t your wife, nanny, fill in the blank deal with this problem?”

It is precisely these kinds of unspoken, often subconscious assumptions that have led not only Workman but also millions of other women into taking on a disproportionate share of household duties since the pandemic hit. And while it may be true that men are more likely to become seriously ill from the coronavirus, when it comes to living through the social and economic upheavals of this situation, women arguably have it worse—especially those in the workforce.

More women have lost jobs during what some are calling the “she-cession.” In September alone, 865,000 women left the job market, compared to 216,000 men, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. And women of color have fared the worst. In 2020, unemployment rates hit 16.4% for Black women and 20.2% for Hispanic women.

Mothers paid for work outside of the home have also shouldered the bulk of the unpaid labor of cleaning, caregiving, and overseeing schoolwork. This has led many to consider quitting or reducing work hours—putting at risk hard-won gains in achieving gender equality in the form of greater workforce participation and more equal pay. A recent UN report about the impact of COVID-19 on women and girls says that these issues, along with a lack of access to reproductive care and a spike in domestic violence, are worldwide concerns.

“Everybody who is vulnerable is more vulnerable. Everything that is unequal is more unequal: racial disparities, health outcomes, the digital divide, gender pay gap, domestic responsibilities,” says Claudia Geist, associate dean for research in the U’s School for Cultural and Social Transformation.

Researchers at the U are studying the fallout in real time, with the goal of making fundamental changes that could help women long after the pandemic ends. Here are five areas where the U is trying to do just that.

Childcare and Education

COVID-19 has exposed Utah’s (and the nation’s) serious childcare crisis. Even before the pandemic, Utah was ranked as one of the three worst states for lack of access to licensed childcare providers. The school closures and shifts to online and hybrid learning are highlighting how the modern workforce depends on children being in school. “There’s always been a presumption that women will be around to pick up the mess, and the mess is bigger this time,” says Jessie Richards PhD’16, assistant professor (lecturer) of management.

Geist says the care burden falls on women because in a dual-income household, “of course it makes sense that the person with the lower earnings cut back. And that is typically women in straight couples.” In Utah, women receive 70 cents per dollar received by men, leaving the state with the second-worst pay gap in the nation.

“Everybody who is vulnerable
is more vulnerable.
Everything that is unequal
is more unequal.”

Because of added duties at home, many women are putting certain projects or initiatives on pause. Workman delayed submitting a grant to the NIH and is considering delaying seeking tenure, she says. “Will this be one more little hiccup along the road? Probably. It’s all these little things that add up along the way. Does it mean I will never be promoted? No. Will it take me longer to get there? Maybe.”

For many working mothers, the situation is bleak. Angie Fagerlin, chair of the Department of Population Health Sciences, surveyed nearly 6,000 U doctors, staff, and trainees about the pandemic’s impact on their careers and found childcare to be a top concern for U employees.

A large portion are considering leaving the workforce (42%) or reducing their work hours (51%) and are worried the pandemic has reduced their productivity and career development (39% and 77%). Women were twice as likely to say they considered leaving work altogether. “We are very concerned that we could lose a generation to three of women in science and in medicine,” says Fagerlin.

Parents said their top child care needs include tutoring, inhome childcare, and consultation with an education specialist. The top work-balance needs found in the survey include flexibility to work at home, as well as in scheduling meetings and clinic time; a work schedule plotted out at least a month in advance; and managers who understand their work struggles.

The U is now offering 10 hours of in-person tutoring per employee, reading assessments, and help for employees to find childcare and in-home providers. Future goals include deciding which policies could be changed statewide to help working parents.

Pregnancy Care and Research

More than 4,000 babies are delivered at U of U Health each year. When the pandemic began, the U already had the groundwork to offer virtual care to expecting mothers, thanks to a program launched two years ago by maternal-fetal medicine physician Erin Clark HBS’98 MS’09. Most patients now use the program, but before the pandemic, only about 10%-20% did.

“We know that pregnant women are more likely to have severe illness from COVID-19 and are more likely to require intensive care and to die,” Clark says. “The program was initially introduced as a way to provide more patient-centered prenatal care. Now it’s instrumental in our efforts to keep mothers and babies safe.”

But with so much rapid change, it’s still unknown if increased virtual visits for expecting mothers will affect outcomes. Torri Metz MS’12, associate professor of obstetrics and gynecology, is leading a national study to analyze medical records of 21,000 pregnant women to understand if the changes made to health care in the wake of the pandemic resulted in higher rates of complications and cesarean deliveries. It will also determine the risk of COVID-positive mothers passing the virus to their fetuses.

“The questions we will address in this study are ones that a lot of practitioners and women who are pregnant or are considering getting pregnant are asking themselves,” Metz says. “Hopefully, this study will illuminate some of the answers so that we can better counsel women on what to expect.”

U researchers have also been studying whether women even want to get pregnant during a pandemic. It’s a question Rebecca Simmons BS’05 MPH’11 PhD’16, a research assistant professor in family planning, has been asking in conjunction with a research partnership called the HER Salt Lake Contraceptive Initiative, which helps provide free birth control to women.

“A significant number reported it’s much more important for them to delay pregnancy right now than it was a year ago,” she explains. The women report being concerned about access to their providers, getting prescriptions, and being able to pay for birth control. The results suggest making a wide variety of birth control methods easily available to couples, says Simmons.

Division of Housework

On paper, 75 percent of heterosexual couples say they want to equally share the jobs of maintaining a household. When asked why they don’t, men normally cite lack of paid leave and an inability to telecommute, says Daniel Carlson, associate professor of family and consumer studies. But when the pandemic hit, those barriers disappeared. “You’re now in the home. We’re cutting all the domestic supports you have like childcare and schooling. What are you going to do?” Carlson asks.

The answer is mixed, according to a national survey Carlson led of 1,025 U.S. parents in heterosexual relationships last April. Both mothers and fathers reported an increase in sharing during the pandemic. Some 40% of couples reported sharing housework more equally (up from 26%) and about half (56%) reported sharing childcare equally (up from 45%). Men who worked from home exclusively, reduced their hours, or left their jobs spent more time doing childcare. They also stepped up when mothers were the primary earners.

Only a third of mothers reported that they shared domestic duties equally with their partners. Some women who did the majority of housework and childcare before the pandemic did even more during the shutdown.

“Egalitarianism isn’t going to fall into your lap. Crafting this takes work, and it requires a very concerted effort by partners to communicate with each other to make this happen,” Carlson says. “When things are ambiguous, we have these gendered constructs in our head. We have schematics of what men and women should do and what’s appropriate for men and women to fall back on.”

Domestic Violence

Domestic abuse jumps during times of crisis, and the COVID-19 pandemic has been no exception. Police departments and shelters in Utah and around the country recorded spikes of crisis calls during the spring when emergency orders closed workplaces and schools, leaving individuals isolated with their abusers.

While the lockdowns have lifted, the stressors that can lead to conflict have continued, with many Utahns still unemployed or working reduced hours, and children at home for school some or all of the time. These are also factors that isolate victims from potential helpers. At the same time, gun and alcohol sales, known predictors of domestic violence, are increasing.

“Ultimately, we are looking at many social forces combining at once: COVID-19, domestic violence, criminal justice reform, and the skyrocketing firearm sales in this state,” says Sonia Salari, professor of family and consumer studies. “For families and organizations holding on by a thread, there is a perfect storm brewing. It is likely we will not understand the full magnitude of its consequences for years to come.”

She and others are studying the impact of COVID on victims, shelters, police, and the courts. The goal is to make recommendations on what can be done to protect victims of intimate partner violence, elder abuse, child abuse, sexual assault, stalking, and human trafficking as we cope with the virus spread. “In a time of pandemic, there are other crises that happen too that are ongoing and can be exacerbated,” says Annie Isabel Fukushima, assistant professor of ethnic studies, who is part of the study. “If you’re losing jobs or being furloughed or your housing situation is precarious, you’re more likely to stay in an abusive situation.”

Last fall, the U also launched a new center focused on prevention of relationship and sexual violence on college campuses. The McCluskey Center for Violence Prevention now brings together the expertise of researchers, prevention educators, and students to bridge the gap between research and practice.

Mental Health

While almost no one is spared from COVID-19 stress, women are about three times as likely as men to report suffering from significant mental health consequences (27% vs. 10%), according to a study by nonprofit aid organization CARE. And 83% of women reported a significant increase in depression, compared to 36% of men since the pandemic began, in a new study from Total Brain, a mental health app. Stress is even higher among communities of color, where individuals are more likely to have lost their jobs, been sickened, or died because of COVID-19.

Erika George, director of the Tanner Humanities Center, has been struck by how differently she and her Black friends are experiencing the pandemic—many are mourning loved ones lost to the disease—compared to some of her white friends who haven’t been as impacted. “Universally, the people who’ve been disadvantaged in societies across the globe have borne the brunt of this.”

“This is an opportunity
to change how it’s
always been. Let’s imagine
something different...”

Lauren Weitzman BS’84, psychologist and director of the U’s counseling center, says the chronic stress of the pandemic is “eating away at all of us in ways we’re not aware of.” She has been offering workshops to various departments to help the U community find ways to reduce stress, strengthen relationships, and practice self-compassion during this new normal.

Some tips she emphasizes include making rituals to divide work and home life and focusing attention on things within your control. You can’t end the pandemic, for example, but you can decide which media to consume and find helpful distractions like browsing healthy recipes, updating your résumé, or taking part in an online book club.

Maintaining structure can also boost well-being. Schedule regular breaks, write weekly goals, identify a few “most important tasks” each day and cross them off as you go, write a to-do list the night before, tidy up workspaces at the end of the day, and create new weekly family traditions. Last of all, be kind to yourself, says Weitzman.

Along with the monumental changes we’re all facing, the pandemic presents a chance to reimagine a new world, says George. “This is an opportunity to change how it’s always been. Let’s imagine something different that doesn’t leave women with disproportionate care burdens.”

About the author: Heather May is a Salt Lake City-based freelance writer and former Salt Lake Tribune reporter.

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