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COVID-19 Impact: Gender disparities in pandemic's effect

Social work professor discusses how lockdown has affected women more negatively than men

Jaeseung Kim, assistant professor in the College of Social Work since 2018, studies work and caregiving challenges for low-income parents and how work-family policies, both private and public, can help address such challenges and contribute to the health and mental health of low-income parents and their children. We asked Kim about how the pandemic has affected men and women differently and how to help those suffering the effects.

What sort of gender disparities are being revealed by the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown?

The current economic downturn caused by the pandemic is disproportionately hurting women more than men, which could exacerbate existing gender disparities related to work and family.

First, women were more likely to be laid off or to have their work hours cut during the pandemic because women are concentrated in sectors heavily affected by the pandemic that require face-to-face contact, such as leisure, hospitality, education and health services.

Second, due to the closure of day care centers and schools and the lack of informal support (e.g., relatives and grandparents), the burden of child care fell heavily on women’s shoulders. This increased care burden prompted many working mothers to leave the workforce. Thus, many women face breaks in their careers and reduced earnings.

Finally, women with secure jobs who could work from home were likely to take on a greater share of the household work, child care, home-schooling burden, as traditional gender role expectations still play a major role in families. Research suggests that working from home can be a double-edged sword for women, as it allows them to engage in more housework and child care activities; however, it can also intensify traditional gender roles for women as the primary caregiver. Therefore, the pandemic has potentially aggravated gender inequality in the area of domestic labor as well.

What are some other things the pandemic has taught us about family dynamics?

The unprecedented pandemic lockdowns have had a huge impact on family dynamics. Relationships with extended family members, such as relatives and grandparents, have become more challenging. Increasing anxiety and depression accompanied by the pandemic and financial challenges can create tensions and conflicts among family members.

These additional stressors may aggravate existing family issues, such as domestic violence and child abuse, as families spend more time together at home. Also, many families have faced the death of a loved one related to coronavirus or other causes. The emotional pain caused by the loss of family members would be severe. With limited visitations in hospitals and social isolation in the grieving process, family members would have experienced additional difficulties coping with their loss.

The pandemic also highlighted the importance of workplace flexibility, especially the ability to work from home as it enabled many employees to remain employed. However, most low-wage workers did not have the luxury of working from home, as they need to be physically present in the workplace. These include workers in the service industry, essential workers, grocery store employees, restaurant and domestic workers, and child care workers, where people of color and women are disproportionally employed. They had to make tough choices between working on the front line and risking their health or quitting their job and struggling to make ends meet. As a result, these vulnerable workers and their families would experience additional stress and conflict due to their health concerns and financial struggles. These stressors and conflicts can substantially harm family dynamics.

This is an important moment for us to support and advocate public policy that works for family conditions more equitable for women.

Jaeseung Kim, assistant professor in the College of Social Work

How can social workers help families struggling during this time? What types of services will families need coming out of the pandemic?

There are several ways in which social workers can support vulnerable families. As the social isolation caused by the pandemic lockdown aggravates family stress and mental health challenges, social workers can support them by providing direct counseling that allows family members to express their feelings of fear, grief and uncertainty. For families dealing with the loss of a loved one, social workers can help them cope with their loss by providing individual therapies and becoming active supporters.

In addition, for those families experiencing financial instability due to the loss of a job, social workers can help them access unemployment wages, food and health care, as social workers are skilled in connecting families to local and government assistance and diverse community services.  

The pandemic also underscored the importance of social safety nets, such as paid sick leave, unemployment insurance, health insurance, and child care support. Social workers should continue to advocate for more equitable policy solutions for vulnerable families. For example, the expansion of the child tax credit program as part of the stimulus package would provide substantial income support for families with children and reduce child care burdens for women. Therefore, social workers should advocate for these family-friendly policies as permanent programs in the U.S.

Do you anticipate similar gender disparities as life “gets back to normal” post-pandemic?

I anticipate that women’s economic struggles caused by the pandemic may have long-term adverse effects through lost earnings and missed career advancement opportunities. Although it will depend on how quickly hard-hit businesses and industries can recover from the economic shock, some jobs may be eliminated or replaced by automation.

In addition, the child care industry was hard hit by the pandemic and some providers may not reopen after the pandemic due to their financial struggles. This could make it difficult for some families to secure stable child care after the pandemic, which could also limit women’s ability to work. In addition, the increase in working from home during the pandemic may alter the domestic division of labor, adding greater child care and housework responsibilities for women. This may continue to exacerbate gender disparities at home.

Therefore, federal policies should address working parents’ work-related issues and child care challenges, especially for low-income parents. For example, expanding child care subsidies to low- and middle-income parents and expanding pre-kindergarten and Head Start programs would help vulnerable families to remain in the workforce and worry less about their children’s safety and quality of care. This would also increase and stabilize women’s labor participation and improve gender disparity in the workplace and at home. This is an important moment for us to support and advocate public policy that works for family conditions more equitable for women. 

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