Analysis of the COVID-19 pandemic is bringing the role of gender in society sharply into focus. As we look at the impact of the pandemic in subjects as diverse as political leadership, violence in the home, caregiving and what constitutes “essential” work, we are confronting the role that gender plays across the world. As a point of reference, gender is the socially defined set of roles, rights, responsibilities, entitlements, and obligations of females and males in societies. While many gender norms have shifted, these norms still inform our actions and roles every day.  These norms translate into women being viewed primarily as caregivers, while men are viewed as leaders. In most of our societies, we see family violence is a private matter, but COVID-19 is bringing these issues to the forefront as our public and private lives have become more intertwined.

We’re able to discuss gender differently during this global crisis because gender impacts are being discussed in “real time”—as they are happening—rather than analyzed months or years after the fact. Advocates and practitioners have been working to include this type of gender analysis for years but topics like foreign policy, crisis response, and trade have traditionally—and wrongly—been seen as gender blind or gender neutral. This new focus on real-time analysis of gender impacts provides us an opportunity to create lasting change. 

Women’s Unseen, Essential Role in Labor

According to a recent New York Times article, one in three jobs held by women has been designated as essential, and nonwhite women are more likely to be doing essential jobs than anyone else. These women are core to a part of the labor force which keeps the country running and takes care of those most in need, pandemic or not. In health care, 77% of essential workers are women and in essential retail, 53% are women. According to the New York Times, 83% of those in health care jobs paying under $30,000 are women. We know that women are paid less than men, and  this is more pronounced for women of color.  In the U.S., women overall earn 81 cents for every dollar a white man earns, while African American, Hispanic and Native American women earn 75 cents. We must use this window to address the twin issues of pay disparity and how we value certain jobs and types of work. 

Successful Women’s Leadership During Catastrophe

Women leaders like Prime Minister Jacinda Arden of New Zealand, Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, and President Tsai Ing-wen of Taiwan are taking bold action to stem the impact of COVID-19. They are praised as “voices of reason” for their clear and effective communication, decisiveness and empathy in the face of this pandemic.  We need more leaders like them. As of January 2020, women serve as heads of state in only 10 out of 152 countries (6.6%) and women serve as heads of government in 12 out of 193 countries (6.2%). Women hold about 25% of the seats in parliaments globally and 24% of those in the U.S. Congress. This is a time to rethink the way we view leadership and the traits we value in leaders. These women demonstrate that a leader should be both decisive and empathetic.  

Domestic Violence Spikes Amid the Pandemic

With 90 countries in lockdown because of COVID-19, billions of people are now sheltering at home. While this has kept many people safe from the virus, it has put many women at risk of violent behavior behind closed doors.  Stay-at-home orders put those in violent relationships in close proximity of their abusers, with little ability to leave home or reach out for help. In Argentina, Canada, France, Germany, Spain, the United Kingdom, and the U.S., sharp spikes in the incidence of domestic violence and concurrent heightened demand for emergency shelter have been raised by government authorities, women’s rights activists and civil society organizations. It is critical that countries make the prevention and redress of gender-based violence a key part of national response plans.

Shelter-at-Home Highlights Need for Caregiving Infrastructure

Finally, COVID-19 has laid bare the reality that most caregiving is still done by women. Even when both parents work full-time, women do the majority of the childcare and housework. Recent calls to build an infrastructure of care in the U.S. have gone unanswered. But now, with schools closed and large numbers of family members at home, or when people with school-aged kids or dependent parents have to go to work, it is clearer how much care and household work is needed and who does that work. Before COVID-19, many families relied on others (often women) to formally or informally care for children or other dependents, clean their homes or cook meals.  Now, many of those workers are unable to continue these roles. Once again, it is important that organizations and governments recognize that many workers have a full-time job outside the office.  

Make no mistake, we are facing a global crisis. But, we can use this as an opportunity to reimagine a different future, one that values gender equality, women’s participation and women’s leadership. Women must be part of COVID-19 response and recovery planning and decision making. We must value work the unseen work done by women. We must use every tool possible to restructure caregiving systems and address the causes of domestic violence.  We can do this, using everyone’s talent, skill and experience to inform our choices.