By: Claire Armstrong
We all know that during the COVID-19 pandemic, essential workers are shouldering more than their share of the burden to protect our people and keep our country running. What we often neglect to discuss, however, is that women, immigrants, and minorities make up the majority of workers on the frontlines. According to the New York Times, “one in three jobs held by women has been designated as essential,” and women of color are even more likely to be essential workers. Under the umbrella of “essential workers” are social workers, healthcare workers, critical retail workers, medical supplies distributors, food processing workers, delivery and warehousing workers, and more. A study by the New York Times states that over 75% of social workers and healthcare workers performing essential work are women, and over 50% of critical retail essential workers are women. Overall, the study found that 52% of essential workers are women. AP News reported that “in New York City, more than 76% of healthcare workers are people of color.” And healthcare is not the only essential work sector made up of a majority of people of color. AP News also noted that “More than 60% of warehouse and delivery workers in most cities are people of color,” nearly 60% of grocery store workers in most cities are nonwhite, and 74% of janitors in most cities are people of color. This is only a small sampling of essential work industries in which people of color are taking on the majority of the work.
An article in The Guardian found that female healthcare professionals on the frontlines are in greater danger than male healthcare professionals because personal protective equipment, or PPE, is designed for men, meaning that it is too large for many female healthcare professionals. The article quotes Dr Helen Fidler, the deputy chair of the British Medical Association (BMA) UK consultants committee, as saying, “Women’s lives are absolutely being put at risk because of ill-fitting PPE. We know that properly fitted PPE works, but masks are designed for a male template, with the irony being that 75% of workers in the NHS [United Kingdom National Healthcare Service] are female.” As a result, many female healthcare professionals are forced to interact with the virus on a daily basis without proper PPE. This is likely the reason that, according to the CDC (as reported by Kaiser Health News), 73% of healthcare workers infected with coronavirus are women.
In an article for The Atlantic, Helen Lewis discusses another burden that women are disproportionately shouldering during the pandemic: childcare. Lewis writes that the pressure to become a new and improved version of yourself while stuck at home during the pandemic is unrealistic for the people caring for children. And, overwhelmingly, those people are women. Lewis also points out that as an economic recession seems more and more inevitable, childcare professionals become less and less likely to find paid work. “school closures and household isolation,” she writes, “are moving the work of caring for children from the paid economy—nurseries, schools, babysitters—to the unpaid one.”
Not surprisingly, in families where both partners work remotely, unequal patterns around childcare and managing the household have become more pronounced. In April of 2020 scientists decided to study these conditions. They found that just as women had carried the majority of the childcare burden before the onset of the pandemic, it has become even more unequal since. Adding homeschooling to the already long list of tasks necessary to care for children and maintain a home exacerbates this burden. In addition, the “mental load” is carried by the female parent almost exclusively and includes providing emotional support, distractions and stimulation for children, as well as meal planning, organizing social connections, and all of the myriad mental tasks that are part of parenting. Women have always been the default go-to parents, and although more male parents may be working from home, that default status has only become more pronounced.
The world has always been a place where those with less political and financial capital have been forced, out of economic necessity, to take on jobs others do not want, whether because they are dangerous, distasteful, low-paying, or all of these. During the current pandemic, many women and minorities are working outside of the home and at jobs that are, while “essential,” not highly paid or rich in benefits and in which they cannot obtain adequate personal protection to keep them from getting sick. Meanwhile, women who are working from their homes are finding themselves juggling their professional obligations with the mental load of organizing, planning and caring for the family, and even providing home schooling. Overall, the COVID-19 pandemic continues to exacerbate gender and racial inequalities, despite the fact that women and people of color are doing the majority of the work to serve communities on the frontlines of the pandemic.