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Saturday, April 20, 2024

Spending more hours taking care of children, working from home and shouldering the majority of housekeeping work, the pandemic has laid bare and exacerbated workplace inequalities for women. Many women — historically underpaid — are considering leaving the workforce altogether. 

COVID-19 has pushed more women into ‘survival mode’

It moved fast, slithering like a snake from person to person and striking with near perfection. First her younger daughter contracted it, then her oldest daughter, followed by her grandson and former husband. It hit the family hard. 

And when the insidious coronavirus finally caught up with Elizabeth Coggs, she needed urgent medical care. Coggs was rushed to a hospital in Milwaukee, where she stayed for five days.

“I passed out, like in the middle of the night, and they called 911,” she remembered. “And my blood pressure was low, low, low — like, ‘how can you even be breathing’ kind of low.” When her daughter Priscilla Coggs-Jones caught her as she passed out, her blood pressure fell to 70 over 50. Coggs stayed in the emergency room for nearly 20 hours before a hospital bed was finally available.  

She had no choice but to take time off of work and seek support from other family members.  

For women like Coggs, getting through 2020 has proven even more challenging than some can bear. While the pandemic has caused many families to work remotely, women are still largely responsible for housework and child care. Between August and September, over 800,000 women left the labor force, double the rate of men’s departure, with many more considering taking time off — revealing systemic ruptures that will have enduring consequences for womens’ professional advancement and financial wellbeing. 

Coggs has since left the hospital, but she is now what experts call a ‘long-hauler.’ She continues wrestling with lingering symptoms, oversleeping and working to build up her energy once again, all while caring for her family. 

Heading into winter, over 3,500 people in Wisconsin have died of the infectious disease. COVID-19 has had a disparate impact on people of color like Coggs, especially in terms of hospitalizations. Luckily for Coggs, she didn’t end up in the intensive care unit and found comfort in receiving support from loved ones. 

“I think that family support is so critical,” she said, thanking her daughter Priscilla. 

Coggs-Jones, a Workforce Development Coordinator at the Milwaukee Center for Independence, also feels lucky for having family to lean on after she contracted COVID-19. 

“One thing that I can tell you what I've witnessed, and what I have tried to help people go through is still some sort of survival mode,” she said. 

Coggs-Jones observed women suffering from the extra burdens induced by the pandemic.

“It was very disheartening to receive a text message from someone last night, who was let go, not only right before the holidays, but also during a pandemic,” she explained shortly before Thanksgiving. 

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Her friend, who will not be named for privacy reasons, was taking a third shift at work but fell asleep on the job one night, after putting in over 100 hours of work with no break.

“Where's the safety net for those women?” Coggs-Jones asked in disbelief. 

For the first time since 1948, female unemployment rates have reached double digits, reported WBUR-FM, an affiliate of NPR. In April, 18 percent of Wisconsin women were unemployed, double the rate of men, according to Wisconsin Public Radio. Black and Latinx women are also in an economically more precarious and worse position than are white and Asian women, based on research from the Economic Policy Institute. 

America is undergoing what some experts call a “shecession” rather than a recession.

A U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics working paper from April found that the economic downturn is hurting women more because they hold more service jobs vulnerable to shutdowns such as those at restaurants, bars, hotels and other hospitality jobs. Women also comprise the majority of workers in health care and education industries. 

Patricia Mullins, professor emerita for the Wisconsin School of Business and author of The Best Work of Your Life, believes women are already at a disadvantage since they disproportionately work low-paying jobs.

“You're a woman, a mother, either in a very low-paying job without child care, or you've lost your low-paying job. And there you're sitting at home without any income,” she explained. 

Nearly 60 percent of the 700,000 jobs lost in March were held by women, NPR reported. Even under normal, pre-pandemic circumstances, entering the workforce after leaving to care for children is challenging and daunting for many women. An estimated 15 million single mothers are the most susceptible to long-lasting effects brought by the public health crisis.

Coggs-Jones recalls one night when she stopped at Rocky Rococo Pizza and Pasta, picking up food for her son. As she glanced outside, she saw a woman pull up at the curbside to deliver GrubHub. With three kids sitting in the woman’s car, Coggs-Jones remembers, she realized the strains women manage, especially amidst the pandemic.

“You're seeing a different sort of tactic for women having to jump through the challenges and through the setbacks during this COVID-19 pandemic situation, and there's really no resources out there,” she said. 

Data from a survey in July by the U.S. Census Bureau and Federal Reserve shows that about one in three women ages 25-44 are not working because of child care needs, compared to 12 percent of men in the same age group. In the first few months of the public health crisis brought by Covid-19, about 63 percent of working parents had trouble finding child care in the first months of the pandemic, with women bearing the brunt of work, the Washington Post reported.

“It falls more to women than it certainly does to men to find that [work-life] balance,” Mullins said. “For some women, it means hiring more child care. For some women, it means doing the best that they're able to do, but within limits, because they also want to spend time with their families.”

Women are in a tough spot seeking the financial wherewithal to support themselves and their families, while some – like Coggs – still suffer from COVID-19 residual health problems. Remote working also proves more taxing when women disproportionately assume child care work. Before the pandemic, motherhood was challenging. Now, it’s another full-time job.

“I have to try to be the teacher, the lunch lady, the janitor, the mom, the school nurse. It’s 24/7, it is overwhelming,” Coggs-Jones said about juggling responsibilities while caring for her son. 

Falling back down the corporate ladder 

While one in three jobs deemed essential are held by women, the pandemic has also exacerbated gender inequality in academic settings. 

Dr. Jennifer Sheridan, Executive and Research Director of the Women in Science & Engineering Leadership Institute, focuses her research on barriers to full advancement, participation and leadership for minority groups including women faculty, faculty of color, faculty with disabilities and LGBTQ+ faculty.

She said that microaggressions, coupled with inherent biases, the gender wage gap and other equity issues have only become more apparent. 

“Microaggressions are a very particular way that the kind of biases that we talk about with faculty can play out,” said Sheridan. “Women faculty experience a lot of these in terms of not being heard in their departments when they have input or ideas, or just kind of a general lack of assumption of competence. Faculty of color experience even more on top of those kinds of very subtle acts of exclusion.” 

In an academic environment where professors compete for tenure, other problems surface as well.

“There's less pay, for example, there's an increased service burden, there's allocation of resources that might be different in terms of who's getting the research dollars, who's being nominated for awards,” Sheridan explained. “So there's all sorts of equity issues that are beyond just the microaggressions that are experienced that can be problematic in the environment.”

Equity issues also extend to academic research. Fewer women are authoring research papers as a result of the pandemic, complicating efforts to increase their representation. Publishing research often leads to promotions, tenure and networking opportunities, according to researchers Nancy D. Spector and Barbara Overholser. 

In September, the researchers wrote that “publication also leads to invitations for speaking engagements—another area of influence that is marked by lack of gender diversity. Publication and high-profile speaking engagements lead to recognition as an expert in one’s field, which can lead to invitations to write commentaries that have impact and influence.”

In addition to authoring less publications since the pandemic, female faculty continue to spend more time mentoring and supporting their students, according to the New York Times. 

An annual report from UW-Madison’s Academic Planning and Institutional Research, a unit of the Office of The Provost, found that in total, women comprise 37 percent of tenured and tenure track faculty. Based on 2019 numbers, of the 1,279 professors, 393 women — or 31 percent — are full professors at the university, compared with 886 men. Assistant professors have made gains in terms of gender diversity, but they only account for 20 percent of faculty. Faculty representation by race has gradually improved — growing from 18 percent in 2010 to 23 percent in 2019. 

WISELI also produces annual climate surveys. In their most recent survey from 2019, they found that faculty’s overall satisfaction with their workplace environment increased since 2016, but women, faculty of color and faculty with disabilities were the least satisfied with their career progress. 

“I just hope, certainly in academia, that we err on the side of understanding the differences, the wide array of differences and privileges that people have had over this time,” Sheridan said. “I'm really scared that certain faculty are going to be judged by the people who were able to get 15 papers out during this time, as opposed to the faculty member whose parents died in a nursing home four states over as they were caring for young kids who couldn't go to daycare. I mean, there's just going to be a huge variety of situations.”

Disrupting the ‘white male norm’: Women empowering women

Beyond college campuses, pressure has mounted on women to attend to unpaid labor, with a recent report by the United Nations warning gender equality is being pushed back several years, according to CNN.

“For hundreds of years, women have been subject to systemic sexism,” said Mullins. “There's backlash against anything that's not the white male norm.”

Coggs-Jones also sees firsthand the intersection of racism and sexism.

“I think it's really an injustice to those communities who were already enduring some sort of barriers, whether it was employment, finances, crime, things like that, to encounter that lifestyle and still have to live accordingly, with the pandemic and then to encounter the racism that has been at the forefront for all of my life,” she said. “However, now, it's very blatant in your face.”

Mullins added that women need to support one another.

“It's women helping other women,” Mullins said. “I think we have to learn to be good mentors for younger women. We have to learn as younger women to seek out mentors for ourselves.”

Coggs, the district director for state Sen. Lena Taylor, D-Milwaukee, knows just how empowering it is to see a woman of color in office. Coggs served as the 10th district supervisor for Milwaukee County from 1988 to 2010. She also became the first woman and first person of color to be elected as Vice Chair of the Board of Supervisors, a position she served from 1996 until 2000. 

“As much as you have the right to vote, if you don't have economic empowerment, and prosperity, and own a house, or be able to have a decent car to get back and work, there is no empowerment. So this coronavirus, we will see the effects of it for years to come in how we measure them,” she said. 

Black and brown communities have seen the highest rates of COVID-19, exacerbating psychological and financial stress. Economists predict the gender wage gap will widen by five percentage points because of the pandemic, according to NPR. In turn, women’s earning power will be substantially reduced, possibly for the long-term.  

“We need to advocate for ourselves to be better negotiators,” Mullins said, urging women to trust their instinct. “We need to have the feeling that we're really offering our workplace something, that we have a lot of skills, advantages to offer a workplace and get rid of the feeling that the workplace is doing us a favor by hiring us.”

Still, social distancing measures take its toll, particularly on women of color, who are widely underrepresented in high-paying jobs.

“Let's say you're one of the few women undergraduates in Electrical and Computer Engineering, even in person, it's hard enough for you to find that community of support in real life,” added Sheridan. “But online, when you might only have one or two others in your class and everything is on Zoom, that isolation increases, it's even exponentially worse. If you are a woman of color, there's even fewer people like you to commiserate with.”

Coggs echoed Sheridan’s sentiments. Coggs spoke with one immunocompromised person with poor mental health who said they are not working, their social outlets have been cut off and they lost over $36,000 in annual income. Her friend cannot get through to the behavioral health hotline number in Milwaukee because “they’re getting bombarded” with calls. 

“You shouldn't have a country this wealthy, with families that are not eating and people that are suffering that can't get prevention and early intervention, whether it's health care, mental health, behavioral health: All of that is just not enough,” she said. 

Hope for better days

While Coggs pointed to opportunity gaps for women and people of color, she is hopeful for the future.

“As we move forward, I pray that better days will be coming. You still got a lot of pain to go through,” Coggs said, adding that children, too, will face setbacks from COVID-19. 

Mullins also thinks with more open and inclusive conversations, change will come. She described the pace of progress as “slow” but believes that heightened awareness surrounding issues of gender and racial inequality — particularly from young people — will bring substantive growth.  

“My hope is that young women become more and more confident by thinking about these issues, and thinking about how they can overcome them,” she said. 

Mullins also suggested undergraduate women maximize their time now to improve their long-term career prospects through learning, volunteering and other opportunities for skill-building.

“I think one of the pieces of advice I would have for undergraduates during this time is to try to do something with this time that's meaningful,” she said. 

Down the road, workplace dynamics may look different, but its future may be determined by how America looks at its past, Sheridan believes. 

“I hope that we are all kind to each other,” she said. “Right now, everyone's just trying to get through this year. But in two or three years, there is going to be a gap in some people's records, relative to others, people who have had more privilege and more resources are going to have lots to show for this period of being locked in our rooms with nothing to do.”

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