Business Thought

What COVID-19 Is Teaching Us About Supporting Women During Crises

In the last three decades, society has made great strides towards gender equality. But, old habits die hard. During the COVID-19 crisis, we are seeing society and its institutions revert back to old practices and norms, and women are bearing the brunt of the burden. As a main institution that affects the economy, public health, and family functionality, businesses play a main part in supporting women.  Women and Men are Equally Competent Depending on socioeconomic class, unemployment reached its highest rates during the pandemic between the last two weeks of April and the first week of May. The changes in employment status decreased due to layoffs rather than employees quitting. Though the danger of COVID-19 hovered over everyone’s heads, most citizens were hopeful to maintain their work and income and therefore their stability and quality of life. Interestingly, one study shows that employers were more likely to keep fathers employed than layoff mothers, men without children, and women without children. While families can applaud in gratitude that at least one parent was spared their job, gender roles were once again perpetuated by businesses as women were unfairly laid off. This trend across the United States shows how businesses individually and institutionally need to assess the way that they value women. Because the reality is that women are just as competent as men in the workplace.  In tandem with this idea is that men are just as competent in the home as are women. As a donator of chromosomes, they are no less capable of caring for home and children. Champion and academic of women, their influence, and their rights, Valerie Hudson wrote a paradigm-shifting op-ed that was featured in the New York Times this March, titled “What You Do to Your Women, You Do to Your Nation.” She argues, “The household is the training ground: Men are trained in the practices they will use when they gain societal power.” If men are in the house less than women due to women’s unemployment, then men are not learning what they can do to support women–neither inside the home nor in the workplace. Businesses continue to perpetuate this imbalance and have done so once again in the midst of the pandemic.  Looking at unemployment rates caused by the pandemic that have been broken down by age range and gender, the group that was hit the hardest was women 20-29 years old wherein employment rates dropped by 10.2%, taking their subgroup to a whopping 14.2% unemployed. Men in that same age range experienced an 8.5% decrease in employment. These unequal changes show once again that businesses do not equally support women and men in their employment. If women were seen as equally competent and equally responsible for providing in the home, then the unemployment disparity would not exist. In my experience, there are often three main reasons why women work: they feel fulfilled in their life by working, they need the income, or a combination of both. These reasons do not differ much from men who may feel more social pressure to work, however, threads of that pressure are reminiscent of the need for income. By not acknowledging these similarities, employers take value and fulfillment from women’s lives while supporting gender norms.  Women and Men are Not Equally Yoked In Canada in 1986, men did 43% of housework and 38% of childcare while women did 38% of paid work. Almost three decades later, the shift in work trends between men and women in Canada has significantly shifted. In 2015, this same study shows that Candian men did 68% of the housework and 60% of the childcare while women did 75% of the paid work. While these numbers initially show increased gender equality in the home and workplace, there are still some obvious differences. For example, when these numbers are run, we see that men do a total of 82.9% of the total work in a week that a woman does. For example, if a man does a total of 40 hours of paid labor and 15 hours of unpaid labor (consisting of housework and childcare), then their female counterpart does a total of 66 hours of paid and unpaid labor during the week. These numbers demonstrate that during times of economic normalcy, men are not equally yoked with women.  Additionally, recently published studies reveal the difference between men and women’s mental health reactions to the pandemic. The study compared percentages of different populations with depressive or anxiety disorder from the last week of March to the first two weeks of October. 36% of women both with and without children were reported to have some sort of anxiety or depressive disorder in March, and 6 months those numbers increased to 53% of women without children and 57% of women experiencing these disorders. However, men’s mental health did not experience such a drastic change. Men without children went from 27%-37%, and men with children increased just one percentage point to 32% in October. By October more than half of all women–with or without children–were experiencing depressive or anxiety disorders. In complete contrast, men with children (that are therefore responsible for more unpaid labor than men without children), showed the lowest rates of mental illness across the board. In fact, their endpoint in October is four percentage points below women’s starting points in March. The stress that women have experienced during the COVID-19 crisis has been significantly more than men, further demonstrating the unequal experience of men and women.  Our women are exhausted. Hudson argues, “We need to examine the things that constrain women in their homes and in their personal lives.” In her assessment of the world, Hudson is arguing specifically about violence against women. (My next comment in no way undermines the reality and depth of the world’s need for action against violence for women, especially in their homes and places of refuge.) I assert that, in addition to violence, some of the things that need to be examined in the lives and homes of women are the labor demand of homemaking and childrearing and how they are enforced by policy and practice. The unjust layoffs of women are just one example of practices that must be examined and altered.  Sharing the Responsibility Businesses have played a role in the continuing disparities between men and women with regards to hours worked weekly and mental illness experienced. However, they can be part of the solution. By supporting men in the “second shift” (housework and childcare), women are supported in both paid and unpaid labor. Businesses can value women by allowing men leave to take care of home and family. This principle can look many different ways. During crises, it can look like allowing paid family care leave hours for men and women, keeping men and women at equal rates when layoffs need to take place, and offering flexibility in men’s schedules to be at home or work from home. Doing these simple things will allow men to increase the amount of total work that they do each week to be more equal with women and will show women that they are valued as highly as their male counterparts. Denmark’s parental leave can be drawn upon to display these principles.  Their policy allows women 4 weeks pre- and 14 weeks post-labor to dedicate to caring for themselves and their child. Fathers get 2 weeks post-labor to be with the mother and child, and then the parents share an additional 32 weeks of leave to split between themselves. By law, these leaves are paid, yet it is up to each employer to determine if the pay will be two-thirds or full payment. Virtuous business principle begs employers to view their employees as shareholders that contribute to the value of the business and therefore a key responsibility of the business. Law should not dictate how well businesses treat people; rather, morals and values should prevail. Thus, businesses can shift not only their expectations but practices to extrapolate these principles, especially in times of crisis.  What You Do to Your Women, You Do to Your Business Hudson boldly asserts, “The fate of the nations is tied to the status of women.” If the status of women is undervalued at work and overworked at home, increasingly struggling with their mental health, and overall exhausted, then society, the economy, and public health will mirror the lack of health, decreasing value, and obvious exhaustion. Hudson argues that “what you do to your women, you do to your nation.” Women are, ever so marginally, the majority of the population at 51 percent. Women are the backbone to society. Women give life to the nations. Growing up, I constantly heard, “If the mom isn’t happy, nobody is happy.” For, women currently share in the majority of care for the home and family which are the social unit that all institutions are meant to support.  Institutions are there to produce health, happiness, and prosperity for all levels of workers in all socioeconomic classes, not the other way around. When women are well, then the family is well which will spark health and an ability to work. Coupled together, this will provide the necessary input for continued success in business and the family. Women are essential to the holistic wellness of society and its institutions. In complete parallel to Hudson, I declare that what you do to your women, you do to your business.

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