This week, I actually wanted to digress a little bit from my work at Choices Women’s Medical Center and talk about something that’s been bugging the heck out of me.
When the COVID-19 pandemic struck, school was cancelled nationwide. At an individual level, the choices many families made to cope with the shift makes sense economically. What do children need? Taking care of. What do older people (grandparents) need? Taking care of. What do patients fallen ill with the virus need? Taking care of. Care. And, all this care—unpaid emotional labor—WILL fall most heavily on women because of the current structure of society. But, according to Clare Wenham, an assistant professor of Global-health policy in London, it’s not just about social norms. It’s also about practicality: “Who is paid less? Who has the flexibility?”.
It all dates back to a structure created as early as the 1950s—something which Erin Hatton talks about in her book, The Temp Economy. Hatton describes how temp work strengthened gender stereotypes. Because temp work is paid too little to be considered a living wage, women were further established as a secondary earner. Thus, the dominant image of temp work promoted the image of the male “breadwinner”, further confining women in the domestic sphere. Additionally, by defining women as only “secondary earners”, employers justified paying women lower wages.
What is sad is that, according to the British government, 40% of employed women still only work part-time, compared to only 13% of men. The disparity that Hatton described from the 1950s STILL exists. Women are STILL considered socially to be secondary earners.
But even if women leave their jobs to go home, will they be appreciated for their sacrifice? The answer is NO, all thanks to the historic undervaluation of domestic labor. Arlie Russel Hochschild analyzed the wages of care workers such as nurses, babysitters, and other care facilities in 2002, describing how “the unpaid work of raising a child revealed the abidingly low value of care work generally—and further lowered it”. Hochschild suggests that because care work was not paid for most of human history, it lost its value.
Let’s apply this analysis to the pandemic. Because women are more likely to be the lower earners, their jobs are naturally considered a lower priority when disruptions come along. If Hochschild’s analysis is correct, it means that as women during the pandemic are forced to quit their jobs and lose their ability to earn money, the classification of their “caring work” as “nonwork” and themselves as “dependent” in their relationships with their husbands will grow stronger.
Thus, the pandemic is going to reinforce prehistoric, dinosaur-age societal roles. And this particular disruption could last months, rather than weeks. Some women’s lifetime earnings will never recover. Some fathers will undoubtedly step up, but that won’t be universal. Women’s independence WILL be a silent victim of the pandemic.