As of this issue, Jennifer M. Simon’s column, Equity State, will appear in the A section. Look for it the first Wednesday of every month, or, like this week, occasionally on the third Wednesday. —Eds.
It’s tempting to think that a virus doesn’t discriminate. Yet, research is beginning to demonstrate the ways in which gender plays a role in coronavirus exposure, transmission and mortality.
For example, while the coronavirus infection rate is similar between women and men, the mortality rate among men in China is 2.8%, while for women it is 1.7%. More than 70% of men in China smoke compared with less than 3% of women. That alone could account for the different mortality rates.
But more than anything, we’re discovering the ways that a pandemic amplifies personal conditions and public policies, which already have strongly gendered biases.
Healthcare workers comprise the group with the highest rate of infection. Women are overrepresented in front-line caring professions where they’re more likely to be exposed to pathogens. In Wyoming, approximately 92% of all certified nurses’ assistants (CNAs) are women; nationally, women comprise 92% of all nurses. This means that women are disproportionately likely to work in jobs that will expose them to coronavirus.
In her book, “Invisible Women,” researcher Caroline Criado Perez describes that personal protective equipment is manufactured with men in mind, so there are often challenges for women that leave them at greater risk.
Women are also the primary unpaid caregivers globally, nationally, and in Wyoming. Nearly two-thirds of all unpaid caregiving, especially for aging family members and children, is done by women.
Women are ten times more likely to stay home from work with sick children. The Kaiser Family Foundation explains, “In most households, women are the managers of their families’ health … This gender difference extends to working parents as well. Four in ten working mothers (39%) must take time off and stay home when their children are sick, over ten times the share of men (3%).”
Women comprise two-thirds of all tipped workers and close to 75% of Wyoming’s minimum wage workers, so staying home with sick children has steep economic ramifications for women. Low-wage jobs predispose workers to barely eking out a living, offer unreliable hours, few benefits and poor protections: no health insurance, no paid sick leave, no paid family leave.
“There is a large disparity in workplace benefits, with offer rates of paid sick leave and paid vacation significantly lower among mothers who are low-income or part-time employees,” according to research from the Kaiser Family Foundation.
This leaves women debating an untenable choice: Do I keep earning my paycheck when I need it the most and jeopardize my health and possibly the health of others? Or do I follow the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines and risk losing my income when I need it the most?
Another gendered component of this pandemic may be even less visible: Reports from China’s quarantine demonstrate a threefold increase in gender-based violence.
“It’s important that we remember home is not a safe place for everyone,” Tara Muir of the Wyoming Coalition Against Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault said. “Many times the power of a neighbor or a friend checking in can make all the difference.”
This is a good reminder of the things that we can do to build resilience in our community.
Be cognizant that domestic violence is known to increase with added stressors — especially economic — and in extended confinement situations like a quarantine. The coalition states: “Dangerous situations need a call to our member program crisis lines or if lives are immediately in danger, law enforcement.”
Find ways to support small businesses, especially the women who do low-wage, piecemeal work: Buy gift certificates to local businesses or pay your housekeeper (or nanny or maid) for work she would have done.
Collect and disaggregate data on the outbreak to understand whether there are immune system differences and how women’s and men’s socioeconomic realities contribute to risk and response.
Advocate for policies like paid leave and paid sick time. Research supports their benefits for men, women, children, and employers alike.
Be aware of yourself and your neighbors. Check in on your friends and family. Try to make the next few months better for as many people as possible. Wash your hands. And remember: Staying home saves lives.