Women and the Pandemic:

As Told by a Senate Intern

Abby Kingsley

During the ‘Pandemic Summer,’ I had the great fortune of being a remote intern for Senator Catherine Cortez Masto of Nevada. I was a health policy intern and also covered issues such as foster care and child care. These issues were more pertinent than ever. I attended stakeholder meetings, listened to briefing events and researched upcoming legislation. What I saw during this experience was that women are bearing the brunt of this pandemic. Women are performing the majority of child care, facing more negative mental health outcomes, are more likely to be essential workers, and will face more long-term employment burdens due to predicted lack of affordable child care. 

Before COVID-19, women were facing challenges balancing home and work life. On average, US women perform an hour and a half more housework daily than male counterparts. The pandemic has contributed to a further increase in the disproportionate burden of housework and child care. In a New York Times poll, US men claimed that they perform the majority of homeschooling, however, only 3 percent of US women agreed that their spouse performs the lionshare of child care duties. While this phenomena of differing perceptions holds true in non-pandemic times, the effects are currently much more severe on female employment due to the significant increase in child care responsibilities. In full-time remote working couples, 28 percent of women reported working less than usual due to domestic work compared to 19 percent of men. The pandemic has only increased penalties and burdens on female workers who are also balancing a family.

In a stakeholder meeting I attended, I heard of the mental health impacts on women during the pandemic. Women are three times more likely to have reported an increase in mental health challenges due to coronavirus. Researchers hypothesized that this is because of an increased burden of homeschooling and domestic work and increased difficulties associated with paying bills such as housing, water, and food. These impacts are overall attributed the task of ‘taking care of families’ that falls disproportionately on women (in heterosexual relationships). 

Women, especially women of color are overrepresented in our essential worker workforce. Women are a majority of our essential workers making up 76% of essential workers in healthcare and 73% of essential workers in government and community services. Essential workers faced a difficult choice during the pandemic: to either face unemployment in a bad economy or to go to work and risk contracting COVID. Black and Latina women are more likely to be single heads of households compared to white and Asian counterparts. This lack of a safety net means Black and Latina women were even more constrained in their choice to continue working. What is even crueler in this pandemic is that many women who maintained employment as essential workers were paid less than individuals on unemployment due to the federal cash supplement. 

Lastly, women will face the burden of the pandemic for years to come as the child care industry slowly collapses. With increased costs (of cleaning and testing) and reduced enrollment (for safety) many child care centers are not maintaining a profit. Child care is already prohibitively expensive. In some states, child care costs more than tuition at a public university. Senator Patty Murray of Washington proposed the Child Care is Essential Act which would provide $50 billion in emergency stabilization funding for struggling child care centers. Unfortunately, in the current do nothing McConnell senate, it was ignored along with the rest of emergency Coronavirus legislation. The Center for American Progress estimated that half of US child care capacity will disappear leaving working families, particularly working mothers, with difficult choices ahead. 

My time as a health policy intern during Coronavirus made me at times despondent, but ultimately I left hopeful. While practically every day I learned of new negative impacts falling disproportionately on women, I learned about this reality from dedicated people working to change these situations. Women have a way to go to achieve true and lasting equality, but I am reassured by the effort and ingenuity being done to solve these problems, day in and day out.