Women at Work: What COVID-19 Reveals

By Joanna Meyer, reprinted from the Denver Institute for Faith and Work.

Have you seen the ad Microsoft Teams created for Mothers’ Day that shows moms juggling childcare and work-related web calls during the quarantine? Kids sword fight in the background and brush mom’s hair while these harried professionals fight to keep their composure in front of their colleagues. Maybe you can relate to this feeling of being pulled between demanding roles, like the friend whose elementary schooler asked, “Who is this guy named Zoom that you’re always calling?”

The coronavirus quarantine set many parents’ callings on a collision course in the confined space of the family home. Moms and dads who escaped job cuts have faced the impossible task of maintaining their professional lives, supervising their children’s online education, and managing a household. There simply isn’t enough time or energy to accomplish all three in a 24-hour day, as Lauren Dobson-Hughes explained via Twitter, “Nobody has explained how we are supposed to do 8 hours of work, 4 hours of school, 13 hours of childcare, and 2 hours of household stuff in a single day.”

In a survey of 500 working moms conducted by Bonnier Custom Insights, 81 percent of respondents said their ability to engage effectively at work has been negatively impacted by the COVID-19 crisis. One survey respondent expressed the dismay she felt when colleagues expected her to be fully present throughout the workday, as if her family responsibilities didn’t exist. “People expect me to be constantly online since we are all working from home, whereas I take time to take care of my family for part of the day,” she said. 

There is bias toward me when tasks are assigned without regard to my family responsibilities and are not completed by me on time because of that. People also schedule endless meetings, [and] I cannot ignore my kids for several hours straight. Most days I feel guilty because there is now a more explicit choice at every moment: Do I help my kids right now? Do I support my husband who has probably never needed or deserved it more? Or, do I put all my discretionary effort into my P&L and getting my company through this?

Working Mother

While both men and women feel this pressure, it’s particularly pressing for Christian women, some of whom struggle to integrate their diverse callings. An integrating understanding of calling draws on the model we see in Scripture of men and women co-laboring for the care and economic welfare of their families and community. While this integrated view doesn’t solve the complexity of managing these roles, it positions women’s economic contribution as a vital expression of her call, in addition to the daily work of caring for family. Pre-pandemic, many households maintained a precarious balance that depended on the outside support of after-school programs, grandparents who babysat, or housecleaners to cover gaps working parents couldn’t fill. Disruptions from the coronavirus fractured the fragile systems that allowed us to maintain the status quo.

The sentiment, “I feel like I’m failing at everything,” has become common these days and suggests we’re nearing a breaking point. As existing systems fracture it will force us to examine structures that no longer work and invite us to re-envision work in ways that help women steward their callings more fully.

Four Ways COVID-19 Will Change How We Think about Women’s Work

1)   We will gain a clearer picture of how much work women actually do.

Across the globe, women carry more of the mental load that keeps a household running than men. Also called emotional labor, mental load is an unpaid, project management role that includes planning the Christmas shopping, signing permission slips for field trips, coordinating music lessons, or making sure that someone buys eggs for the household. We know that today’s dads are doing more at home than previous generations (shout-out to the Denver Institute staff team, who I see shouldering this load alongside their wives), but the data don’t lie – in addition to careers and parenting, women expend more thought and energy organizing family life.

As households spend unprecedented amounts of time together, couples are discovering how they actually spend their days. The unpaid labor women do to keep a household running stands out more clearly when all work is condensed in a single spot. And in seeing this disparity, we have an opportunity for honest conversations about the way we live and work together. For women to integrate their callings in healthy, productive ways, we must identify and quantify the scope of these unseen roles. 

2)   Employers may be more open to flexible work options that support women.

Home quarantine is forcing us to learn how to be productive outside of traditional workplace settings. As Brigid Schulte explained in a recent New York Times article, the expectation to log “face time” through physical presence at work greatly hindered women: 

Social scientists have a term to describe this phenomenon: “The Ideal Worker norm.” In American workplaces, the Ideal Worker comes in early. Stays late. Never has to rush out to tend to a sick child, to take an aging parent to the doctor, or just aches to see more of their kids before they go to bed. Women are more likely to have care responsibilities, so the belief that the best work is done in the office hurts us most.

The New York Times

COVID-19 challenged this assumption as we watched television anchors deliver the nightly news from their basements and laughed at children occasionally interrupting conference calls. Work and family responsibilities are forced to coexist in quarantine, an experience that may change our vision of work for the better. The faith community can support parents by encouraging workplace policies that allow for the greater integration of work and family responsibilities.

3)   Caretaking is now recognized as an essential service.

Up to this point in the article, I’ve focused on a select group – two-career families working in professional roles – but the pandemic has revealed the critical importance of people working in caretaking roles. In normal times, men make up the majority of the workforce, but during the pandemic, one in three women’s jobs has been deemed essential. The statistics are significant: women make up nearly nine out of ten nurses and nursing assistants, a majority of pharmacists, and the bulk of pharmacy aides and technicians. These caretakers are holding the country together, yet lower-income healthcare workers may lack financial and relational resources to make it through the pandemic. Of the 5.8 million people working healthcare jobs paying less than $30,000 per year, 83% are women.

Across the country, nursing homes have been the hotspots for the coronavirus, where overworked, underpaid staff, 90% of whom are women, have fought death on a daily basis. In their article “COVID-19 Crisis in Nursing Homes is a Gendered Crisis,” eldercare experts Carole A. Estabrooks, Janice Keefe explain:

COVID-19 has made the work in nursing homes more dangerous. Restrictions on family visitation have meant that front-line staff have to do more, including the emotional support at the end of life. Fear of infection and the trauma of losing so many residents with whom they have long-term relationships will have a long-lasting mental health impact.

For Christians who believe in the dignity of all work, we must acknowledge the disparity between the importance of these caretaking roles and the low compensation across these industries. We can be advocates for women filling essential roles to be remunerated accordingly.

4)   The economy cannot reopen without affordable childcare options.

With schools closed and other daycare options being prohibitively expensive, single parents or those filling essential, but low-paying roles face the added emergency of 24-hour childcare. The economy will not open up, and life will not return to normal, as long as parents lack a place to send their children during the day.

“Obviously business owners find the loss in revenue is the number one challenge they are facing, but a close second is the challenges their workers are facing with caregiving responsibilities,” said Adrienne Schweer, a fellow at the Bipartisan Policy Center, quoted in the Huffington Post. “As time wanes on, and a lot of these people are in this situation for months and months, I think we’ll see two classes of workers: those who can go back and those who have caregiving responsibilities, and that’s a huge portion of our economy.”

This dilemma presents an opportunity for Christian business leaders and congregations to live out their commitment to building healthy families. Maybe unemployed members of your congregation would be willing to step into temporary childcare roles to provide much-needed income as they are in job transition. Or, employers could provide schedule flexibility to help parents alternate caretaking hours. Through our attention and advocacy, we can support alternative, affordable childcare options that will help employees and their families thrive as America gets back to work.

The pandemic has strained relationships and systems, but in this strain it reveals opportunities to transform our approach to work. I pray we will embrace these opportunities to help women and men integrate their callings more fully.

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