IWD 2021: Happenings and Gender in the Pandemic

The theme for this year’s International Women’s Day, unsurprisingly, is “Women Leading the Fight against COVID-19”. Well, it seems to have been a bit of a tradition to honor accomplished women on this day, and we can all agree that women are very much involved in leading the fight against COVID-19, right? So where are they? The accomplished women, that is. In the sciences? Physicians? Well, there is at least one we know about, Ôzlem Tûreci, co-founder of BioNTech, right? And in the political world? What ever happened to Deborah Birx? And yes, there was a flurry of publicity early on that countries with women as head of state or government were doing better than their male counterparts – Jacinda Ardern in New Zealand or Angela Merkel in Germany.  But I would rather we had a focus this year on the women “happeners” in the fight against COVID-19, and I don’t mean something as “patronizing” as praising women in the traditional ways that emphasize their gentle and selfless nature or their beauty or their unquestioning endurance.

Before plunging into this point, though, I do want to give credit where credit is due. Yes, Jacinda Ardern and Angela Merkel did stir our spirits with their successful pragmatism in dealing early on with the pandemic. And that did raise the question of whether leadership suitability for pandemic management has a gendered feature – with a “take-care” or “relational” kind of style attributed mostly to women rather than a “take-charge” or “command-and-control” style that we typically associate with men. I accept the credibility of this perspective. But more recently, I would say that we have all gone through too many other ups and downs in pandemic waves and logistical concerns to document any gender differences in pandemic leadership. And besides, there are too few of them to serve as a representative sample.  And that is even more true on the scientific front than it is on the political front.

We do know of at least one highly visible woman on the scientific side, Dr. Tûreci whose role as co-founder (with her husband) at BioNTech led the research and development of the mRNA vaccine that Pfizer contracted with them to manufacture. It was the first vaccine to be approved for emergency use in the US, Europe and the UK. But where are the others? I bet we would all have difficulty naming any other female scientists in the COVID-19 world. And there is, to be sure, the question of opportunity to lead in the sciences when there are so few women in the scientific pipeline.  (A note here to compliment the WHO for its IWD event that did feature Dr. Tûreci and several other notable women leaders in the pandemic, including my friend Dr. Roopa Dhatt, the Executive Director of Women in Global Health. See the transcript here. )

Gender Happenings in the Pandemic

The bigger concern, for me, is the unsung leaders of the fight. Well, not exactly leaders. More like “happeners”.  The key point about the significance of gender to the pandemic is that our lifestyles are undergoing dramatic changes because of the pandemic. Some of these changes were already in the works and merely accelerated by the pandemic, but I would argue that a lot of these changes are uniquely tied to the “happenings” of what women in the aggregate are being called upon to do as a result of the pandemic itself. What is more, these happenings may in fact accelerate a willingness to act on a broad range of gender-based policies for the benefit of society at large, including both women and men.

For one thing, it is women in the aggregate who are bearing the brunt of delivering the health care and the “in-person” support services that this pandemic is requiring; and it is the women in the aggregate who are struggling the most to combine the loss of income with the family support requirements that the response to the pandemic has imposed on so many people everywhere.

These “happenings” are vividly illustrated in the statistics, at least in the US where statistics are disaggregated by gender. (In France, this is not the case since “laicité” prohibits such distinctions – not just on race or ethnicity but also on gender.) Women, it turns out, were more likely to lose their jobs than men or had to give them up as the lesser income of two in a household or because schools closed and required someone to stay at home to take care of the children. Childcare centers themselves also closed – or became far too expensive for families with only one income. On the other hand, many of the “essential” workers that the pandemic called upon to stay on the job – whether in hospitals or nursing homes or in grocery stores or other essential services – were also predominantly women.

Thus, the gender distinctions in our lifestyles are being exacerbated by the pandemic. It is something I had once thought could gradually disappear – that is, on the basics of child rearing as well as homemaking (cooking, cleaning, decorating, gardening) that have traditionally been considered as women’s responsibilities. I had been optimistic in decades past that the increasing involvement of women in the paid workforce would eventually lead to a redistribution of unpaid work in the home. I had participated in an evolution in this kind of redistribution in my own life – from one marriage that had had traditional roles for the husband and wife to a period of independent living to a second marriage where the expectations were different from the very beginning. Childcare in particular was understood to be a shared responsibility, but it also spilled over into shared kitchen, laundry and housecleaning responsibilities. Appreciation is due to the willingness of my partner to support – and even to take on the primary responsibility for many of these activities. But wasn’t this supposed to be the beginning of an inevitable trend?

Regrettably, this has not really happened, at least in the US. It is true that there has been an increase in dual-income households, but this has apparently not resulted in a redistribution of unpaid work in most households. Instead, childcare has remained predominantly a maternal responsibility – shared to some extent, to be sure, but with the tendency that it is the woman whose job has to give way when childcare is required, whether at birth and in the early years or on the occasion of school breaks or sickness in the later years of a child’s upbringing. This has been reinforced by the continuing disparity in income for working men and women, currently at 81% (.81 cents to the dollar, and even lower for minority women) but still significant. So it is still more likely that a family with a choice of which worker to give way for pandemic-related child care at home will choose for the woman to give up the job.

What this leads me to appreciate is that gender disparities in childcare can only be addressed by making it a public service for more and more of the care – and making the cost of childcare at home also a public service in the form of publicly financed family leave. This is the practice already here in France and elsewhere in Europe. So the hope is that the inequitable impact of the pandemic on women as far as childcare responsibilities are concerned will lead to more comprehensive public policies on both childcare and family (and medical) leave.

There is also the daunting phenomenon of increasing poverty, especially for women-headed households, that has been exacerbated by the pandemic. This may require more than employer-based public financing, and it does seem that the latest pandemic relief bill going through Congress is taking steps on all of these fronts – broadening family leave and childcare options as well as child support directly for families in need. One might also note here that the racial and ethnic disparities in the American economy are also stimulating action, along with the gender disparities generally.  Again, these are US-based initiatives that are opening up as a result of the pandemic-related “happenings” affecting women – and the social fabric at large. Similar initiatives may be less urgently required where progressive family policies have already been put in place, as in most of Europe, but again more urgently required in other parts of the world.

Another gender disparity that does seem to be changing in our view of its pertinence for political action as a result of the pandemic is in gender-based violence and abuse. And this does seem to have attracted the attention of public policymakers in France, even where gender-based statistics are not typically collected.  Greater media attention is certainly helping to mobilize community and law enforcement support against the perpetrators. And there are aspects of this issue in France that are not necessarily pandemic-related but are elevating the debate about French tolerance of sexual abuse of children among the intellectual elite. The most recent case, of course, has to do with homosexual abuse by a prominent intellectual, and one can hope that it will lead at least to the raising of the age of presumed consent of children from the age of 14 up to the age of 18.

Looking Beyond the Pandemic

I have to add here a few words on my ongoing interest in gender equality. I have been writing about gender for years, and more often than on International Women’s Day. Most recently, I shared my thoughts on “Gender2021: Post-Pandemic and Post-Beijing”, posted here on 3 January 2021. Since then, I have benefited from a lively discussion on gender with my former White House Fellows classmates. It was led by a classmate whose ground-breaking career in the US Navy served as an excellent taking-off point for gender challenges today. Without quoting anybody in particular, I was impressed by the thoughtfulness and inquisitiveness of my former classmates.

The pandemic, we discussed, was clearly highlighting the gender disparities in American society. We recognized the importance of both family leave and childcare services to address work/family balance more equitably. But we also delved at length into the challenges of occupational and educational stereotyping, even today, and of how to manage the phenomenon of sexual harassment.

The military experience of our lead discussant was a useful link to the success of changing attitudes about national necessity in a draft-free military, opening up opportunities for women. But the continuing difference between men and women, or more accurately, between boys and girls, in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (the STEM issue) was an ongoing challenge. This gap is one of the challenges for recruiting and advancing women in the military, but we recognized how relevant it is to gender parity in so many other sectors. Groups like the Girl Scouts and Girl Guides of America were working on targeted programs to encourage girls to study STEM subjects in school, but there was a lot of early stereotyping by gender that has slowed this down. Classmates gave such examples of childhood memories of growing up with the boys going to ball games with their fathers and girls going to ballet performances with their mothers. But even today there seemed to be an early onset of stereotyping – girls wanting to socialize with their girlfriends (even on their phones) and boys wanting to play video games.

In fact, the unusual phenomenon of gender disparity in the newer occupations of the high tech industries is a contemporary variation of the STEM disparities of past generations. Computer programming used to be, like secretarial work, a predominantly women’s occupation, but the “geeks” who took to playing with computer games were mostly boys. And the technical skills of programming went far beyond traditional And so today, computer programming is overwhelmingly a predominantly male domain. We noted, too, that other occupations tended to be more male (nuclear engineering, for example) or more female (teaching, especially primary school).

We asked ourselves whether networking and better role models and perhaps even single-sex education could change the dynamics. Occupations that are predominantly female tend, it seems, to be lower paid than occupations that are predominantly male. Is it because an occupation that shifted to being increasingly one or the other led to lower or higher valuation? Or was it a matter of differences in male and female roles and different decision-making styles? Might it be that we needed to change our perception of power relationships? And how does this affect our own efforts to be gender-neutral in our own networking and professional activities?

A final point from this discussion that remained unanswered had to do with sexual harassment. This is indeed an area where there has been more visibility about gender-influenced imbalances in power relationships, whether in the media or in politics or in our own daily lives. We’re way beyond the horrors of sexual abuse, although that, too, has suffered from the pandemic. But the broader harassment question is something that the younger generations have to confront more than my aging classmates, to be sure. We can sympathize with the dilemma of how to be friendly with our peers in a workplace setting without being provocative or inappropriate in our gestures.  Well, we certainly know that suggestive discussions about social lifestyles, especially when they are between an older man and a significantly younger woman, are probably inappropriate. But I will leave it there for now. This is definitely an ongoing – and evolving – discussion.

A Note on the Local Twist

International Women’s Day, the eighth of March, is becoming my opportunity to focus on gender a bit more than usual.  It has at least been an excuse for me to give a local twist to my interest in gender issues. This local twist started with the delightful exhibit of paintings by Leila Zarif and her daughter and granddaughter, some four years ago, which I literally bumped into back in 2018 during a random walk through the village of Peymeinade. It was a welcome inspiration to meet the artists and celebrate their paintings of French women leaders like Marie Curie and Simone Weil, but also Rosa Parks and Frida Kahlo and several others on that first International Women’s Day in my post-retirement home base at Villa Ndio.

Since then, I enjoyed a further celebration of Leila’s family’s works at a fancy gallery in Nice the following year; and an unusual display of gender awareness in the city of Grasse at a symposium on women in the perfume industry in 2019. My search for another local inspiration in 2020 was dampened by the onslaught of a pandemic – how unprepared we were for that back on March 8th of just a year ago! I know that efforts were made – mostly in Grasse again – to feature and honor the accomplishments of prominent women who had passed through Grasse. But everything closed down before I could experience any of the exhibits. And this theme was repeated this year – more modestly with the promise of a tour through the old town but even that had to give way to a renewed weekend lockdown. So I have no local twist to feature on this 2021 International Women’s Day.

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