Economics of a pandemic: In times of distress, girls and women are the biggest losers

April 2, 2020, 6:00 PM UTC

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Without good policies, economists predict that globally the coronavirus pandemic will hit women and girls harder than men and boys, worsening existing inequalities.

When pandemics hit or disasters occur, existing social and economic gaps are exposed. Those gaps then widen, leaving different sectors of society to recover at different rates; still others may never recover.

“Women might experience a slower financial recovery, which may widen the existing pay gap between men and women and slow the advances women have made worldwide,” says Belinda Archibong, an assistant professor of economics at Barnard College, Columbia University, in New York City, whose research tracks the economic fallout from epidemics.

It’s a socioeconomic outcome that is tracked by economists during times of economic and health distress, such as in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina or during meningitis epidemics that hit the northern swath of Africa every dozen or so years. By studying how people and governments react to the fallout from these smaller events, economists can create playbooks to help dampen the negative outcomes for future epidemics or “unexpected shocks.”  

Sevin Yeltekin, professor of economics at the Tepper School of Business at Carnegie Mellon University, in Pittsburgh, says the pandemic’s effects could last a lifetime in all areas in which “a structural difference” already exists. In the U.S. and Europe, there will be a worsening of the gender gap in employment and in wages; in Africa and Asia, those gaps will widen, as will gender gaps in education.

“This particular hit that we are receiving right now is going to perhaps prolong the period of advancement a little bit longer,” says Yeltekin. “I think it’s going to be another generation, another 30 years, before that gap is significantly closed.”

That’s because of where we were on the gender gap timeline before the pandemic hit.

“We were only in the headline-making phase,” says Yeltekin, where vocal groups like [soccer’s] U.S. Women’s National Team were bringing attention to the gender pay gap. In reality, “the needle had moved only a little bit.” And, Yeltekin says, in just the few weeks since calls for sheltering in place became a new, national way of life and schools closed for millions of children, she can see that needle is already shifting back, in real time.

“I’ve been on a million Zoom calls over the last week and a half,” Yeltekin tells Fortune. As senior associate dean of education at the Tepper School of Business, Yeltekin was one of the people responsible for getting the university’s roughly 3,000 classes online in less than a week. “So we’re on all these Zoom meetings. And what you will see is women logging in from their homes. These are highly educated, incredibly accomplished women with children running around in the background. And, as a result, getting distracted or being pulled away for a second and having to go and do things.”

By contrast, the men on Yeltekin’s Zoom calls logged on from private rooms at home or from their university offices, undistracted by children or other family members. Even in academia, in “as white-collar as a job gets, it’s just what happens; that’s what we see anecdotally and also in the data in aggregate,” she says.

The result is that women who are working from home during the pandemic may be less productive over the same time frame than men working from home. It’s because of this “horrible confluence of existing gender norms that say women should do home production,” says Archibong, even in the U.S.

Opportunity cost

Even in a household where both husband and wife are professionals who work full-time, when up against an economic shock, the partner who makes more money is going to be the one whose work gets prioritized. And that opportunity cost principle doesn’t bode well for women, despite the Labor Department’s announcement in January that women now outnumber men on U.S. payrolls, holding 50.4% of jobs.

Here’s why: It’s well documented that women earn 70¢ on the dollar, which means less than men doing the same job. More than half of American women say they earn less than their partners, according to a recent survey by TD Ameritrade; more than 64% of part-time jobs are held by women, according to a new report by the Center for American Progress; and, says Yeltekin, those are the very jobs that are the first to be cut when businesses are trying to lower costs during any kind of downturn, such as the COVID-19 pandemic.

And finally, taking a global look, in early March the United Nations reported that no country in the world has achieved gender parity; the U.S. comes in at 53rd out of 153 countries in pay equality.

Therefore, in the majority of U.S. households and households all over the world, “the concentration is going to be to make sure that the man holds down his job by being able to perform his work duties, while the woman takes care of the children and the household. This general fact is going to exacerbate the problem, for sure,” says Yeltekin.

Predictions that swiftly followed the Labor Department’s announcement about how a heavier female footprint in the American workforce could result in structural changes to business, such as the addition of paid family leave and more flexible work hours, may now turn out to be nothing more than an unrealized forecast.

“Unfortunately, this particular shock may have a permanent effect to derail those efforts,” says Yeltekin, who further notes that when you add up the cultural attitudes with how the labor market works, you see how it’s “stacked against women.”

Why will girls lose out?

In families with children who are old enough to care for younger siblings, gender norms may also play out, even in the United States.

“Parents will oftentimes have these attitudes, implicitly or explicitly, that girls or women are better at taking care of the house and being caretakers,” says Archibong. “If everyone is home studying right now, and a daughter has to study for herself, and she also has to take care of her siblings, that could have a disproportionate impact on a girl’s ability to achieve and do well in terms of schooling. So that’s definitely a concern.”

Archibong sees an even more severe coping mechanism in her research tracking meningitis outbreaks in sub-Saharan Africa. An infection of the lungs and brain, meningitis hits 23 countries in Northern Africa every eight to 14 years, affects more than 700 million people, and has a 50% mortality rate if untreated. Archibong’s research focuses on understanding how epidemics play out in the short- and long-run and what policymakers can do to mitigate the effects, specifically with respect to four key issues: education, health, income, and unemployment. 

Take education, for example. The reason that parents may not be willing to invest as much in their female children as their male children may be as much cultural as it is economic: There may not be as many jobs available for girls or women; there are fewer businesses that will hire women; and, when they do hire women, they may pay women less—which is true in most countries in the world, including Europe and the U.S.

“So as a parent I’m thinking, ‘Where am I going to get my biggest bang for the buck when I have these increased costs? Maybe I reduce the investment in my daughter’s education relative to my son’s, and my daughters can care for the sick family members,’” Archibong explains.

It’s an approach Archibong has documented in epidemic after epidemic. She has also found that, overwhelmingly, once a girl has been pulled from school, even for as little as three months, she tends to never go back.

“Policy really needs to focus on getting girls, children [overall], back into school and making sure no one falls off after an epidemic,” she says. “Because if you have less education, you have less of a chance of getting a well-paid job, and you even have less of a chance to move up in the economic social ladder.”

What follows, according to Archibong, is an intergenerational poverty cycle in which those women who were pulled from school as girls provide less of an education to their own children.

Mitigating the negative effects

Both Archibong and Yeltekin say good policies can alter the outcomes.

“If there isn’t really targeted, concerted, forceful government policy and spending on the labor market, unemployment, or health, then you could see widening of gender gaps in hiring, in employment, and gender gaps in wages even in the United States,” says Archibong. “This is where institutions really, really, really matter, government actions really, really, really matter in determining these longer-run outcomes.”

Yeltekin, whose research focuses on designing fiscal policy for social insurance and for management of government debt, says the policies that will work in the U.S. to ease the burden of the pandemic need to be targeted.

“While operationally it’s so much easier to give everybody $1,000, because you don’t have to worry about how to pick and choose, that’s not the right policy. The policy really needs to be tailored to focus on the most vulnerable,” who also happen to be disproportionately women, those working hourly wages in nonessential service industries, she says. “We need to solve the public health crisis so we can get rid of the economic crisis. But in the middle of the economic crisis, there are groups of people who are disproportionately adversely affected. It’s not going to be the white-collar male worker who can move his office home and continue to contribute and pick up a salary.”

If the pandemic forces the closure of businesses into the fall, and the economy is stalled for six to seven months, Yeltekin believes, “We will be turning back the clock on gender equality advances by a couple of years.”

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