Although men are more likely than women to die of COVID-19, it is women who have overwhelmingly borne the economic and social costs of this pandemic.
Women have faced greater risk on the front lines, as they are disproportionately represented in essential jobs in health care, education, and food service. At home, they have been shouldering the bulk of their families’ additional childcare burdens as the schools and day cares that made it possible for them to go to work closed their doors. All of this has contributed to women leaving the workforce in unprecedented numbers: In December 2020 alone, women accounted for all the job losses in the United States.
So as we begin to think about our post-pandemic world will look like, we cannot ignore the sobering lessons COVID-19 has taught us about which policies would actually make the most difference in the lives of women and their families—because they’re the key to our recovery.
First, it’s long past time to expand the social safety net, starting with paid family and medical leave. As sociologist Jessica Calarco bluntly put it: “Other countries have social safety nets. The U.S. has women.” The U.S. remains the only developed country in the world that doesn’t guarantee paid leave. Only 19% of workers have access to paid family leave through their jobs, and only 40% have access to short-term disability insurance, according to the National Partnership for Women & Families—forcing too many Americans, often women, to make an impossible choice between collecting a paycheck and tending to the medical needs of their loved ones. The newly passed American Rescue Plan offered voluntary tax credits for employers that provide paid leave, but with women leaving the workforce in droves, it’s clear that a more permanent national policy is needed.
Second, we need to make affordable childcare a permanent part of that social safety net. Long before the pandemic struck, American women were well-accustomed to working a second or third shift caring for their children. We were excited to see that the American Rescue Plan includes $40 billion to help subsidize childcare—but that’s only a starting point, largely meant to stabilize a childcare sector that was hit hard by the pandemic.
We’ve also seen the ripple effects of the gender pay gap—and that’s why, third, it’s time to start paying women equally. As recently as 2018, 64% of American mothers were a primary or co-breadwinner. But on average, women in the U.S. earn 82¢ for every dollar a white man makes. For Black women, it’s 63¢; for Latinas, it’s 55¢. When women make less than men, it doesn’t just affect them—their families suffer the effects of the disparity too. There is less money for groceries, doctor visits, and the emergency funds so many American families have had to dip into in order to weather the pandemic.
Fourth, every employer needs to reexamine their policies to improve work/life integration—particularly in the era of remote work. Even before the pandemic, burnout was skyrocketing in our always-on world. For those lucky enough to have flexible jobs, remote work has only made things worse: The lack of built-in breaks for commuting, lunch, and socializing has meant many people are working even longer hours than ever before. A survey from Harvard Business School of 1,500 workers this past fall across sectors, roles, and seniority levels—the majority of whom were supervisors—showed that 89% of respondents said their work life was getting worse in the pandemic, and 85% said their well-being had declined. It’s not enough to support self-care through subsidized yoga or wellness apps—companies must commit to upstream solutions, meaning more manageable workloads, increased job flexibility, well-being policies built into company culture, and more mental health resources.
Of course, many people have lacked the luxury of staying home in order to stay safe during the pandemic. The people who have risked their lives to care for children, the elderly, and the infirm are disproportionately women of color. That’s why, fifth, it’s time for our society to value caregivers and compensate them with a living wage and the same kind of workplace protections the doctors and nurses they serve beside take for granted. Only 20% of the essential health care workforce are well-paid and respected doctors or nurses. The rest are medical assistants, home health aides, phlebotomists, and cleaners, and other under-the-radar, low-paying jobs.
The pandemic has exposed massive fault lines that exist within our current systems. Now, with hope on the horizon, it’s time we heed the hard-won lessons of the past year. By building a stronger safety net for women, we won’t just reduce disparities—we’ll also help create healthier, happier American families.
Arianna Huffington is founder and CEO of Thrive Global. Michelle A. Williams is dean of the faculty at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.