Panel explores disproportionate impact of pandemic on women

March 30, 2021

In recognition of Women’s History Month, and one year since the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic, University of Michigan faculty have shared diverse insights and expertise on how the pandemic has disproportionately impacted women.

From mothers working remotely while attempting to serve as teachers to their children at home, to women experiencing increased job loss, to struggling to maintain mental well-being, studies have shown that the stressors caused by the pandemic have increased gender inequality in a variety of ways.

In a March 29 panel discussion hosted by U-M Public Engagement & Impact, five faculty members from across the university explained the myriad effects the pandemic has had on women and explored ways to address the gender gaps and impact positive change.

Moderator Betsey Stevenson, Ford School professor of public policy and of economics, started by explaining why having the dialogue is so important.

“A year into the pandemic what we see is that this pandemic has taken a disproportionate toll on women,” she said before elaborating on economic reasons for the negative impact.

“This is our first-ever service-sector-led recession, and women hold more of the jobs in the service sector than men. We have never had a recession before where women lost most of the jobs,” she said, adding that women have experienced numerous “punches” throughout the pandemic in job and income loss.

Tabbye Chavous, associate vice president for research and director of the National Center for Institutional Diversity, said women of color have experienced numerous challenges throughout the course of the pandemic.

“Women of color are often positioned at the intersection of multiple barriers that have both been illuminated and exacerbated in the context of the COVID pandemic,” Chavous said. “While navigating these barriers, including systems and institutional structures with entrenched inequality that already existed, has been a function of this pandemic.”

Sarah Peitzmeier, assistant professor in the department of health behavior and biological sciences, added that the vast inequities suffered by transgender women of color also must be a part of this conversation. She explained trans women came into the pandemic with higher levels of economic issues because of employment discrimination and higher mental health burden.

“2020 was the worst year on record for murders of transgender people in the U.S., and most of those murders were trans women of color,” she said.

Peitzmeier also spoke to the escalation of child abuse and intimate partner violence in homes during the lockdown, and emphasized that when the pandemic does end, the strains will not be immediately solved.

“Just because a stressor ends doesn’t mean that the trauma just evaporates,” Peitzmeier said.

Shawna Lee, associate professor of social work, faculty associate at RCGD, and director of the Parenting in Context Research Lab, has conducted surveys throughout the pandemic that found about four out of 10 parents met the criteria for probable major depression or generalized anxiety disorder within the first few weeks of the pandemic, and mothers reported more than double the rates of anxiety and depression than fathers.

“What the pandemic has illustrated is that we’re really at a point of a national mental health crisis,” Lee said. “Mothers had significantly higher rates of parenting stress and economic worries, which showed a continuation of pre-pandemic trends that women have higher rates of anxiety and depression than men do.”

Reshma Jagsi, deputy chair of radiation oncology and Newman Family Professor of Radiation Oncology, said the mental health concern is very real and occurring across many populations and disciplines.

“Forty percent of physician mothers meet the criteria for generalized anxiety disorder, and that’s really worrisome because of course these are the people we are relying on for so much of the health care provision in our society,” she said.

Jagsi explained that the gendered expectations regarding the division of labor extends beyond the home because there is a natural expectation that women will play care-giving roles in the workplace, which places increased stress on them.

The financial impacts on women lead to myriad other challenges. The Ford School's Celeste Watkins-Hayes, a University Diversity and Social Transformation Professor, the Jean E. Fairfax Collegiate Professor of Public Policy, and a professor of sociology, conducts research examining the role of race, class, gender and sexuality in perpetuating inequity. She said in a recent Michigan Minds interview that in looking at economic equality, there is still a clear wage gap between men and women.

“I think that the disparities that women see economically translate in all kinds of ways, from their abilities to leave abusive and problematic relationships or relationships that they deemed problematic, to the ability to be primary caretakers to their children and we think about the number of female-headed households, to the ability for women to climb up to the highest ranks of our institutions,” she said, adding that women’s health and gender-based violence are also challenges that women continue to face.

“I think that it’s really incumbent upon us as we think about Women’s History Month, to think about all women and to think about how our work is absolutely not done yet in those regards.”

This article was written by Erica Colaianne, [email protected], U-M Public Engagement & Impact