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OPINION

The pandemic recasts gender inequality

Calls for a feminist vision for the COVID-19 pandemic often boil down to ‘It’s worse for women.’ But is it?

A nurse at Massachusetts General Hospital sits in what is usually a full ICU waiting room.
A nurse at Massachusetts General Hospital sits in what is usually a full ICU waiting room.Erin Clark/Globe Staff

Amid a life-and-death health emergency and an economic crisis, the culture-war issues that dominated America’s national conversation a short time ago have receded — but not completely. Some argue, for instance, that gender inequality is a more pressing issue than ever. “Feminism isn’t canceled,” proclaimed a recent tweet from the account of UN Women, the United Nations agency for women’s empowerment. Probably not; but maybe it’s finally time for a feminism based on mutual partnership and compassion, not gender warfare and female victimhood.

Yet calls for a feminist vision for the COVID-19 pandemic often boil down to “It’s worse for women.” Or, as UN Women executive director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka and Gabriela Ramos, chief of staff at the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, recently wrote, “COVID-19 is affecting everybody, but it is affecting women more.” Mlambo-Ngcuka and Ramos cite the unequal burden of caregiving, both at home and in health care work, as well as women’s greater economic insecurity.

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Alison Holder, director of the gender equality advocacy group Equal Measures 2030, warns in a column that “the COVID-19 pandemic could set women back by decades.” Along similar lines, a headline in The Atlantic recently lamented, “The Coronavirus Is a Disaster for Feminism.” The author, British feminist Helen Lewis, predicted that women would bear the brunt of increased domestic and childcare responsibilities — particularly with school closures — and would often find themselves pushed back into traditional roles.

Yet one could also predict far more female-friendly scenarios. The quarantine experience will likely make companies far more open to remote work, a boon to many working parents. Stay-at-home orders are also creating an experiment in at-home parenting for many fathers, especially in families where Mom goes out to an essential job while Dad is housebound with the children. While de facto house arrest under highly stressful circumstances is probably not the best setting to discover the joys of being a stay-at-home dad, the lockdown may help normalize that role.

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Two new surveys on the impact of the coronavirus crisis don’t support claims that it has been especially rough on women. In a Data for Progress poll, 37 percent of men and 31 percent of women reported losing jobs, being placed on leave, or having their hours cut. In a Pew Research Center poll, women were only slightly more likely than men (37 percent versus 32 percent) to say it was difficult to handle childcare.

Discussions of the pandemic’s “gendered” effects invariably mention the grueling work and risk that now comes with female-dominated health care jobs: Women make up two-thirds of health care workers worldwide and 80 percent in the United States. These women, writes Holder, “are putting their health at risk on the front lines of dealing with the virus.”

It is indeed difficult and dangerous work, especially given the scandalous shortages of personal protective equipment. Yet it also puts women in a heroic role that evokes the traditionally masculine sacrifice of the soldier. We even talk about it in the language of war, speaking of “front lines,” “battle,” and “trenches.” The medical workers who succumb to COVID-19 are this battle’s fallen warriors — women like Larrice Anderson, a 46-year-old nurse in New Orleans, and Araceli Ilagan, a 63-year-old intensive care unit nurse in Miami.

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These heroes are not only female, of course. But they are dispelling a deep-seated gender stereotype: that risking one’s life or safety to protect others is an inherent part of manhood while women’s nature is to avoid danger.

Remarkably, those who talk about applying a “gender lens” to the pandemic nearly always miss its most dramatic gender imbalance: the fact that a clear majority of the casualties are men, who are more likely both to get COVID-19 and to die from it. In New York, which has the largest outbreak in the United States, men account for 62 percent of the fatalities; in some places, such as Italy, it’s over 70 percent. It’s not yet understood what causes the skew. But it’s telling that commentary on this gender gap is often framed as a demonstration of women’s natural “superiority,” not as a cause of concern about men.

In other areas, too, “gendered” narratives of COVID-19 highlight perils to women while ignoring ones more common to men. Thus, numerous media reports have highlighted concerns about a surge in domestic abuse toward women because of the lockdowns. In fact, 2015 data from the Centers for Disease Control show that 36 percent of Americans who report experiencing violence by an intimate partner, resulting in physical or psychological damage, are men. But there has been very little discussion of how the surge in unemployment may affect suicide, a link that seems particularly strong for men. The women-in-jeopardy focus seems more paternalistic than truly feminist: it’s the “benevolent sexism” that holds that protecting women is particularly important.

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If anything, the COVID-19 crisis should be a reminder that, whatever gender differences may exist, men and women are in this together. Yes, there are harrowing stories of domestic abuse, but there are far more men and women working together — as family members or co-workers — to meet this moment’s challenges. Let us recognize those partnerships. Let us recognize both men and women for their heroism, and recognize their vulnerabilities with equal concern. Let’s view the pandemic through a human lens.

Cathy Young is a columnist at Newsday and an associate editor at Arc Digital.