In August 1920, the 19th amendment to the American Constitution was ratified, which gave women in the United States the right to vote. It must be noted that at the time, Jim Crow’s laws and measures against immigrants such as China’s Exclusion Law continued to deprive color communities of their rights. This new freedom for white women in America was a crucial step towards achieving gender equality. At the beginning of the 20th century, only 20 percent of women were classified as “employed”. This term referred to women who were employed outside the home. Of these women, only 5 percent were married. Men were traditionally accepted as the breadwinner of society, while the woman’s role was to raise children. Occupations such as apprenticeship, nursing and childcare were predominantly occupied by women in the past and were therefore referred to as “female” occupations.
Despite the many changes that have occurred since the first wave of feminism, institutional sexism is still present in the US. The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the spread of gender and racial differences across this nation. In general, women in the workforce have been negatively affected by COVID-19. Women with color are arguably the hardest hit; Unemployment rates among color communities have risen exponentially, and women have taken the brunt of the blow. Feminists fear this pandemic will negatively impact the advances the movement has made over the past 100 years.
In a March article from the Atlantic, the COVID-19 pandemic was described as a “catastrophe for feminism”. As the pandemic rages on in the United States, the gender gaps in the American workforce have become more apparent. According to a report by the National Women’s Law Center, “In October … nearly 2.2 million fewer women were employed than in February before the pandemic.” By early 2020, the majority of the American workforce was made up of women for the first time in nearly a decade. This victory for feminism was short-lived as the pandemic would soon deal a breathtaking blow to workforce diversity. The childcare sector has been devastated by the pandemic and thousands of families have no choice but to have at least one parent stay at home with the children. As historical trends could have guessed, most parents who left their jobs to be home with their children were women. In September, four times as many women left the workforce as their male colleagues.
The unemployment rate for both men and women rose due to the pandemic. According to the Ministry of Labor, the unemployment rate for all people aged 16 and over rose from 3.7 to 8.9 percent in the third quarter of this year. For men in particular, unemployment rose from 3.5 percent to 8.4 percent. For women, unemployment rose from 3.9 percent to 9.5 percent. On the surface, these statistics do not show overwhelming inequality between men and women in the workforce. However, a closer examination of the different population groups shows that women of the same color were proportionally more affected by unemployment during the pandemic.
Compared to the third quarter of 2019 and the third quarter of 2020, unemployment among white women rose from 3.7 percent to 8.6 percent, compared to an estimated unemployment rate of 7.4 percent for their male counterparts. The unemployment rate among Asian women rose from 2.5 percent in 2019 to a staggering 11.6 percent in 2020. As of the third quarter of 2020, Asian men had an unemployment rate of 9.6 percent. The unemployment rate among Latina women rose from 4.8 percent to 12.5 percent, while Latino men reported an unemployment rate of 10.2 percent in the third quarter of 2020. Interestingly, black women were the only population group to report a lower unemployment rate (12.7 percent) than their male counterparts (13.8%) in the third quarter. These statistics are not intended to suggest that black women are less affected by COVID-19 than other races. In fact, black women reported the highest unemployment rate among women. Rather, this statistic shows the extent to which the pandemic has affected the entire black community.
The above data serves as evidence of the gender gaps that persist in the American workforce. These statistics also suggest a bigger problem, as a significant number of women who left their jobs during the pandemic reported doing so to care for their children. In September 2020, 63 percent of working mothers said they were “primarily responsible for childcare during the spring standstill,” compared with 43 percent of their male colleagues. According to the same survey, 80 percent of working mothers said they were primarily responsible for helping their children learn online. Only 31 percent of the working fathers surveyed stated that they accept this responsibility. Since the pandemic started, an estimated 17 percent of working mothers have quit their jobs, compared with 10 percent of working fathers. One possible explanation for this inequality is an income gap between men and women. According to the National Center for Women’s Rights, working mothers make about 70 cents for every dollar that working fathers make. From a purely economic point of view, it makes sense for families to transfer responsibility for childcare during the pandemic to the parents with the lowest incomes. However, a paper by Janet Yellen, the former chairman of the US Federal Reserve, suggests that equal participation of both sexes would increase US GDP by 5 percent.
Existing gender stereotypes provide an additional explanation for the gender-specific differences within the working population. The pressure to hold on to gender stereotypes isn’t just limited to women. according to Scott Melzer, author of Manhood impossible, “Men rank [breadwinner status plus bodily strength and control] as the most important aspects of their identity as men. “Feminism serves both men and women. Diversifying the workforce and closing the income gap between men and women would significantly reduce stereotypes within the workforce. Society puts great pressure on men to be the breadwinners of their families. However, spouses have different interests and goals and shouldn’t be ashamed of realizing their dreams later, even if it means questioning stereotypical gender roles. Men entering areas such as nursing, education, and childcare often experience “unmanly” careers. Similarly, in areas such as engineering and law, women face discrimination and stereotyping by their male counterparts. Gender stereotypes in the workplace not only contribute to lower productivity, but can also have a negative impact on the mental health of workers.
Senator Elizabeth Warren proposes a policy that would have a profoundly positive impact on the percentage of women who are educated or part of the workforce: universal childcare. Senator Warren’s proposal calls for the creation of a new state grant that “grants states, cities, nonprofits, schools, and other local partners to” create a network of childcare facilities available to every family. “Senator Warren’s plan envisages proposed increasing taxes on higher-income families to reduce childcare costs for lower-income families. This measure would effectively increase childcare wages and reduce the burden on families of childcare costs. Historically, an affordable one Childcare is effective in increasing the participation of women in the labor force.
In an article by U.C. Berkeley, Tamara Straus makes the high cost of childcare for[stalling] the gender revolution]According to Straus, many women in the 1960s and 1970s could not afford an education or childcare and consequently had no choice but to give up their educational aspirations. A plan like Senator Warren’s could reduce that burden and increase school enrollment, increase the number of women in the workforce, and reduce stereotyping against both men and women. Another effective policy is paternity leave, which aims to improve the relationship between spouses and the bond between parent and child. Tackling gender inequality requires not only the destruction of gender stereotypes, but also feminist legislation.
The pandemic has shed some light on the reality that institutionalized sexism is still rife in the United States and around the world. Gender equality is not achieved through inaction. With a record number of Democratic and Republican women in political positions, the destruction of gender stereotypes seems more possible than ever. Conservative advocates staunchly against feminism, however, could be the greatest threat to the post-pandemic feminist movement. Still, the steady increase in women in the workforce is reassuring and is expected to increase as the pandemic nears its end. However, the lessons of the pandemic cannot be ignored. It is time for lawmakers to prioritize measures that reduce the differences between men and women in all areas of life.
Further reading on e-international relations