Standing Up for Gender Equity in the Time of COVID-19


Pandemics have a way of exposing cracks in our social and moral foundations. They point to where we are coming up short and what we need to do to build a more just and resilient future. One need is clear: it is time to double down on the push for women’s rights and gender equity.

Women are being disproportionately affected by the coronavirus outbreak on a number of fronts.

First, women comprise a greater percentage of frontline workers and caregivers. Today, women make up 52% of essential workers in the U.S., leaving them exposed, and generally underpaid and with fewer protections than their male counterparts. The contrast is even starker in the healthcare industry. Women represent nearly 80% of healthcare professionals. They are also more likely to serve as domestic workers, childcare providers and restaurant and service staff—jobs that all too often pay low wages, offer few benefits and are most at risk today. In the past two months, women account for approximately 60% of those who have lost their job in the U.S., with women of color particularly affected.

Women are simultaneously fighting disparities on the home front, suddenly facing increased expectations and even more pressure when it comes to balancing work, child care, homeschooling, taking care of elderly family members and maintaining their home. As a baseline, studies show women were already performing three times the amount of unpaid care work than men prior to the pandemic.

Importantly, social service organizations are sounding the alarm about rising rates of gender-based violence during COVID-19. The stress and trauma of economic hardship combined with orders to shelter in place are leading to a spike in domestic abuse and a shadow crisis for women.

Second, women’s rights are being threatened in the political arena. While many people are distracted, lawmakers in the U.S. are attempting to use this moment to restrict women’s access to essential health and reproductive services. A number of states have introduced abortion bans and others have deemed reproductive health services as non-essential. The campaign to deny women autonomy over their own bodies continues, both in front of and hidden from the public eye.

Third, though certainly less dire, women are once again having to stake out their rightful place in the virtual working world. Those who have the privilege of working from home often find themselves less visible and their voices less heard. They are being interrupted on video calls, and men are making points that women already made (a phenomenon known as “hepeating”). Some are experiencing inappropriate comments that would not fly in a physical office space, and online harassment has increased. Last year, McKinsey and reported in their Women in the Workplace report that, of the 68,000 employees surveyed, half of the women experienced being interrupted or spoken over during meetings and 38% saw other people take credit for their ideas—incidents that are no doubt trending upward on Zoom.

Though people of different genders may all be in the same storm, it is clear we are riding it out in different boats. The question is how can we help mitigate this problem?

When it comes to the virtual workplace, there is a lot women can do to stand up for ourselves and for each other. We can speak politely but firmly about the behavior we see. We can find proactive ways to remain visible to our bosses. We can draw boundaries and lead the way in carving out time for self and family care. But when it comes to systemic injustices, we must work more proactively and cohesively to protect women’s rights and promote gender equity. And real progress will depend on men joining us as full partners and allies in advancing these efforts.

For example, the SRE Network will be hosting a virtual summit June 8-9 that will examine the issue from organizational and societal levels. The Network has spent the last two years working to advance women’s leadership and gender equity and ensure that sexual harassment, sexism and gender discrimination are no longer tolerated in the Jewish community. At the Summit, leaders will devote time to examining issues such as equity in layoff and furlough decisions, among other challenges. What they uncover will help inform SRE’s grantmaking and public education efforts moving forward.

Here at the Schusterman Foundation, we have launched a new portfolio of work focusing on promoting women’s leadership and gender equity; preventing sexual harassment and assault and supporting survivors; and advancing reproductive health and rights. Our goal is to help assure that women—especially the most vulnerable—have access to equal rights, protections and opportunities, including access to vital health care services. We are investing in a growing range of organizations and are now working with other foundations to provide direct emergency support to women working on the frontlines and facing hardship in the wake of COVID-19, especially women of color.

We know that these efforts are just a drop in the bucket. Gender equity needs more attention and significantly more resources. This is a time for everyone who cares about these issues to step up and advocate on their behalf.

Equity, after all, is about more than parity in status. The push for equal opportunity and treatment is not about achieving equity for equity’s sake; it is about advancing all of humanity. Research from across decades, locations and sectors proves that when women have equal leadership opportunities, everyone benefits. Businesses are more profitable and, as we are seeing, governments are more effective and communities are healthier when women are at the helm or at least have significant seats at the table. Much has been written recently about the fact that women-led countries have had greater success dealing with coronavirus, and that diverse leadership styles are essential when it comes to transforming societies and economies.

There are many in the U.S. and around the world who would relegate the issue of gender equity to the back burner during this time (or even indefinitely). But those of us who are working toward a stronger, healthier and more just future know that women’s rights and gender equality are more important than ever. Rather than back off from the struggle, we must press forward as firmly and resolutely as ever. Our world, our planet and our communities will be better off if we succeed.

Lisa Eisen is Co-President at the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation.