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New Knowledge in the New Normal

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UD professors discuss gender equity issues that surfaced during the pandemic, potential solutions

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Now that we’re practically basking in the light at the end of the proverbial tunnel that is the COVID-19 pandemic, it feels safe to look back and sift through some of the lessons learned.

Some were obvious. Masks can help prevent illness of any kind. Driving less or not at all is good for the environment. Staying inside too long is bad for you.

But the pandemic also brought many issues to the surface regarding gender equity, including additional challenges when class and race were factors.

To mark International Women’s Day and this year’s theme, #BreakTheBias, UDaily asked several UD professors for their thoughts on the hurdles women faced during the pandemic and what can be done now that we seem to be moving on to live in the “new normal.”​​

Alison Parker, Chair and Richards Professor of American History; co-chair, UD Anti-Racism Initiative; joint appointment, women and gender studies

Women of color have paid the highest price for the gender inequity that exists around the world in the way that certain jobs are valued, and how people are paid. What we saw during the pandemic was that the parenting burden was still, by default, considered to be something that women had to deal with, and that they had to adjust to the lack of childcare, the lack of daycare, the lack of schools being open, etc. Many women had to lose their jobs and pull themselves out of the job market. Black women who work as daycare workers, nurses, nannies, nursing aid, all of those kinds of jobs, were under incredible stress. And those women were put in a worse position, because, first of all, they in some cases lost those jobs or did not have the resources to take care of their own children, in order to be able to take care of other people's children or other people's family members. So there's this incredible disparity in the system that made Black women and other women of color the most likely to suffer from the economic effects of the pandemic. If we had more gender parity in pay, and if jobs that are currently considered at the bottom of the totem pole in terms of work and and value -- like the daycare, like school teachers -- if those jobs could be paid what people are really putting in, in terms of the value that they offer for the community, we would see more empowered women.​

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Amanda Bullough (Workman), associate professor, management and global leadership; co-founder and research director, Women’s Leadership Initiative

One idea for addressing gender issues in the workplace that I’ve particularly loved lately is creating and funding a full-time director of, or office of, work-life (or work-life resource center) with dedicated staff to provide and maintain resources. Creating something like this means funding staff who collect and maintain resources that are helpful to employees outside of work. The pandemic hit women particularly hard because women still manage the lion’s share of caregiving, which means challenges like sick and isolated elder parents and kids in virtual school. Even in nonpandemic times, these are sources of stress, and time and attention suckers, yet women still do phenomenal work for their employers. Imagine how much an employer could help alleviate some of this by having somewhere employees can go when they need a recommendation for childcare, elder care, housing, wellbeing and so on.​

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Kyle Emich, associate professor, management

Although the pandemic hit everyone hard, it did have its silver linings. For example, parents got to add another two lines to their resumes: school teacher and IT technician. Unfortunately, nothing is free, as this inclusion came at the cost of time, healthy cortisol levels and sanity. In heteronormative dual-income households, this expense was particularly substantial for women. This is because, when push comes to shove, we expect women to take care of children, while we expect men to provide for their families -- in this case, by earning money through labor. But why are working women expected to shoulder this double-burden? As my colleagues and I show in a 2018 article published in the Academy of Management Journal, the answer likely comes down to implicit expectations based on gender roles. Particularly, people ascribe social status to others based on their behavior. However, not everyone earns status in the same way. Whether or not you receive status for a particular behavior depends on what socially significant characteristics you possess, and gender is one of the most socially significant characteristics of all, across time and across cultures. While men are expected to be assertive and action-oriented, women are expected to be reactive and communal. Women are expected to take care of people. And, if nothing is said, they will, because these expectations guide everyone’s beliefs. So, in a household with a man and a woman and kids, the woman is naturally expected to take care of the kids, and her husband and other women will respect her for doing so. However, this can cause problems. In our study, we found that women are less likely to be nominated for leadership positions because leaders are expected to be assertive, and therefore men are naturally associated with leadership. This bias also results in the time, physical health and mental health costs mentioned above. However, we continue to abide by it because it is unconscious. It is automatic. We do not notice it, so it is hard to stop. And, it will not be stopped without conscious effort.​

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Bahira Trask, chair and professor, human development and family studies

Despite a contemporary 21st century discourse that emphasizes gender equality, the pandemic has had very gender specific effects globally. According to a recent UN report, girls' and women’s lives worsened in part because they tend to work more in hard-hit economic sectors. In 2021, about 435 million girls and women were living on less than $1.90 per day and 47 million were pushed into extreme poverty due to the effects of the pandemic. What we saw is that hard-gotten gains that somewhat improved women’s lives were reversed in a very short period of time. We should not assume that the lives of all girls and women both in the U.S. and globally mirror the experiences of middle class educated women. In particular, poorer and marginalized communities were more vulnerable to COVID-19, and the conditions that we saw emerge during the pandemic highlighted the inequalities that were already present. Thus, we had a wide variety of experiences during this period. What can be done: We need to always apply a gender lens in creating social assistance programs and remember that women may have very different experiences. Care work which is often ignored by governments needs to be addressed. Families need to be supported as they balance paid and unpaid work including the care of children, individuals with disabilities, ill family members and the frail elderly. Some solutions include paid leave for caregivers, flexible and hybrid working arrangements, monetary assistance when schools and daycares are closed, and child care for essential workers. We need greater investments in these areas to facilitate women’s re-entry into paid employment and to allow them to negotiate the varying familial and work demands that the modern world asks of them.​

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Earl Smith, professor, women and gender studies

​​As a man, with expertise in the sociology of sport and teaching and conducting research in the Department of Women and Gender Studies, I am often asked about gender equity in sports. I always point to some gains having been made -- for example, as a result of Title IX, millions of girls and women participate in sport -- but not many. Inside the governing body of intercollegiate sports is a culture of inequity. For example, during the 2021 NCAA March Madness Basketball tournament, which was quickly reconfigured due to COVID, the budget for the women’s tournament was $35 million less than the men’s. Women players tweet out images of the “gym” the NCAA paid to have set up in the hotels where their teams stayed. It was a single hotel room in which staff had placed a few yoga mats and dumbbells. In contrast, the hotels where the men stayed, with the help of corporate partners, transformed ballrooms into fully functional gyms suitable for elite college and professional athletes. Stay tuned to the men’s and women’s tournaments that will begin in the middle of March for more examples of the ways in which Title IX has failed to deliver gender equality in SportsWorld.​

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Angela Hattery, professor, women and gender studies; co-director, Center for the Study and Prevention of Gender-Based Violence

Though the historic, landmark 1973 decision in Roe V. Wade was heralded as a move forward for gender equality, opponents of Roe immediately began chipping away at it, such that today more than 80% of women live more than 500 miles from an abortion provider and low-income women have even less access to abortion and other reproductive services. During COVID, many hospitals and clinics limited those services and procedures deemed to be “voluntary,” and this included access to many reproductive services, including abortion, but also family planning, diagnostic ultrasounds to confirm both pregnancy but also miscarriage, amniocentisis to diagnose genetic abnormalities and fertility services such as IVF. Concurrent with COVID, current state based-legislation and cases before the Supreme Court highlight that reproductive choice is under fierce attack. The inability to control one’s reproductive body has long been considered one of the greatest sites of gender inequality and thus it leaves women vulnerable in their intimate relations, not only to abuse, but specifically to coercive control and sexual violence. While these statistics are shocking, activists across the nation are coming together to prevent gender-based violence, including those efforts taking place right here in Delaware​

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Jennifer Naccarelli, associate professor, women and gender studies; acting chair, women and gender studies; co-director, Center for the Study and Prevention of Gender-Based Violence

The United States is alone among post-industrial economies, and frankly the rest of the world, when it comes to paid family leave. Not only does the U.S. stand virtually alone in not having any national policy that guarantees family leave, the average length of paid leave provided in other countries is 29 weeks, more than double the 12 weeks that Congress is considering. Much like the gendered wage gap, a lack of family leave protections for women leaves them dependent on men and thus vulnerable to abuse. Additionally, for many women, abuse begins or intensifies during pregnancies, and without the support of paid family leave, they may not have the funds to leave an abusive relationship. While these statistics are shocking, activists across the nation are coming together to prevent gender-based violence, including those efforts taking place right here in Delaware. The state could be the 10th in the nation to offer paid family leave for all residents. In January 2022, State Sen. Sarah McBride introduced the Healthy Delaware Families Act, a bill that would create a statewide and paid family and medical leave insurance program. Under this act, employees in Delaware could access up to 12 weeks of paid family and medical leave through the State’s paid leave trust. According to Sen. McBride, the bill would, “provide a simple and affordable solution to alleviate some commonly experienced financial pressures,” and “[other] states [with similar programs] have higher worker morale and productivity, lower turnover costs and greater economic security for working families.” The Healthy Delaware Families Act could provide life-saving benefits to victims and survivors of abuse since they wouldn’t have to choose between safety and financial security.​

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Wendy Smith, professor, business administration

While the pandemic exposed significant gender disparities, particularly as domestic demands still fell disproportionately to women, it also offered new opportunities. Addressing the complex pandemic issues required leaders with increased capacities for collaboration, empathy and both/and thinking -- all of which have been shown to be linked with more female styles of leading. Female leaders such as Angela Merkel (Germany) and Jacinda Ardern (New Zealand) aptly navigate the complexity of the crisis by integrating decisiveness with vulnerability, clarity with empathy. This ye​ar, the number of female CEO's of Fortune 500 companies hit at all-time high of 41 women (8%). While women continued to suffer in a number of domains, the pandemic demonstrated that female styles remained critical to navigating complexities and opened new paths for women leaders of the future.​

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Learn more about how Women's History Month is being celebrated at UD.

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​ Article by Peter Bothum , illustration by Jeffrey C. Chase 

Originally published March 07, 2022​

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