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NMSU sociologist: COVID-19 pandemic may erode gains of women’s movement

Could women’s independence become another victim of the novel coronavirus? A New Mexico State University sociology professor says the answer is likely yes.


Head and shoulders of a woman
Julie Steinkopf, assistant professor in the Department of Sociology in the College of Arts and Sciences at NMSU. (Courtesy photo)

Families facing both a public health crisis and an economic crisis now must make practical decisions that will value higher pay and benefits above household labor.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data for 2019 shows nearly 70 percent of people older than 25 working part-time are women, which often makes their jobs dispensable when it comes to taking over “unpaid” work in the home.

With schools closed and many people unemployed or working from home, this situation is likely to create a negative impact on women, even those with well-meaning partners who support gender equity and 50/50 division of labor in household responsibilities.

“As research consistently indicates, in two-parent households who support gender equality with a supposed 50 percent workload with kids, it is still a myth,” said Julie Steinkopf, associate professor in NMSU’s Department of Sociology. “Women still get saddled overwhelmingly with childcare and domestic work. For single mothers it is worse.”

As isolation, job losses and caregiver responsibilities escalate during the pandemic, Steinkopf discussed some of the reasons that the situation could push gender equity back to the 1950s.

“First, when a family self-isolates, women are more likely to sacrifice valuable work time to care for the children and other domestic responsibilities,” she said. “This in turn negatively impacts their career as their productivity will be going down compared to their male colleagues.”

Another reason is that it reinforces traditional gender roles subconsciously, and could influence children’s attitudes.

“Once the pandemic subsides, these behavioral patterns will be further entrenched. It may be that men will be less likely to question these traditional arrangements because that is what occurred within their households during the pandemic and it worked out well for them,” Steinkopf said. “Children in the household will likely take note of the roles and dynamics within the household and use this as a model as they learn societal expectations.”

Third, if the recession turns to a depression, women may be forced to become stay-at-home moms.

“It is likely men will be privileged for employment because of the traditional belief that they are the breadwinner of the family,” she said. “However, this could go either way…women are cheaper workers and so it may be that they are more likely to find employment during the potential depression.”

Steinkopf pointed to the recession of 2008 when men had higher unemployment rates than women, in part because they were more expensive to hire compared to women.

The pressure on gender roles may also lead to increases in domestic violence.

“Many couples are simply not used to living with each other 24/7, and it is creating strains within the marriage,” Steinkopf said. “These relationship strains are likely to be amplified by the anger and resentment many women will feel about the unequal distribution of childcare and domestic labor during the pandemic. It is likely increased divorce rates will happen.”

Steinkopf predicted numerous researchers already are collecting data for future theses, dissertations and publications resulting from the pandemic’s impact on gender roles and gender equity. She also raised the hope that this situation may provide a chance for change in gender dynamics in families.

“It definitely provides a wonderful opportunity for couples to fairly negotiate equity in childcare and domestic labor during this time.”