COVID-19: Why Gender Matters

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Farhat Popal

Headlines point out that early data shows COVID-19 could become severe more often in men than women — and while that might be true, women still bear the brunt of the impact. Here's why.

Global pandemics treat men and women differently. Headlines point out that early data shows COVID-19 could become severe more often in men than women — and while that might be true, women still bear the brunt of the impact. Here are eight ways women and girls are disproportionately affected by COVID-19, and what factors policymakers should consider when developing short- and long-term solutions.

1. Women make up 70 percent of the global health workforce

According to a 2019 report, women make up 70 percent of the global health workforce. Less than 10 percent of all registered nurses in the United States are male. This puts women at greater risk of contracting COVID-19 in the course of carrying out their duties and reinforces the need for sufficient and adequate personal protective equipment (PPE) to be available to all health care workers. In addition, gender norms and discrimination impact the health sector in various ways – for example, women-dominated professions are often undervalued in society, as evidenced by the 26-29 percent unadjusted gender pay gap in the health and social sectors. This exists even in high-income professions; a survey of 65,000 physicians in the U.S. revealed that female doctors earned an average of almost 28 percent less than their male counterparts in 2017.

2. Women and girls bear disproportionate caregiving burden

Even if women are not in paid health care and caregiving roles, they are more likely to fulfill these roles at home. Women spend more time caring for elderly family members. This is on top of the average of four hours of unpaid work per day women in the U.S. perform, for example, compared to men’s two and a half hours. This caregiving burden means women face greater risk of exposure to the virus, as was seen in the Ebola outbreak in Nigeria, for example.

3. Women are more likely to be in jobs with low wages and poor protections

The gender pay gap is even wider for many women who are in low-paying jobs with poor protections, such as child care workers, restaurant servers, cashiers, maids, agricultural workers, or migrant workers. These jobs often lack social protection mechanisms such as pensions, unemployment benefits or maternity protection. It’s unclear how many of the more than 22 million Americans who applied for unemployment benefits in the last month have been women. However, we do know that the percentage of single women in the low-wage workforce is almost double that of women in the overall workforce, making them more vulnerable to losing their job in the current economic environment. Globally, nearly 40 percent of women in wage employment do not have access to social protection.

4. Women are subjected to increased rates of domestic violence and children are at risk of abuse

Domestic violence is an existing public health crisis. In the current environment of sheltering-in-place, women in abusive relationships have few alternatives to being locked inside with their abusers, and may fear seeking care for their injuries at hospitals. COVID-19 has caused domestic violence to skyrocket worldwide. Moreover, in the U.S. gun and ammunition sales have increased