Alleviating the Impacts of Covid-19 on Women through Economic Development: A Personal Perspective 

Amanda Chivil
Amanda Chivil has a BA in International Relations and an MS in Management from Boston University, and also recently completed graduate courses in democratization and geopolitics at the Harvard Extension School. She is passionate about economic opportunity, gender equity, civic engagement, and sustainable development. A Sales Engineer at a tech company by day, she spends much of her free time reading about Russian and Eastern European history with hopes of working at a think tank or in government some day.

Photo by Kampus Production

In October 2021, the Biden Administration released its National Strategy on Gender Equity and Equality.[1] In recognition of the barriers that prevent those who identify as women, primarily women of color and trans women, from achieving their full potential, it established the White House Gender Policy Council to execute ten interconnected and intersectional priorities core to the national strategy.[2] It represents a historic investment in women and one that is vital at this critical juncture as we continue to weigh the pandemic’s disproportionate impacts on women.

 

While each of the component priorities of the executive strategy is exceptionally important (ending gender-based violence, improving health outcomes, ensuring equitable access to education, etc.) economic security evidently tops the list as the pandemic continues to exacerbate inequities in caregiving and labor participation.[3] For example, the number of women who say they are responsible for 75% or more of caregiving responsibilities has nearly tripled,[4] while women’s labor force participation has plummeted to its lowest level in over 30 years.[5] Further, economic security is foundational to each of the other priorities: It enables women to afford adequate healthcare, to invest in higher education, to leave toxic or violent relationships, and to advocate for their rights with affordable legal services.[6] Economic security means self-reliance, freedom, and agency.

 

Outside of its practical significance, investment in women’s economic development and security resonates the most with me. Completing a graduate education has allowed me to secure a well-paying job in a competitive field, generate an emergency fund, build wealth (while paying back egregiously high student debt) and achieve a degree of financial independence. I have the freedom to make decisions for myself and my future. I have the choice to depend on myself as opposed to a partner. However, as the statistics illustrate, working women today are losing these freedoms and opportunities.

 

In fact, this socio-economic regression seems eerily similar to the women in my family that faced similar challenges with regard to opportunity and gender parity. Similarly, my Nonna, an Italian native who emigrated to the United States at the behest of her male partner, faced limited economic opportunities comparable to those facing working women today as a consequence of the pandemic.

 

When my Nonna, Giovanna Demonte (né Caputo), was growing up during the 1940s in a small sea-faring town in the Southern Italian region of Puglia, gender equity was a nonexistent concept. The idea was not even a remote consideration for her under a fascist regime that upheld traditional, gendered family values. Instead, contemporary Italian legislation was designed to “reinforce the position of the male” by codifying the role of women in terms of family and motherhood.”[7] As such, she was raised within the context of these ideologies along with her four sisters, all of whom were largely confined to household duties like cooking and cleaning, and, eventually, finding suitable husbands who could be relied upon to provide necessary financial security. Therefore, when my great grandfather, Michele, was sent at the behest of the fascist government to East Africa and was subsequently captured as a prisoner of war for 10 years, my Nonna and her immediate family were left behind. With few skills, education, or opportunities to support themselves during a time of tremendous uncertainty and distress, they were financially dependent on remittances from their father and the support from the American Red Cross.

 

Italy, particularly in the agronomy-dominant South, offered few jobs and economic opportunities after the war for the returning soldiers, let alone for the women who were expected to maintain their gendered roles due to the stratified patriarchal social structures of the time.[8] As such, my Nonna was arranged to marry a Naval Officer, Nicola Demonte, as a means of alleviating her family of responsibility for her welfare and future economic security. Accordingly, her future was dependent on his hopes for opportunity by emigrating to the United States. While my Nonno secured a job as a longshoreman to support their growing family, my Nonna worked as a seamstress part-time while raising two young girls, maintaining their home, learning English at night, and adapting to a new life and culture.

 

While the degree to which women are subjected to economic insecurities varies widely between today and 80 years ago, the theme that underlies the challenges they face is remarkably similar when considering the loss of agency and choice associated with economic opportunity and security. If childcare is inaccessible, many working parents must make a decision as to which of them should leave their job in order to care for their children. Since women are on average lower earners concentrated in low-wage, service jobs compared to their male partners, many women are faced with a grueling choice: work from home and double as both a working professional and full-time mother, or quit their jobs altogether.[9] The former disproportionately adds to women’s stress and physical and emotional burden, especially for single moms without the financial support of a partner, while the latter limits their career prospects, and widens the gender pay gap.[10] Ultimately, similar to my Nonna’s experience, these consequences can create a financial dependency on their partners and limit them to unpaid labor.[11]

 

Yet, while the economic roles expected of my grandmother have changed considerably compared to those accessible to women today, “our systems have not similarly evolved to support them.”[12] While gender inequality was a glaring issue before the pandemic, the disproportionate economic impacts on women, particularly those from low-income families and women of color, have created a watershed moment for us to rethink the systems that support them.[13] It is not enough to return to a pre-Covid “normal” – we need systemic change and smart policy-driven government sponsorship to offset the exacerbated pre-existing inequities faced by working and caregiving women.

 

Critical policy actions that will help mitigate the adverse impacts of Covid on women’s economic security and gender equality include protecting women’s access to well-paying jobs and expanding access to affordable childcare, which in turn will bolster women’s workforce participation. The aforementioned White House Gender Policy Council will be particularly instrumental in supporting working women through its collaboration with federal agencies, while the American Families Plan, which unfortunately has hit an impasse, would be foundational in providing affordable child care.

 

Workforce Participation

In quantifying the impacts of taking no action to support women’s workforce participation and gender parity, McKinsey estimates that global GDP growth could be $1 trillion lower in 2030.[14] Alternatively, “the global value of achieving best-in-region gender-parity improvements by 2030 could lead to $13 trillion of incremental GDP in that year, an 11 percent increase relative to the do-nothing scenario.”[15] Aside from the moral implications of the disproportionate impacts on women, the economics underscore the importance of taking policy action to correct it as a national priority.

 

As established by the National Strategy, the White House will require all federal agencies to establish goals and implementation plans (strategic planning and budgeting, policy and program development and measurement, etc.) in alignment with its gender equity priorities, while Gender Policy Council Staff will offer technical assistance to agency leadership and staff.[16] For example, the Small Business Administration’s (SBA) support for women-owned businesses provides a tangible example of programming aligned with advancing gender equity in the workforce.[17] Specifically, the SBA has taken action by elevating the status of the Office of Women’s Business Ownership to directly report to the Office of the Administrator, thereby increasing access to information and communication such as guidance in attaining government resources like capital and access to government contracts for its Women’s Small Business Centers (WBCs).[18] Jennifer Klein, Executive Director of the WH Gender Policy Council, praised the efforts, acknowledging the importance of providing resources to women business owners, especially those from marginalized communities who were disproportionately impacted by the pandemic, to ensure an equitable economic recovery.[19] These efforts, coupled with the $5 billion in funding provided by the American Rescue Plan, will provide the necessary infrastructure to ensure sustainable growth of women’s enterprises, which already provide countless jobs and trillions in revenues.[20]

 

It’s an inside joke in my family that my Nonna would have been a CEO if her economic prospects and gender expectations had been different. Sharp, intelligent, courageous, relentlessly hardworking, and industrious, there is no doubt in my mind that she could have been a business owner or pursued an impressive career. Even if she wanted to be a stay-at-home mother, the fact of the matter is that she would have had a choice.

 

Childcare

High-quality, accessible childcare advances gender equality by helping to close the opportunity gap and improve women’s workforce participation, thereby laying the foundation for present and future economic security for women.[21] Adequate care supports the development of critical social-emotional and cognitive skills that set children up for future success: Those who receive adequate early childhood care are more likely to complete college, maintain employment, and increase their earnings.[22] Further, early childhood educators create opportunities for working women to balance their own caregiving responsibilities while retaining their income if they so choose.[23] Unfortunately, however, affordable child care remains out of reach for most families, as the cost of child care has risen at more than twice the rate of inflation in the past three decades.[24]

 

The American Families Plan represents a historic and transformative investment in families and children that would systematically change our approach to affordable childcare and support for working families.[25] More specifically, the bill establishes free, high-quality, and inclusive universal pre-school which, in addition to providing essential benefits for developing children, has been proven to increase labor participation among women, thus allowing them to increase their earnings and economic security.[26] In addition, the legislation stipulates that low- and middle-income families would not pay more than seven percent of their income on childcare, enabling women to forgo the choice between paying for expensive child care or leaving the workforce to provide unpaid labor at home.[27] Lastly, it would create a national paid family and medical leave program, which would provide twelve weeks of partial wage for workers to care for a newborn child or a family member.[28] This would reduce the disproportionate burden of child care for women, and also improve the United States’ global competitiveness by increasing annual economic output.[29]

 

Paid family leave would have been life-changing for my Nonna when she first moved to Brooklyn, NY. Caring for a newborn and toddler while navigating a foreign health system was particularly stressful and overwhelming in her first few years in the US. Having the support of my Nonno at home would have been incredibly helpful, had he had the option to take time off while maintaining a portion of his wages. Further, this care precluded her from working a full-time job to support their shared goal of buying their first home, an emblematic feat for any family striving towards the ever more elusive American Dream.

 

In sum, while the pandemic has wrought unimaginable damage to our communities, it has also brought us to an inflection point. The economic and social implications of inaction are a cost we cannot afford to bear today and in decades to come. As we have seen, a comprehensive and multi-pronged policy approach and investment in women’s economic development are paramount. Childcare is not a private matter but a public necessity. Increasing women’s participation in the workforce is vital to improving gender parity, ensuring financial security, and generating economic growth. We mustn’t confine today’s talented women and their families to the same limited opportunities as my grandmother. As the Biden-Harris administration unremittingly reminds us, we must build back better.

 

 

[1] White House Briefing Room. “Fact Sheet: White House National Strategy on Gender Equity and Equality.” October 22, 2021. https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/statements-releases/2021/10/22/fact-sheet-national-strategy-on-gender-equity-and-equality/

[2] White House Briefing Room (October 2021).

[3] White House Briefing Room (October 2021).

[4] “Understanding the Pandemic’s Impact on Working Women: How employers can act now to prevent a setback in achieving gender parity in the workplace. Deloitte. https://www2.deloitte.com/global/en/pages/about-deloitte/articles/understanding-the-pandemics-impact-on-working-women.html

[5] White House Briefing Room (October 2021).

[6] White House Briefing Room (October 2021).

[7] Corner, Paul. Women in Fascist Italy. Changing Family Roles in the Transition from an Agricultural to an Industrial Society. January 1, 1993. https://doi.org/10.1177/026569149302300103

[8] Corner (1993).

[9] Bateman, Nicole and Ross, Martha. Brookings Institution. October 2020. https://www.brookings.edu/essay/why-has-covid-19-been-especially-harmful-for-working-women/#:~:text=COVID%2D19%20has%20also%20increased,the%20rate%20of%20men%20surveyed.

[10] Bateman and Ross (2020).

[11] Bateman and Ross (2020).

[12] Bateman and Ross (2020).

[13] Bateman and Ross (2020).

[14] Madgavkar, Anu. White, Olivia. Krishnan, Mekala. Mahajan, Deepa. Azcue, Xavier. McKinsey & Company. “Covid-19 and Gender Equality: Countering the Regressive Effects.” July 15, 2020. https://www.mckinsey.com/featured-insights/future-of-work/covid-19-and-gender-equality-countering-the-regressive-effects

[15] Madgavkar et al. (2020).

[16] The White House. “National Strategy on Gender Equity and Equality.” October 2021.  https://www.whitehouse.gov/wp-content/uploads/2021/10/National-Strategy-on-Gender-Equity-and-Equality.pdf

[17] U.S. Small Business Administration. “SBA Administrator Announces Plans to Elevate the Office of Women’s Business Ownership.” December 7, 2021. https://www.sba.gov/article/2021/dec/07/sba-administrator-announces-plans-elevate-office-womens-business-ownership?utm_medium=email&utm_source=govdelivery

[18] US Small Business Administration (December 2021).

[19] US Small Business Administration. (December 2021).

[20] U.S. Small Business Administration. “Fact Sheet: The U.S. Small Business Administration is Delivering Support to America’s Small Businesses, Helping Them Recover from the COVID-19 Pandemic.” November 24, 2021. https://www.sba.gov/article/2021/nov/24/fact-sheet-us-small-business-administration-delivering-support-americas-small-businesses-helping

[21] Zero to Three. “America’s Future Depends on Quality Child Care.” October 11, 2019. https://www.zerotothree.org/resources/1220-america-s-future-depends-on-quality-child-care

[22] Zero to Three (2019).

[23] Zero to Three (2019).

[24] Ceron, Ella. “Paid Leave and Universal Child Care Could Boost U.S. GDP by $1 Trillion” Bloomberg. March 8, 2022.  https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2022-03-08/paid-leave-and-universal-child-care-could-boost-u-s-gdp-by-1-trillion

[25] White House Briefing Room. “Fact Sheet: The American Families Plan.” April 28, 2021. https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/statements-releases/2021/04/28/fact-sheet-the-american-families-plan/

[26] White House Briefing Room (April 2021).

[27] White House Briefing Room (April 2021).

[28] White House Briefing Room (April 2021).

[29] White House Briefing Room (April 2021).