Health Equity

Equity Matters: How Gender Inequality Impacts Us All

January 26, 2022

A few days ago, my seven-year-old woke up with the dreaded sore throat and fever. Despite being vaccinated, he tested positive for COVID requiring he stay home for at least five-days. I have the privilege of being able to work from home or take paid sick days if needed, have groceries delivered and live in a house with enough space to minimize his exposure to others in my family. This is a privilege for me and my family, but also for everyone I would have come in contact with had I been unable to quarantine. Not every parent has this privilege - some are healthcare workers who do not have the luxury of taking a day off for any reason, while others work hourly jobs that barely pay enough to make ends meet each month. Women are more likely to be in these positions, especially when it comes to balancing work outside the home with childcare responsibilities. The pandemic has highlighted just how individual health is interwoven with community health. The lack of true equity for women in multiple aspects of life demands structural change that can benefit women and the health and well-being of everyone in our community.

It is not at all surprising that systems designed for the common good - healthcare, education and childcare, are not built to create equal opportunities for all. The pandemic has put a spotlight on the societal failures in these and other areas that have disproportionately impacted women, but even more so women who work in lower and middle wage jobs. Women have dropped out and remained out of the workforce at higher rates than men during the pandemic. In Massachusetts, as of August 2021, the female employment rate was 5.7% lower than pre-pandemic levels, compared to only 1% lower for males.[1] The data is clear, but the reasons are more complex. While dynamics within households play a role for some women, equality in household chores will not improve affordability and availability of high-quality childcare or equalize pay for women, especially women of color who earn even less on the dollar than white women. It also assumes a family structure that is not reality for many either by choice or circumstance. We should acknowledge that everyone in the household benefits when childcare and household chores are shared equally. At the same time, the real change that needs to happen is not in the home but in workplace norms and corporate and government policies.

Workplace norms, such as those that discourage taking earned days off and sick time tend to negatively impact women at higher rates. Corporate policies that allow for flexible hours, guarantee a living wage and offer paid time-off along with legislation that increases the minimum wage, helps to make childcare affordable and mandates paid family leave also have universal benefits. These structural changes must be prioritized, and women must be at the center of designing these solutions. If we are successful, the benefits will extend across all families and community health will improve.

For more Equity Matters, visit Foundation Publications.

[1] Commonwealth of Massachusetts Executive Office of Labor and Workforce Development (October 2021). The impact of COVID-19 on women in the workforce.

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