Taking Risk, Taking Care During COVID-19

Early research on the social impacts of COVID-19 reveals that men and women are experiencing the same pandemic very differently.

Women’s jobs, for instance, may be disproportionately impacted by the impending recession. This, along with daycare and school closures that have demanded more of women’s time, suggests that the pandemic is likely to exacerbate existing gender inequalities in both the domestic and public spheres.

Our ongoing qualitative, longitudinal research with college students and their families sheds light on the gender differences in attitudes toward risk and experiences of isolation. Since April 1st, we have interviewed forty participants (26 identify as women, 13 as men, and 1 as non-binary) between the ages of 18-68 (median age of 23-years-old) to capture their changing experiences at three points in time over several weeks.

Preliminary Findings

Preliminary findings from our research indicate that men are not experiencing the same levels of stress and anxiety that have come to characterize the daily lives of women in our sample. Further, women are bearing an alarming share of the additional household labor and unpaid care work generated by this pandemic.

These findings tell a troubling tale of how COVID-19 is reinforcing existing systems and patterns of gender inequality by pushing women deeper into traditionally feminine roles. Simultaneously, men’s disavowal of the risks associated with COVID-19 reflects masculine ideals premised on confidence, power, and strength.

One of the most striking features of the COVID-19 pandemic is the rapidly shifting backdrop against which individuals are receiving information and assessing their personal risk of exposure to the virus.

As the U.S. struggles to control and manage COVID-19, new data on transmission, vulnerability, and mortality are updated almost in real-time. Although men and women assess similar risks of personally contracting COVID-19, they substantively diverge in their interpretation of—and corresponding response to—perceived risk.

Many women in our sample recounted narratives of intense anxiety, responsibility, and uncertainty. Filene, for example, lives with her mother and has stopped working as a market cashier as a cautionary measure. She expressed enormous distress about the future, stating,

“I don’t know if it’s going to end. I don’t know what to expect next. Will it destroy the earth? Will I get to see another year? Will I even get to see my mom through this thing? Where is it going? What is going to happen?”

In contrast, the majority of men reported personal efforts to follow public health recommendations but otherwise seem unperturbed by COVID-19, even when they evaluate their personal risk to be high. Our findings suggest that the current crisis is reinforcing gender norms that position men as confident, unfazed, and stoic.

Percy, for instance, works in a hospital, where he is responsible for sanitizing rooms. Percy said that he strictly follows safety protocols at the hospital, but outside of work, he inconsistently wears a mask in public because he thinks “it’s just a little outlandish” and that it “looks funny sometimes.”

The men in our sample recognize the risks associated with COVID-19, but their awareness of these risks does not translate into the deep-seated distress that women are experiencing. The tension between the men’s simultaneous awareness and disavowal of the risk is captured well in Arnold’s interview, during which he described the numerous hygiene practices he has adopted during the pandemic, but then emphatically noted that he feels the media have amplified the dangers of COVID-19, which he likened to the flu. 

Women’s experiences of fear and anxiety are partly driven by their relentless commitment to care work. For example, Valencia is responsible for cooking and shopping for her fiancé and mother, and she reported being on the brink of panic attacks when she contemplates the loss of her loved ones to COVID-19. Her narrative stands in stark contrast to Cameron’s, in which he expressed worry about his elderly parents’ refusal to stay home, but at the same time, reported being in a place of acceptance about their eventual positive diagnoses. He calmly stated that their contraction of COVID-19 was a matter of “when” and not “if.”

The salience of unpaid care work in the women’s lives is all the more marked because our sample consists of mostly young adults. Even though most are not wives or mothers, the women in our sample have become deeply affected by conventional gendered expectations centered on domestic labor and caregiving.

For example, Megan is tasked with helping her father file for unemployment during the pandemic. In addition, while her mother is at work, Megan must “cook and clean and still try and fit homework in.”  Similarly, Liniksha noted that she is entirely responsible for her younger brother’s care, even though they both live with their parents, an uncle, and an older sister. Although she was his primary caregiver even before the pandemic, Liniksha explained that she is now solely responsible for his homeschooling as well, which has been challenging. These narratives underscore the extent to which the pandemic has pushed women deeper into caregiving roles, even while other demands on their time and energy have not relented.

Our ongoing research is revealing a clear pattern of gender differences in attitudes toward and responses to risk and care work that have significant short- and long-term impacts. More immediately, men’s relaxed attitudes toward contracting COVID-19 may encourage behavior that increases their own—and effectively, their families’—risk of disease. In the long term, as the U.S. confronts the possibility that COVID-19 may permanently alter our social landscape, our findings highlight the need to examine critically the novel (and troubling) ways in which women are becoming entrenched in traditional domestic responsibilities.

Dr. Catherine Tan is an incoming (Fall 2020) Assistant Professor in the Department of Sociology at Vassar College. She holds a PhD in Sociology from Brandeis University. Her research has been published in Social Science & Medicine, Journal of Contemporary Ethnography, and Genetics in Medicine. You can find her online at www.CatherineDTan.com and follow her on Twitter @catherineoscopy.
Dr. Janani Umamaheswar is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Sociology at Southern Connecticut State University. She holds a PhD in Sociology from the Pennsylvania State University and her research has been published in journals such as Journal of Developmental and Life-Course Criminology, Civic Sociology, Women & Criminal Justice, and Punishment & Society. You can find her online at www.jananiumamaheswar.com and follow her on Twitter @JananiU.

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