The Impact of COVID on Women, and an Idea to Deft the Data

Research shows that COVID-19 has disproportionately impacted women and people of color. In addition to the tragedy of the deaths of more than half a million people, the pandemic has exacerbated gender and racial inequalities. Unfortunately, things tend to get worse before they get better, and COVID has shined a light on many social disparities, leading to new levels of awareness and engagement. Change is coming.

What does the data tell us about the impact of COVID on women? And more importantly, in a situation where we can control so little, how can we regain some sense of normalcy? 

COVID’s impact on women

In Gender Differences in the Impact of COVID-19, a research paper published on June 18, 2020, University of Southern California professor Gema Zamarro highlights these key findings:

  1. Non-college-educated women suffered the highest drops in employment during the COVID-19 crisis.
  2. Women carried a heavier load than men in providing childcare during the COVID-19 crisis, even when still working.
  3. Working college-educated mothers, with school-age children in the household, are reducing their working hours compared to college-educated women without young children and compared to men, as a result of the crisis.
  4. It is well-established that women tend to report higher levels of psychological distress than men. However, when Covid-19 hit the U.S., we saw a new gap emerge between women with and without children, as women with children reported substantially higher levels of distress than women without children. Between men with and without children, a much smaller gap in distress is observed. 

This 1-minute video highlights some of the key findings and implications from the USC study.

The graphic below is especially concerning: regardless of whether or not we have children, women are experiencing at least 10% more psychological distress than men.

Women with kids most likely to experience psychological stress

Source: University of Southern California

And the picture gets even bleaker for women of color. According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), Non-Hispanic black persons have a COVID hospitalization rate approximately 5 times that of non-Hispanic, and Hispanic or Latino persons have a rate approximately 4 times that of non-Hispanic white persons. The CDC cites living, work and health circumstances as factors that contribute to the vast discrepancy in hospitalization from COVID.

The short-term impacts of the pandemic — financial insecurity, health issues and stress –  and the long-term implications – mental illness and widening gender, and racial gaps – can seem overwhelming. 

Yet, I expect for many women and people of color, the story told by the data isn’t a surprise. Whatever category you fall into, the fallout from the pandemic has exacerbated an already difficult situation. If you’re living the data, I am sending you a virtual hug.

As we all continue to roll with the punches of the pandemic, I want to share some advice I received when I was struggling, which continues to serve me today.

Set expectations to defy the odds

A few years ago, I was new in a senior position, a “stretch role” (aka lots of responsibility) and I was sinking. I had two young kids and felt like I was failing on all fronts. I could do the work but the pace and intensity was not sustainable. I was burning out quickly. In a desperate effort to figure it out I asked a colleague for advice. He was a very senior manager. He seemed to have his life, both personal and professional, fully in control. He had a lot of responsibility and pressure, four kids and time for fun. Somehow, he was not only balancing it all, he was thriving. So I asked him, how did he do it? Not just how did he do it but how did he do it and not feel like he was constantly letting someone down?

His answer was so simple and logical – expectations. 

It all came down to setting the right expectations:with himself, his family, team, manager and peers.

Specifically, I was struggling with balancing work with family and life. So he suggested when you need something just set the expectation. Simple, right? To my surprise, I tried it and it worked (at least most of the time).

Now when I need time to work uninterrupted I tell my husband and kids I need three hours of time to work, no interruptions. If I need to leave early I don’t ask, I set the expectation. Sometimes I have to reset my own expectations, what I intend to do simply isn’t going to happen. I accept what I can’t control and reset to a more realistic plan and outcome to navigate around self-sabotaging disappointment and guilt instead of heading straight into them.  

As we look into the future, it’s largely unknown. At some point most of us will be back in the office. Will schools and daycares be open or closed? Will we feel safe sending our kids? Will we feel safe going ourselves? Who can we ask to help? What if we don’t have help? What if we don’t have a job? What if we don’t have our health?

There is so much that we cannot control. As you think about your situation today and in the future, know that you largely control expectations – the ones you place on yourself and those that others place on you.

Expectations are a powerful tool to create and hold space for what you need. In order to make progress in all areas of gender and racial inequality in the workplace, and especially in the financial services industry, I encourage you to advocate for what you need versus asking for what is expected. The reality is you have the ability to set the expectations. Most of the executive-level women I know do not have a “traditional” work schedule. They have had to build in some level of flexibility or customization to show up sustainably in work and life.

Ask yourself (and be honest), what is working and what is not? What do you need to succeed? How can you bring solutions to the table that work for you?

Expectations are one way to regain control over your work, your life and your success. Connect with other women at one of the upcoming Women in Investment Network of Philadelphia (WIN) coffee chats to learn how they rethink their expectations for work and life during this unprecedented time.

Related: Why Financial Advisors Should Think Small ... to Grow Big