Gender and the “War” on COVID-19
By Christina Ewig | April 7, 2020
The rhetoric of war is all around us during the COVID-19 pandemic, from the World Health Organization to historical takes. More critical assessments note that this war, like others, will hurt the most vulnerable. In a recent essay, feminist political scientist Cynthia Enloe takes issue with this rhetoric, pointing to the historic ways in which wars have led to “racist, homophobic, and anti-Semitic practices.” Whether or not war rhetoric is helpful at this crucial moment, the current pandemic should be a wake-up call to expand what investments we consider essential to our national security, how we value work, and who gets called a hero.
Feminine Health Care and Masculine Military: Investments Reflect Gender Inequality
I’ve discussed in a previous post how gender—specifically masculinity—may shape an individual’s vulnerability to COVID-19. At a broader, institutional level, gender also plays a role in shaping the COVID-19 crisis through its impact on our frontlines of defense: the health care system and its workforce.
Gender plays a role in shaping the COVID-19 crisis through its impact on our frontlines of defense: the health care system and its workforce. Right or wrong, health care is traditionally considered a more “feminine” domain due to the caring work involved and the societal association between care and “women’s work.”
Right or wrong, health care is traditionally considered a more “feminine” domain due to the caring work involved and the societal association between care and “women’s work.” Moreover, its workforce is overwhelmingly female. By contrast, the military is usually thought of as a masculine institution, and its ranks are still more than 80 percent male. Unfortunately, in the U.S. and across the globe, those parts of the economy and society that are considered more “feminine” have historically been devalued compared to those considered “masculine.” This devaluation shows up in public investments, as well as the pay and respect for the workers in these respective sectors.
The U.S. spends more than any other nation on health care—almost two and a half times as much per person than other wealthy nations. Yet the federal government contributed only 28 percent of the total cost in 2019. In key areas of public health preparedness, arguably the most important role for government in health care, U.S. investment has been declining since 2006. Funding for the Center for Disease Control’s Public Health Emergency Preparedness cooperative agreement has been reduced by about one-third since 2002.
Contrast this with the U.S. military budget, which grew in 2019 for the fifth consecutive year, culminating in the $738 billion “space force” bill signed last December. Recent news coverage has pointed to the Trump administration’s willingness to invoke the Defense Production Act multiple times in recent years to build lasers and jet engines for the military, but only reluctantly for the COVID-19 crisis.
Who Gets Paid to Be a Hero?
The lack of preparation for COVID-19 has put our health care workers in danger in hospitals, nursing homes, and outpatient clinics. As has been widely reported, too many of these workers lack personal protective equipment (PPE)—protective masks, gowns, and other equipment needed to do their jobs safely. As the COVID-19 crisis deepens, these nurses, medical assistants, doctors, and health aides are putting their lives on the line for the rest of us.
The lack of personal protective equipment is part of a larger pattern reflected in the lower pay of female-dominated occupations, such as nurses and medical assistants, relative to their education.
The lack of PPE is part of a larger pattern reflected in the lower pay of female-dominated occupations, such as nurses and medical assistants, relative to their education. Individuals of all genders have at different times been heroes for our country. But while a private in the army with three years of experience takes home as much pay as an average medical assistant, that private also gets additional compensation for housing and food, effectively earning much more.
Consider another group of first responders that are 92 percent men: according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, firefighters today earn on average twice as much as medical assistants, for a job that requires similar level of education. Moreover, medical assistants experience an occupational injury rate more than seven times that of firefighters. The selflessness and bravery of our military and firefighters, including those who risked their lives on 9/11, is unquestioned. But they aren’t alone in the sacrifices they make for their fellow Americans.
Never Let a Good Crisis Go to Waste
To quote Rahm Emanuel: “You never want a good crisis to go to waste. And what I mean by that is an opportunity to do things that you think you could not do before.” This crisis represents an opportunity to overturn the ways that gendered institutions perpetuate inequalities that right now are impacting the lives of all Americans.
This crisis represents an opportunity to overturn the ways that gendered institutions perpetuate inequalities that right now are impacting the lives of all Americans.
For policymakers, this means recognizing that investments in public health infrastructure and preparedness are essential to national security. In addition, these decision-makers must find ways to address the pay inequities that result from the devaluation of female-dominated occupations.
In the short term, that means immediate higher compensation for workers on the front lines of the pandemic. Longer term, it means creative policy thinking to address the gender pay gap as it relates to occupational clustering. As economist Jill Rubery reminds us, the “comparable worth” approaches of the 1980s and 90s (policies that determine values for different jobs, to enforce equal pay across them), and more recent “gender audit” practices (which assess the overall gender equality of an organization), have not been successful in changing the gender pay gap. It’s time for new thinking.
Finally, for the public, it means a recognition that the caring professions are as life-saving as combative ones, and need to be as valued for their expertise and valor.
Finally, for the public, it means a recognition that the caring professions are as life-saving as combative ones, and need to be as valued for their expertise and valor. The next time I take a flight—however far in the future that may be—I’d like to hear the gate attendant call for health care workers to board with first class passengers, just as our active military do. Wouldn’t you?
Christina Ewig is Professor of Public Affairs and Director of the Center on Women, Gender, and Public Policy at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota.