Economics prof. talks impact of COVID-19 on gender equality in virtual session

Matthias+Doepke.+The+Northwestern+economics+professor+spoke+at+an+Institute+for+Policy+Research+event+about+the+impact+of+COVID-19+on+gender+equality+and+the+workforce.

Courtesy of Matthias Doepke

Matthias Doepke. The Northwestern economics professor spoke at an Institute for Policy Research event about the impact of COVID-19 on gender equality and the workforce.

Mikenzie Roberts, Reporter

Economics Prof. Matthias Doepke hosted a lecture discussing the impact of COVID-19 on gender equality Monday, addressing the unique effects of the current economic downturn on gender relations.

Doepke drew on research from a paper he co-authored, as well as data from incoming studies, to demonstrate the large economic impact that this crisis will have on women. Over 90 Northwestern faculty, staff and students attended the event, hosted over Zoom by Northwestern’s Institute for Policy Research.

Most recessions are “mancessions,” Doepke said, because the main businesses affected are usually manufacturing, construction or other male-dominated sectors. However, he said the current recession is different — women make up a large portion of impacted sectors, such as hospitality, making the economic consequences of the crisis more gender symmetric in terms of employment.

Doepke added that data shows men hold more “critical” positions and tele-commutable jobs, leading a majority of unemployment claims in the first week after closures to be filed by women.

“Labor institutions matter,” said Doepke.

What is not symmetric, Doepke said, is the childcare burden put on women during this crisis. Although a majority of women will continue to be the primary caregivers and will face far more hours of child care due to school and daycare closures, he said his study estimated that for nine to 12 percent of married couples with children, fathers will play a new role as the primary child caregiver in the family, possibly leading to social change around the breakdown of household labor.

Doepke said he is interested in research regarding short-term policy responses, the medium-term economic impact and the long-term potential for a change in social norms, with shifts toward gender equality as a result of the pandemic. Employers have been forced to make virtual adjustments that are actually cost-saving in the long-run, he said. This investment in remote work and the salient need for childcare, he said, could change work organization as we know it.

Patricia Reese, director of communications for the Institute for Policy Research, said she found Doepke’s “good news, bad news” take to be compelling.

“So the bad news is that women overall seem to be taking or bearing the brunt of child-raising and the layoffs for this recession, which is different from previous recessions,” Reese said. “But there’s a silver lining in all of that.”

Reese explained that the country might wind up with more men who become the primary caregiver of their children, and that workers might actually seek more flexible working arrangements once the pandemic is over.

Psychology Prof. Alice Eagly said she was interested to see data confirming stories she’s heard from colleagues. She said some of her male colleagues have told her they’re spending more time with their children than they would have while teaching in-person lectures.

“I heard that from individuals,” Eagly said. “But that’s just an individual version of what this larger pattern is.”

The research team plans to move into gathering new data and tracing the impacts of the pandemic internationally. Doepke said they will develop a macroeconomic model of the household which will guide policy proposals and examine long-term impacts.

For now, Doepke said directing policy to aid hard-hit families is crucial, especially for single parents with children. In the United States, 21 percent of children under 18 live with a single mother and 4 percent of them live with a single father.

“(Single parents) are probably the most affected group and so thinking about what can be done to help them is something important at this very moment,” Doepke said.

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