This year, the campaign theme of International Women’s Day, an annual global holiday on March 8 that commemorates women’s achievements, was advancing women’s equality. As a cisgender woman, this campaign has given me the opportunity to reflect on the status of women’s equality in the U.S in the context of COVID-19 pandemic, which exacerbated existing disparities for women. COVID-19 worsened economic disparities as women encountered higher unemployment rates and higher hourly reductions than men. Job and wage loss, in turn, carry significant implications for women’s well-being, such as reduced access to health insurance and healthcare, and higher economic stress. Indeed, during the pandemic, studies show that women experienced higher rates of mental health problems, food insecurity, housing instability, and increased obstacles in accessing contraception. Furthermore, because of lockdown measures, there were increased reports of intimate partner violence (IPV) and more demand for women’s shelter services because female victims of IPV were often confined at home with their aggressors–a circumstance that was further complicated by the fact that women face more challenges leaving abusive relationships when they are economically insecure.
In reflecting on women’s equality during the pandemic, the early childhood education (ECE) sector stands out to me as particularly relevant. As a Research Associate at ICH, I am part of a project that is evaluating a mental health consultation program for ECE professionals, all of whom are women. Despite the essential role that ECE professionals play in the healthy development of children, this female-dominated field has been historically undervalued, underfunded and underpaid compared to other child-serving sectors. The Center for the Study of Child Care Employment at UC Berkeley found that regardless of education level, 60% of home-based ECE workers live in households that make less than the national median and 75% of center-based staff earn less than $15 an hour. The ECE field also has high turnover rates and employees often receive insufficient benefits and health insurance options.
The impact that COVID-19 had on the ECE sector heightened disparities for all women. As a result of the pandemic, many ECE centers closed and reduced their capacity while coping with higher operating costs. Given that women make up the vast majority of the ECE workforce, the economic impact on this sector disproportionately affected them. In addition, the reduced availability of early childhood care and education services had a significant indirect impact on other women as they were more likely than men to drop out of the workforce or cut down their working hours to take up unpaid childcare responsibilities.
Any discussion of disparities in the ECE sector during the pandemic would be incomplete without mentioning the intersectional inequalities that women of color face. Black and Latina women are overrepresented in the ECE sector and are more likely to be underpaid. In addition, among ECE centers that remained partially open or recently opened/reopened, Black, Latina, and Native American ECE staff tested positive for COVID-19 at higher rates than their white co-workers and Black childcare businesses owners were more likely to report challenges keeping their business afloat during the pandemic.
The pandemic shed light into the critical role that ECE professionals, who are predominantly women, play in the healthy development of children as well as in the economic and social well-being of families. Recognizing and valuing the essential role of these professionals involves increasing public and private investment in the ECE sector, including supporting childcare business owners, and improving wages and benefits. The Urban Institute recently interviewed twenty experts in the ECE sector and outlined a concrete set of policy proposals to support ECE professionals, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. These reforms will be important steps toward combating racial inequities in the field and advancing women’s equality in the country.