U-M professor panel discusses COVID-19 impact on women and children. Courtesy of Sarah Williams.

The University of Michigan’s Public Engagement and Impact initiative, housed within the Office of the Vice President for Communications, hosted a conversation Monday evening on the ways in which the pandemic has uniquely affected women.

The event, titled “Crucial Conversations: The Pandemic’s Disproportionate Impact on Women,” featured a panel of U-M professors from diverse areas of study to discuss the toll of the pandemic from the perspective of their fields, including economics, social work, education and research. 

Dr. Betsey Stevenson, professor of public policy and economics, moderated the event and kicked off the conversation with background information on why the pandemic and resulting recession have deeply affected women in particular. 

“This is our first ever service sector-led recession, and women hold more of the jobs in the service sector than men, so we just never had a recession before where women lost most of the jobs,” Stevenson said. “Typically, we see job loss in the goods-producing sector, even though it’s a small portion of the economy.”

The panelists then discussed how the recession has disproportionately affected low-income women and women of color. Education Professor Tabbye Chavous mentioned the 2020 Final Jobs Report from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, which found that the unemployment rate for women ages 20 and over more than doubled from February to December 2020. 

“Women of color face longer spells of unemployment, and the recent December 2020 jobs report showed that men gained 15,000 jobs while women lost 156,000,” Chavous said. “And further, but less publicized analyses show that white women gain jobs … while Black and Latino women made up the majority of losses. Again, coupled with the disproportionate deaths and sickness in their communities, which also require economic causes to incur economic and social consequences, women of color are more likely to be on those frontline jobs.”

Dr. Reshma Jagsi, professor of radiation oncology at Michigan Medicine, said the emotional burden placed on women in academia has made it more difficult for women to advance in their careers during the pandemic. 

“We have natural expectations that women will play caregiving roles in the workplace, so we know women are underrepresented in tenured and tenure track roles,” Jagsi said. “In academic medicine, we’re more represented on clinician educator tracks. In other academic fields, as you know, women are more represented in contingent positions. So when we saw education transform to a virtual environment basically overnight, and students experiencing tremendous stresses, guess who probably did the greater share of nurturing the students dealing with all of this?” 

Jagsi also stressed the need for better practices for promoting the academic careers of women by paying attention to diversity, equity and inclusion in the workforce. When asked about the regressive effects of COVID-19 on women, Jagsi noted that the pandemic not necessarily created new inequalities but has worsened existing ones.

“The pandemic has both illuminated and exacerbated many of the challenges that predated it,” Jagsi said. “That has led to gender inequity in academic medicine, and we really need to both study what’s going on and intervene and evaluate the impact of those interventions.”

Reiterating Jagsi’s point, Stevenson said that the women most hurt by the pandemic were those already at a disadvantage — especially women of color, women of lower socioeconomic status and single mothers. 

“It’s been a really, really tough year for lots of reasons,” Stevenson said. “But what I wanted to start with is frankly not privileged women like me who have had a really tough year, but what I showed in some of my research (is) that women who’ve been hardest hit in this pandemic have been lower income women and women of color, single moms. They’ve gotten the hit because they’ve lost most of the jobs. They had much higher unemployment rates.”

Shawna Lee, professor of social work, added that children are also vulnerable to the effects of the pandemic. Lee said child abuse and neglect is a particular worry, given that students have mostly been learning remotely and teachers may have a more difficult time picking up signs of neglect or abuse virtually. 

“When you put together the vulnerabilities that children have experienced and their parents have experienced during the pandemic —  with their lack of access to education, or lack of access to their peers — and then the fact that I’ve seen estimates of somewhere between one to 3 million kids might be permanently disconnected from education so not even getting online education, not even getting hybrid education, in essence, many kids have just disappeared altogether,” Lee said.

When asked about the potential long-term emotional effects of the pandemic on children, Lee said it is difficult to gather this data because children do not participate in these studies because they are often in the company of their parents due to remote learning. This poses a problem, Lee said, when trying to study children’s mental health.

“I think this is a really hard time for a lot of kids, and we just don’t know that much about it,” Lee said. “It’s hard to do research on children in a pandemic when we’re in isolation from them. I can ask (parents) about their child, but it’s filtered, their perspective about their child. I’ve seen no research that has really focused on children’s perspective of what’s actually happening to them during the pandemic because we just can’t. It’s pretty hard to figure how you would get that information.” 

Lee discussed findings on adult mental health, noting that mental health among adults has worsened as the pandemic has gone on.

“People were actually not reporting less symptoms over time,” Lee said. “It seems like it was actually worsening …  Basically, there’s been a three-fold increase of anxiety and depression among U.S. adults. So actually, it’s across the board. It’s moms. It’s men. It’s women. It’s pretty much a national phenomenon right now.”

Business junior Harika Kolluri, president of the University of Michigan chapter of Lean In, an organization promoting gender equality, told The Michigan Daily in an interview after the event that she is hopeful for the future of women in the workforce despite the obstacles. 

“I think it is good to have hope because if you have hope, then you’re able to have an impact or create some kind of change, whether it’s on campus, or in whatever field or space you’re trying to enter,” Kolluri said. “Through the different events that we put on and the panelists that we bring in, we do try to send that message of ‘You’re going to face obstacles, but here’s how so-and-so went through it’ and maybe you can learn something from that.”  

Kolluri also added that Lean In invited U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., to speak on her role as a female U.S. representative last semester, saying that her message resonated with many of the attendees that night.

“Last semester, we did a women in politics fireside where Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib came and spoke and some other prominent women in politics came and spoke as well,” Kolluri said. “That’s a field that most women tend to stay away from just because of how demanding it can be and how hard it can be to be somebody who’s constantly critiqued in the media or just by the general public. And so that was really cool because it felt very inspiring and these women were like, ‘Do what you want to do, don’t be afraid to do something. Fear shouldn’t necessarily hold you back.’”

Daily News Contributor Sarah Williams can be reached at smwi@umich.edu.