COVID-19 Is Exposing the Need for Permanent Structural Change

My hope is that women actually come out of this pandemic stronger than we went into it.

COVID-19 is Exposing the Need for Permanent Structural Change
“It’s time for all of us to take the lessons the pandemic has taught all of us and ensure that we never make the same mistake of leaving women behind, again,” writes Amanda Brown Lierman. (Wikimedia Commons)

The $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan Act will bring much-needed relief for women and families struggling in the pandemic with direct stimulus payments, funding for health care, and the largest investment in child care since World War II. It’s projected to lift 11 million people out of poverty, providing direct relief for 85 percent of American households. Mothers will benefit with the first-ever guaranteed income for families with children. This is not just relief; it’s progress.

If there’s one thing this pandemic has taught us, though, it’s that “back to normal” isn’t sufficient. Injustices and inequities that existed long before COVID-19 have been exposed—and conversations around how we can support women that may never have happened otherwise are finally started. This is a moment like none before, and we need permanent, structural change to reach full equity.

Without much of a choice, women stepped up and led in the pandemic. Women are 77 percent of essential health care workers, 76 percent of teachers, and over two-thirds of employees at grocery stores and fast food check-outs. Women juggled the realities of caring for others and keeping our communities going along with the responsibilities of caring for our own families, teaching our own children, and making impossible decisions about our own futures.

Far too many women—disproportionately Black, Latina, AAPI and Indigenous—were pushed out of the work force. Over 2.3 million women were driven out, including nearly a million mothers. A Lean In report last year found that one in four women considered downshifting or leaving their careers. And mothers of small children were uniquely impacted, losing jobs at three times the rate of fathers in one Pew analysis.

Why? Because of three injustices that this pandemic exacerbated—ones that need real, long-term policy solutions. First, the glaring lack of paid family leave in this country. Second, the responsibilities that caregivers are expected to shoulder. And third, the impossible task of supporting a family on minimum wage.

As a result of those injustices, women were driven from the work force at higher rates than men. It has all reached a heartbreaking conclusion: We’ve lost three decades of hard-fought gains in a single year. Women’s labor participation rate has dropped to a level not seen since 1988

Of course, there are women who still work full-time while caring for their families. But just because it appears that we can do it all, doesn’t mean we should have to—especially with very little support. For the millions of women in this country working for minimum wage, and for all of us who are caring for loved ones—old and young—during this pandemic: It’s exhausting.

Secretary Janet Yellen recently warned of “permanent scarring” from the pandemic on women. But the reality is, these scars existed long before COVID. The pandemic has laid bare fundamental truths about this country—and the heavy burdens that are always placed on women. The honest truth is that women, and particularly women of color, have not had the support we need, not by chance, but by design.

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For me, the silver lining has been that for the first time, I’m seeing the beginnings of a real conversation about how to make lasting change. I’m seeing politicians speak about the paid and unpaid work women do, and the resources needed to support us. I’m seeing an acknowledgment of the racial and economic barriers holding us back. I’m seeing relief. And I’m seeing this as a moment to organize for even more.

We need to come together and demand action. The solutions can’t be band-aid fixes—we must dismantle the structural barriers that have long disenfranchised the most marginalized among us. The American Rescue Plan Act took significant steps forward, yes; and women deserve even more.

We want a government that ensures a $15 minimum wage so that women don’t have to work multiple jobs to make ends meet. We need mandated paid family and sick leave in the U.S. so everyone can take time to care for themselves and their loved ones without the risk of losing their job. And families need permanent and affordable access to childcare.

Supermajority is organizing to fight for that progress. It’s time.

It’s time for all of us to take the lessons the pandemic has taught all of us and ensure that we never make the same mistake of leaving women behind, again. To our elected leaders, you have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to achieve not just women’s recovery, but our equality. There’s a coalition of women—a Supermajority in fact—who will make sure you get it done.

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Amanda Brown Lierman is the former executive director of Supermajority Education Fund, which helps build women’s power through research, education and leadership development programs that support women in growing their innate skills and making change in their communities. Lierman has also held roles with the Democratic National Committee and Rock the Vote.