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MSU Research Shows Higher Financial, Stress Burden On Women During COVID-19

The COVID-19 pandemic took a bigger economic toll on women than men last spring, according to survey results from Montana, North Dakota, Colorado and Utah. The new findings from Montana State University researchers mirrors a national concern about equity in the workforce.

Megan Terry is a landscape architect in Billings. When the pandemic hit in mid March, she and her husband converted their guest bedroom into a home office where they could work remotely and help their kids with online learning.

“We had my son’s computer set up next to me, and then my daughter, we’d roll a chair in and set her up on the iPad with Duolingo or Peppa Pig or some learning apps for her age,” Terry said.

She said one of the biggest challenges last spring was never knowing whether her eight year old son would have one assignment that day or 20, which affected how much work she could get done.

“It was incredibly stressful because you were trying to keep up with work and your clients and trying to keep the kids going and try to maintain some normalcy in their lives, too, because all of a sudden they couldn’t go to their extracurriculars; they couldn’t see their friends,” Terry said.

In April, women in Montana, North Dakota, Colorado and Utah reported higher levels of stress and more impacts to their work than men. That’s according to a recently published paper written by Montana State University researchers that focused on gender without breaking down other demographic data from more than 2,000 participants in a survey.

At the time, Colorado and Montana had stay at home orders; North Dakota relied on individual responsibility and Utah had a “Stay Safe, Stay Home” directive from the governor but no official order.

The paper’s lead author, MSU Professor Amber Raile, said nearly 70 percent of the women surveyed said they were stressed, as opposed to half of the men.

“They’re worried about themselves, but they’re worried about other people; they’re worried about their communities and health care,” Raile said.

Higher percentages of women participants in the survey said they were worried about getting sick, about others getting sick or dying, the number of ICU beds and ventilators in the community, and an economic depression.

Raile said women were also harder hit financially last spring. Over 60 percent of women surveyed applied for unemployment benefits compared to a little less than half of the men. More women reported a loss of income, which could come from reduced hours or being laid off or furloughed.

When asked why there was a difference, Raile said we can look at what was happening across the U.S.

“What we tended to see at that point was, we were experiencing more layoffs in female based professions,” Raile said.

That is, certain jobs that have largely been filled by women, like early childcare providers, food service workers and home care aids, which cannot be done remotely.

A few months before the pandemic hit, women held slightly more jobs than men for the second time in U.S. history. Since February 2020, more than 5 million jobs held by women have been lost, compared to more than 4 million jobs held by men, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

“We also saw tradeoffs, which is something we talk about a lot in the paper," Raile said. "If you had kids who were all of a sudden at home, we saw maybe some women voluntarily leaving work because someone had to be home.”

Back in Billings, Megan Terry said she took a leave of work in the fall to homeschool her kids rather than have them do online learning again. She says it wasn’t hard to decide which parent would continue working since her husband is the breadwinner in the family.

“When push comes to shove, it will always be his job over mine, which is unfortunate, but that’s kind of how it plays out with our family,” Terry said, adding a lot of her friends made similar decisions based on the parent with the higher salary or the job that provides health insurance.

Terry said on one hand, the pandemic is what she and her family needed to slow down.

"On the other hand, I can say I’ve never had such bad anxiety, and I think part of that is because things have changed so fast. I think as humans, we like consistency, and we don’t like change. We like a certain predictability, and we don’t have that right now,” Terry said.

Several weeks ago, Terry’s life shifted again when both of her kids were able to return to the classroom. She’s working almost full time and says she now has the flexibility to work from home or the office.

MSU Professor Amber Raile said flexible work arrangements, paid parental leave and better benefits are some of the policies that could help create more equity moving forward. She said her team’s recent findings can be a starting point.

“I think it’s really important to collect this kind of data to move what can just seem like, ‘Oh, that’s just your experience,’ and to me, we have a real opportunity here.”