“It’s time to invest in resilience” A conversation with Erin Maye Quade and Dr. Christina Ewig

Here at Gender Justice, we’re focused on opportunities for growth and renewal through a gender lens as we see more and more how the effects of COVID-19 are disproportionately hitting women, femmes, queer, trans, and non-binary folks across the country. One of the best ways to find new ideas is to reach out to our friends, and to our friends’ friends, for collaboration, expertise, and inspiration as we draw attention to the gendered impacts of a global pandemic.

This week our Advocacy Director, Erin Maye Quade, met with with Dr. Christina Ewig of the Humphrey School’s Center on Women, Gender, and Public Policy. Dr. Ewig is an expert on how policy-making can relieve or exacerbate existing gender inequalities, and has written several papers on the different ways COVID-19 has had gendered impacts – from straining frontline health care workers to highlighting the myriad ways care work goes uncompensated in our society.

Watch the video and read the transcript, below. If you enjoyed this conversation, please like or share on social media – or let us know what you’d like to hear us talk about next!

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EMQ: Great, well, my name is Erin Maye Quade. I’m the Advocacy Director at Gender Justice. We are a legal advocacy and policy non-profit that seeks to advance gender equity through the law. As COVID-19 reminds us, no matter the circumstances we are all connected across race, place gender, and issue, and that’s why we at gender justice are partnering with some amazing groups across Minnesota to host a twice weekly Greater Than Fear video series to better understand our connections and show what we can accomplish together – so tune into our Greater Than Fear video series about every Tuesday, Thursday – I know we’re coming to you live on Wednesday – and next we’ll be hearing from Isa at CTUL. So today we are joined with Dr. Ewig who is a professor at the Center on Women, Gender and Public Policy at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs. Dr. Ewig, thanks so much for being with us today.

CE: Thanks for having me Erin and I’m glad to be a part of this initiative

EMQ: Thank you well, we have been reading a lot of your really interesting work over at the Center on Women Gender and Public Policy, but before we get into this, just tell us a little bit about yourself.

CE: Sure, I’m a professor of Public Affairs, I lead up our concentration at the Humphrey School for Master Public Policy Students, on gender in public policy, so that means I teach students how to analyze public policies for what kinds of implications they have, for gender disparities. So whether it means analyzing the impact of a particular poverty law, or health care law and what that might impact women, men, non-binary folks in Minnesota or elsewhere, or thinking creatively about how we can design public policies that can address and serve to eliminate gender disparities. So that’s the kind of work I do and when I do it, and I wanna make sure that we understand as we talk that the way in which I approach my own research and the way in which I approach the teaching at Humphrey School is always to think about the ways in which gender interacts and intersects with other forms of inequality, because it’s gonna play out differently depending upon how it interacts with, with race or class or sexuality – a number of different kinds of inequalities that we face in our society.

EMQ: That’s great, so we have a lot of work then I think we can dig into and ask questions about. I’ve been doing a lot of reading on some of the papers you’ve put out particularly about COVID and masculinity, COVID and the rhetoric of war, and can you talk a little bit about what’s in those reports, and why you approached the gender analysis of COVID through these topics – War and  masculinity?

CE: Sure, so these were two essays that I wrote for a blog site that we run out of the Center on Women, Gender and public policy called the Gender Policy Report.

So the aim of the gender policy report is to take the scholarship that we’re producing in the academy and universities across the country, distill it into more accessible form, and translate it to broader publics. Because what we hope is that we can apply the research that’s being produced to help to solve some of the most difficult problems that we have as it relates to gender disparities.

So as the COVID crisis started to emerge, one of the things that I noticed was that when folks began to talk about gender disparities, they weren’t talking about men. Now, we’re seeing a little bit more being written on that, but the first essay I wrote was on masculinity and COVID-19 because the most striking thing to me when the crisis started to emerge was that the numbers that we were seeing – and that we still continue to see – are that men are dying at a much higher rate than women are, from COVID-19, and women are contracting the disease at the same rate, but men are dying more. So I wanted to look into this, what was the research? It was the background and what I found was that it may well be in part due to biological factors, but certainly, gender more social factors related to gender are likely also at play.

The biological has to do with the X chromosome and women having two X chromosomes, which provides a greater immunity, which is the most likely reason why we’re seeing some of these disparities, but we don’t know the balance between the biological and the social and masculinity may in fact be playing a role. That is men – masculinity runs along a continuum, individuals decide to what degree they feel compelled to act more masculine or more feminine, and that’s part of what gender is, but we see certain habits that in some country’s contexts, are more common among men. We certainly saw coming out of China from the beginning – one explanation for higher rates of death among men in China is being linked to higher rates of smoking. We also see greater rates of those individuals with underlying conditions like heart disease or greater use of alcohol, being elements that make them more predisposed to death from COVID-19.

And if we look at the literature on gender and masculinity we see that often there’s a certain stress that takes place among men and especially men of color, men of working class situations, where they feel more compelled to be playing out the expectations of being a strong bread winner, for example, and this can lead to stress and greater use of alcohol, greater disposition to smoke in some contexts. And so we may be actually seeing, even though the chain is fairly long, but links between pressures to be more masculine and act in masculine – what society thinks of as masculine ways – leading to the underlying conditions that make men more predisposed to death from COVID-19. So these are some of the results of that research that I did.

The second piece on gender, The War on COVID is more focused on the institutional level rather than the individual. So that piece I was struck by the degree to which a lot of the rhetoric that we see every day in the news is about waging a war against the COVID-19 pandemic. So, my thought was that on the one hand, it’s important to see this is a grave crisis, that we need to address. It’s also important to be seeing many of those essential workers, especially the first responders and healthcare workers that are the front lines of this crisis as heroes. we’re beginning to see more and more of that talk in the public and in the press. But we have a long-standing problem in which we haven’t been treating our healthcare workers with the same kinds of protective supplies, the same kinds of budgets, the same kinds of pay, that we have other kinds of first responders, and other parts of our society, whether in this case, in this particular essay, I compare it to the military. We could also make comparisons to firefighters, but what we see is a line running through these disparities is the fact that the healthcare labor force in the United States is 70% female, and for a very long time, has been underpaid, in comparison to similar kinds of jobs that are not feminine, occupations care-based occupations that are a large percentage of women working in those occupations.

EMQ: Yeah, you mentioned in your paper, you talked about firefighters, versus medical assistance can you talk a little bit about that? Because there was a statistic in there that was particularly startling and it was the occupational hazard rate or the occupational – yeah, the danger, right?

CE: Right, so if we think about, so I chose to compare medical assistants and firefighters in part because both are similar kinds of education that are required, technical education is required for both positions, but one happens to be a front line worker right now in our healthcare crisis and we can think about fire fighters being frontline workers especially, I think during 911 period. But if we look at their injury rates you might think, well firefighters would have a higher injury because it is quite dangerous, when in fact, when we look at the statistics by the Bureau of Labor Statistics medical assistants have a seven times greater occupational injury rate than firefighters do. So you  have to think about the physical labor and physical stress that goes along with moving people that is an essential part of a medical system’s job.

EMQ: And what’s the pay disparity between the two?

CE: So the pay if you look at the – the pay disparity in that, or say, actually compare medical assistants to privates in the army so when we look at a military first responders and medical assistants, the pay is pretty similar, but when we think about all of the additional benefits that military personnel get, there’s quite a disparity because members of the military receive subsidies for housing, they receive subsidies for food and you don’t see those for medical assistants.

EMQ: So that’s really interesting and that really struck me when you’re talking about it. I would never have guessed that medical assistants have higher rates of occupational hazards than firefighters, but then you think about yes, moving people and then certainly now in hospitals, just the way that they’re near patients who are sicker, they’re exposing themselves more frequently to a very lethal virus.

So moving on to the gendered impact on the ground, it’s straining healthcare workers and caregivers who are largely women, female identifying, but gender is present when we’re talking about our whole approach to this crisis. So how do you see gender impacting the responses to the pandemic at the state or the national levels?

CE: I think you can see it in a number of different ways, probably a multitude of ways that we could talk for hours about, but I think about gender at three different levels.

I think one level of being individual, and I talked a little bit about that already, in terms of male behaviors, whether smoking, drinking or, I didn’t mention also resistance to going to see the doctor.

EMQ: Or hand washing

CE: Or hand washing – and do not do that, wash their hands. And part of this is like the idea – Well, I’m resilient, and I’m strong so I don’t need to do these things. That it’s sort of a reaction that has been inculcated in our society among men and boys.

Now, when we think about the individual level response, I think we can see, and I think this is the kind of thing that the research is still there to be done, but we’re beginning to see reporting showing really vastly different reactions, among national leaders – men and women – to the crisis. And I think very much, and I don’t wanna be essentialist about this, saying men do this and women do that, but I do think if we think about the range of ways people adhere to ideas of femininity or masculinity, and there’s a range with the people, whether male female, or non-binary of how we react to those cues in our society, I think the ways in which leaders understand the crisis is often through their own gender understanding of an individual level, whether they think that we can tough it out, that this disease is not going to be — minimize the effects of the disease– versus having a more protective stance, in relationship to it.

So I think there are probably ways in which individual ideas about gender are affecting the way in which our leaders at state and national levels are responding.

The other way I like to think about gender is the fact that it’s interrelational, it’s not just about how you as an individual interpret the signals society is sending you, and decide to act in particular ways. We create it in the ways in which we interact and there are two contexts where I think those interrelations are really important right now, under COVID-19: the family and the workplace. And of course state and national policy makers can do things in relationship to those contexts, but in those contexts, families are making decisions about when the kids are sent home from school and suddenly you’re making three meals a day, not just two meals a day in the household and there’s more housework to take care of. Who within the family is taking the lion’s share of that work, right? So there’s decisions about who is doing the care work, within the household, that are made inter-relationally between individuals and household. And too often I would guess that what we’re seeing is more women within families, taking on a greater share of that care responsibility because we already know that that’s what happens prior to the crisis, so we’re likely to be seeing a perpetuation of patterns that have been started before it.

Same in the workplace. So I think there’s a big inter-relational question here of how employers are going to respond to employees – those that still have jobs – that are balancing a double workload. I’ve taken care of families while carrying out their work. So will there be any flexibility in terms of productivity when that next performance review comes around? So that’s a relational level that I think that state in national policies also need to be attuned to. How do we not ignore the fact that an enormous amount of care that used to be being taken care of in schools and cafeterias and childcare centers is not happening anymore, but is happening within the household, and the kind of stress that it might be creating on households, but also, in particular individuals more so than others, within households. How can state and national policy encourage employers to think creatively about how to deal with the expectations of employment under this kind of crisis situation?

So I think really gender also, the third level I would talk about is really the institutional level, the way in which gender over the long-term through a variety of different practices – structures our society, structures our economy, and that’s really where state and national policy makers can step in and try to generate policies that can address these disparities that we’re seeing, whether it is of disparities care work or whether it is also other disparities that we’re also seeing in the economy in particular, as a result of this crisis. So far, we’re seeing and this may change over time, but so far we’re seeing more unemployment, claims by women than men, for example, and we are seeing more women, as we’ve talked, about on the front lines of dealing with most dangerous work, in relationship to the crisis. So those kinds of outcomes, the outcomes that we’re seeing likely will build upon some long-term structural gender disparities that have been evident and policies need to be ready to try to not allow those to be reinforced, but rather seek to shift them for greater equality.

EMQ: Yeah, and I do wanna dig into those policies, but I think it’s really important to talk about here, these two distinct realities are emerging for women in particular women of color in the workforce. We have the greatest job losses going to women who are working in the service sector. I think we have one in five white women in Minnesota work in the service sector, one in three Latina women, and then compared to 13% of men. But then you also have essential workers in that I think 73% of the healthcare workers that are getting sick from coed or women, and I think 70% percent or so of the healthcare professionals are women so when you think about who is doing the work, who is most impacted it’s two distinct realities, both of them harmful, how can policy leaders respond to those two distinct realities knowing that we kinda have a “both-and” going on there.

CE: Yeah, I think it to back up a little bit — that service a sector part, what’s so important about it is the fact that it’s gender and racialized at the same time, so it’s many more women in the service sector but especially women of color in the service sector and the service sector is lower paid compared to – generally speaking – than other sectors of the economy and also is the area where we’re least likely to see benefits. Things like sick leave, things like healthcare, more likely to have people working part-time, a number of part-time jobs and not having full benefits. And those are the people losing the jobs.

So we’re seeing this disparate impact on women of color who already don’t have the social supports, whether it’s paid sick time, or healthcare to manage the crisis and are already be paying low wages, so we can assume likely having very low savings rates, because of having lower wages, we already have lower wages. We can look at it along the color line and see it go down depending from a white woman, compared to African-American, Latina, and Native American in fact in Minnesota, it’s Somali women that make the least of any women in our workforce. So that’s the backdrop of those women that are losing their jobs, they’re already in the most precarious financial situation, so they’re least likely to be able to weather a crisis like this and come out of it okay, and of course healthcare workers, the one part are also a service sector, but are the one part of that are maintaining maintaining their jobs, for the most part, but some those that are inessential are not actually maintaining their jobs. So a dentist offices are closed right, and 95% of dental hygienists are women and are not working right now, so there’s also a mix within the health care sector.

So your question was what could state policy makers do? I think they are so far doing taking some important steps for short-term changes or short-term support I should say, but I do think it’s important that we step back and think about what kind of opportunity this crisis presents to make some longer term changes to deal with the fact that our service sector is a precarious workforce so that when we come to the next crisis, we aren’t facing the same kinds of issues once again.

EMQ: Yeah, I think that’s important, ’cause I do think a lot about how for some people, this is the first time they’ve faced the, “Can I pay the rent or mortgage? Can we afford the food? Are we making ends meet, do we have healthcare?” and then for a whole host of people that is an ongoing every month every week, issue, and there’s often movements to lift that up and get law makers, policymakers to respond to it. And so often it’s like well, we don’t have enough money, or maybe another time. And then when it includes more people in different people, then all of a sudden there’s urgency and I worry about some of the problems that we solve doing that same thing – solving just enough to get people who make money or people who have means to be comfortable again and then not worry about those who are more impacted by this crisis because they were already struggling without a safety net in the first place.

So I wanna pivot a little bit to talk about rolling back human rights under the like, “collective sacrifice, guys.” We’ve seen multiple things happen and reproductive rights just today or yesterday there was an announcement that they’re suspending all immigration. Can you talk about the responses in that kind of rights realm that have had a gendered impact? Whether people are using this pandemic as a reason to roll back, right or further an agenda or saying, “Well this is the sacrifice that must be made for our survival?”

CE: Yeah, I think we are seeing a number of examples. I think the restrictions on abortion in a number of states seeing abortion as a non-essential service that needs to be ended, during the time of crisis is one example of a political move because as we all are aware, one can’t delay abortion if one needs an abortion. So that to me is clearly taking advantage of the political crisis to further political ends or rather the healthcare crisis to for their political ends, that serve other purposes and not actually addressing the current crisis that we have now.

A lot of medical abortion is a prescription drug-based and so it doesn’t actually place a high amount of pressure on our healthcare services and compete with COVID-19 patients. So that would be one example. I do think the immigration announcement today is another example that does not align with – presumably we could open our borders to normal immigration as we open our states to – and normal economy, this is part of a separate agenda by this President and what is perhaps ironic about it is the degree to which we do depend upon immigrants for important parts of our healthcare system. So, in some ways, that opposes some of the needs that we have at the moment.

The third policy that I noticed that I found a bit troubling though, I understand the need of farmers across the country, but there’s been pressure to actually reduce farm worker wages which has been farmers saying that they need a financial relief, but those regulations of farm worker wages were in order to not have immigrants in particular, taking low wage jobs, from potentially US workers. So these kinds of things are actually contradictory policies that seem to be taking advantage of the situation to limit rights and freedoms. Yeah, and that is a danger I think we all need to be aware of other possibilities like this of taking advantage of this crisis for other means.

EMQ: Yeah, and I think, too, about Idaho passed a bill or a law that discriminates against trans student athletes. And it was right at the… Everyone was starting to shelter in place, the Idaho Legislature thought like, this is, this is the thing we must do. And knowing how important it is for young people to be involved in team building activities and staying active and doing those kinds of things, to really target those students was particularly horrible.

So I think we’re gonna wrap up, I think the last question I have for you and you can end it too, if there’s anything I didn’t ask or anything you wanted to say but what would you say to lawmakers who are writing policies right now? I think this pandemic has shined a light on a lot of the places that we need to shore up in Minnesota and at least turned our attention to places that we can fix and make some policy about. But what are some of the things you would say to lawmakers?

CE: The biggest thing I would say is that it’s time to invest in resilience. I think that if there’s one thing that this crisis is showing us, it is showing the degree to which we have deep, deep inequalities within this country whether gender or race or class, and it’s showing the damage that those inequalities are doing to our resilience long-term, so shoring up our resilience as a nation in terms of facing another  crisis of this sort will require investment, instead of austerity. So investment in basic – I think going for universal social policies of the nature of sick leave for everyone, for example, that’s paid, should be an obvious, obvious policy choice coming out of this crisis, including other things that now I think we should be as conservative such as universal healthcare, right?

This is a radical idea, apparently, in the presidential campaign, but now we see how much of a strain and how needed universal health care is for individuals when we talk about providing free testing, that should be basic. Everybody should be getting free testing. So thinking in a way about investing in resilience in our next policy steps is what I think we need to take this crisis forward and making it into something that ultimately has some positive ends.

EMQ: I love that and I agree with you. I always struggled with the idea of what is radical. IF everyone having healthcare is radical then like, wow that’s wild! Well, I thank you so much, you for being with us. So for everyone else out there, now you’re probably wondering what action you can take so you can check out Genderjustice.us for action on the specific issues that we’ve talked about today, you can also check out the collective response, that’s going on at MNcovidresponse.com. You can also check out the Center for Women, Gender and Public Policy, the University of Minnesota because essays and research are coming out all the time, so tune in on Friday for Isa at CTUL, where they’re gonna be talking to some workers who’ve been laid off and about their experience now during COVID. So thank you so much for joining us, everyone and we’ll see you here on Friday.

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