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An outdoor furniture manufacturer flipped its manufacturing floor to sew personal protective equipment in Alsip, Illinois.
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The “women’s work” of the pandemic

Who sews the masks? How women are shouldering the burden of pandemic preparedness.

Megan Piontkowski started with a batch of 32. A freelance artist and illustrator out of work due to the pandemic, she found out through a friend that a Brooklyn hospital needed fabric masks for workers amid a shortage of personal protective equipment. Piontkowski already had some fabric on hand and a sewing machine she’d used for her art, so she got to work.

She washed the fabric, stitched masks, washed them again, and hung them to dry while wearing a mask herself, then drove them to the hospital. She went through the whole process twice, donating the materials and about 35 hours of her time. She asked if the hospital would pay for the masks, but was told they had no money.

“I felt very mixed about it,” she told Vox. She knew the hospital needed masks badly. But at the same time, “I’m out of work and I’m being asked to donate them.”

The fact that she wasn’t compensated for sewing highly necessary items felt like a case of “traditional ‘women’s work’ not being valued,” Piontkowski said.

While larger companies have begun mass-producing cloth masks in recent weeks, much of the work of making the protective garments, especially in the early stages of the pandemic, was done at home — often by women. That gender breakdown is continuing in some volunteer efforts — about 85 percent of the around 70 volunteers sewing masks for the New York City-based group Face Mask Aid, for example, are women. A search of Facebook reveals multiple groups for moms who want to make masks — but no clearly comparable groups for dads.

Sarah Miller and Jay Diengott are part of a group of artist who are manufacturing masks, face shields, and gowns for hospitals near Somerville, Massachusetts.
Nancy Lane/MediaNews Group/Boston Herald

And masks are only part of the story. The demands of daily life during the coronavirus pandemic are many, from shopping for food amid shortages and virus fears to caring for children when schools and day cares are closed. And in many cases, women are the ones figuring out how to meet those new demands. Women are “describing feeling an inordinate amount of expectations that have been placed on their shoulders in this pandemic,” Sinikka Elliott, a sociology professor at the University of British Columbia and a co-author of the book Pressure Cooker: Why Home Cooking Won’t Solve Our Problems and What We Can Do About It, told Vox.

For some, those expectations can include making masks for family, friends, or front-line workers. Others are trying to take care of kids and manage their online school schedules — tasks that, experts say, are likely to fall disproportionately to women in many households. Others still are working outside the home as essential workers but shouldering care responsibilities when they get home.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Some say the pandemic, with more men working from home and seeing firsthand the labor that goes into tasks like cooking and educating children, has the potential to reset gender norms. “The pandemic is potentially sparking new conversations about divisions of labor,” Jill Yavorsky, a sociology professor at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte, told Vox.

But those conversations will only happen on a national scale if we actually pay attention to the people doing the sewing, cooking, and child care right now and value their work accordingly.

Many of the people making protective masks for others right now are women

The history of mask-wearing in the US during the coronavirus pandemic is already a complex one. As the virus spread around the world in February and March, US officials told Americans that healthy people did not need to wear masks in public. But in April, the CDC began recommending that everyone wear a cloth mask in certain public settings, and some places, like New York State, made mask-wearing mandatory.

By early April, however, millions of Americans were living under shelter-in-place orders and told to limit trips outside the home. On April 4, the White House warned Americans to try to avoid even the grocery store. There was also a nationwide shortage of personal protective equipment that made masks hard to purchase, even for hospitals and health care workers.

The result: Many people needed masks, and one of the only ways to get one was to make it at home or get someone to make it for you. That’s where women came in.

“Anecdotally, everybody I’ve known who’ve made masks are women,” Margaret M. Chin, a sociology professor at Hunter College and the author of Sewing Women: Immigrants and the New York City Garment Industry, told Vox.

NorthCape, an outdoor furniture manufacturer in Illinois, called back their skilled workforce and transitioned their factory from making furniture cushions to making PPE.
Scott Olson/Getty Images

Sewing masks requires materials — fabric, thread, and ideally a sewing machine — that women may be more likely to have on hand than men are. And in general, the skill of sewing tends to be passed down from mothers to daughters, Chin said. “Men don’t learn it because they’ve always believed that it’s a skill for women, and it’s always been paid very low wages.”

While some people made masks for family and friends, others have been volunteering through groups like Face Mask Aid, which was started in March and has distributed more than 6,400 masks to health care workers, firefighters, transit workers, and others. It’s not a surprise that many of the volunteers making masks have been women, many say. “Whenever there’s an emergency in the United States, women have always been called to make or create things,” Chin told Vox.

For example, after the 1906 earthquake in San Francisco, “women started coming together with other women and basically made impromptu soup kitchens right on the spot,” said Joslyn Brenton, a sociology professor at Ithaca College and a co-author of Pressure Cooker.

Even in normal times, women are more likely to volunteer than men are. And with social distancing guidelines making many types of in-person volunteering difficult, sewing masks is something people can still do — provided they have the skills and materials to do it.

But it’s not just volunteer work that’s often dominated by women. An increasing number of companies are pivoting to manufacture cloth masks during the pandemic, and the workers doing the sewing are likely to be those who typically do garment work in the US, Chin said: Asian American and Latinx immigrant women. Those women are on the front lines of the pandemic in many ways, Chin said, leaving their homes daily to make essential goods. But garment work in America is overwhelmingly low-wage work.

“It takes quite a high amount of skill to sew a mask,” Chin said, explaining that sewers have to know how to put in elastic, fold the fabric properly, and lay it out so that it falls correctly on the wearer’s face when assembled. But “I think because it’s been looked at as women’s work, it’s been devalued.”

The pandemic is changing how families shop and eat. Women are likely to bear the brunt of those changes.

Sewing isn’t the only form of labor that’s been affected by the pandemic. The spread of the virus has also changed the way many Americans feed themselves. With restaurants closed around the country, many people who might once have eaten out are now cooking all or most of their meals at home. And women may be bearing the brunt of that increase in meal preparation.

Women already spend more time cooking at home than men do — in one 2016 study, the average woman spent 50 minutes on cooking a day, while the average man spent 20. And while it’s too early for data on how families are feeding themselves during the pandemic, it’s likely that the increased demands of cooking every day will fall disproportionately on women as well.

That’s especially true because it’s not just about chopping, stirring, and sautéing. “The cognitive labor of getting food on the table has increased,” Sarah Bowen, a sociology professor at North Carolina State University and co-author of Pressure Cooker, told Vox. Shortages of staples like flour mean it can be harder to find everything a family needs, and public health officials have advised people to minimize shopping trips in order to limit exposure to the virus, meaning shoppers have to get everything they need in one weekly or biweekly trip.

Volunteers at a food pantry in Bloomington, Indiana, distribute food to 179 local families.
Jeremy Hogan/Echoes Wire/Barcroft Media via Getty Images

And previous research shows that women take on more of the cognitive labor of household work — things like keeping a grocery list in their head — than men do, Bowen said. That kind of labor “is very, very gendered, even in situations where people might divide the physical tasks a bit more evenly.” In particular, research shows that women do more of the work of anticipating a family’s needs — knowing, for example, when the household is about to run out of toilet paper — than men do.

The demands of shopping and cooking during the pandemic likely fall especially hard on low-income women. Poor families often “don’t have enough money to have a pantry that’s very well stocked,” Bowen said, “which makes it all the more precarious when the store runs out of milk or eggs.”

And while some workers, many of them white-collar, are able to work from home during the pandemic and may have some flexibility in their schedules to shop and prepare meals, essential workers often don’t have that luxury. Some of those essential workers spend their days making sure others can eat, sometimes at the cost of their own safety. In particular, more than two-thirds of cashiers at grocery stores and fast food restaurants are women, Brenton said. These workers are in a vulnerable position, sometimes asked to work in crowded stores without proper protective equipment.

Historically, “women have been doing the majority of the work of feeding families and feeding other people,” Brenton said. And that work is now more difficult, and sometimes more dangerous, than ever.

With schools and day cares closed, women are likely to take on more child care

While the pandemic has changed how families feed themselves, it may have brought an even greater change in how they care for children. With schools and day cares closed around the country, many for the rest of the academic year, millions of children nationwide are now home with their parents all day. For many families, that means juggling child care and supervising online classes while working, whether it’s done from home or elsewhere as an essential worker.

As with cooking, there’s no clear data yet on how families are splitting up child care during the pandemic. But based on previous research, it’s possible to make some predictions. In heterosexual couples, “many of the gendered routines will likely spill over during the pandemic, which means that women are likely still doing a greater proportion of housework and child care,” said Yavorsky, who studies how families divide work.

That’s especially likely to be true in cases where the woman’s income is lower than the man’s, Yavorsky said. Given the uncertain economic outlook, families may choose to protect the man’s job at the cost of the woman doing more child care. For women, “if they are not the breadwinners, they may see an even greater deprioritization of their career,” Yavorsky said.

The picture could be different in some families, especially if the mother is working away from home as an essential worker, Yavorsky said. “If women, many of whom are on the front lines, are at work, men inevitably will spend more time doing child care.”

Parents are taking on the role of educators now that schools are closed due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Leila Navidi/Star Tribune via Getty Images

But for a lot of women, the pandemic could worsen existing inequalities holding them back in the job market. And there’s already evidence that women’s careers may be taking a hit. Editors of some academic journals are noticing a decline in submissions by female scholars, according to the Lily. One analysis of astrophysics paper submissions found that women’s productivity loss in recent months was up to 50 percent greater than men’s.

Unequal division of household labor during the pandemic could harm women’s long-term career prospects, Yavorsky said. What happens during this time could “position them to be less likely to get the next promotion, or less likely to get a wage increase.”

Meanwhile, the workers who used to provide child care while parents worked outside the home are now either out of work or risking exposure to continue working, often without adequate sick leave or health insurance. The National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA), which represents home care workers, house cleaners, and nannies, found in a survey that as of April 6, 72 percent of such workers were unemployed.

Those who are still working are often providing child care for the families of essential workers or home care for older adults or people with chronic illnesses. Home care workers, in particular, “are the only ones who are able to ensure that those people are staying safe, healthy, and staying out of our overburdened health care system,” Ai-Jen Poo, executive director of the NDWA, told Vox.

These workers are overwhelmingly female — more than 90 percent of domestic workers are women, Poo said, and the workforce is disproportionately women of color. And the majority are caring for their own children or other family members in addition to the people they care for at their jobs.

But domestic workers are typically not prioritized for Covid testing, often lack health insurance, and often earn “literally poverty wages” — an average of $16,000 a year for home care workers, Poo said. “When you think about what people are risking to keep us safe and keep this country together and what level of insecurity they’re living with right now, it’s really devastating.”

The pandemic could lead to a reckoning on “women’s work.” But only if we let it.

Across the board, women seem to be doing a disproportionate share of the work to keep people safe, fed, and cared for during this pandemic. And they’re often doing it without proper recognition or compensation. But, experts say, there’s also a chance for the pandemic to usher in a larger reckoning around the gendered division of labor in homes and in society.

“Some gender scholars are arguing that this pandemic may create the opportunity for men and women in heterosexual families to both gain more awareness of how much is involved in managing a household and raising children,” Elliott, the Pressure Cooker co-author, said. That could be an opportunity for couples to negotiate a fairer balance.

But for that to happen, “communication is really key,” Yavorsky said. “Couples need to come together and discuss all of the detailed tasks that need to get done for a day and try to allocate them as evenly as possible.”

Nurses protest against the lack of personal protection equipment in front of the White House on April 21.
Nicholas Kamm/AFP via Getty Images

And on a broader societal level, the work of caring for others needs to be valued as the essential labor that it is, advocates say. The NDWA is backing the Essential Workers Bill of Rights, which would provide domestic workers and others on the front lines with paid sick and family leave, hazard pay, and PPE, among other protections. Beyond that, domestic workers also need a living wage and health insurance, Poo said. “It is about ensuring and shoring up the safety net and access to quality jobs with benefits for this workforce that has historically been left behind.”

It’s also time to place a higher value on the work of sewing masks, many say. “Each one can take half an hour or an hour or even more to craft,” Chin said. “Why wouldn’t you pay somebody $40 for that?”

For Piontkowski, compensation is also key to making the work of sewing masks feel less exploitative. She heard of one volunteer who was asked to donate masks to a large grocery store — and while the workers there may not be able to afford the masks, she believes the store itself probably could. “They have money — they should just pay people,” Piontkowski said. “It seems pretty basic, but it is hard to get people to think about it that way.”

Overall, it’s laudable that women have often stepped up in times of crisis to use their skills and help others. But that willingness to pitch in shouldn’t be taken for granted, many say. Instead, we need to be asking questions as a society about the work of caring, cooking, and sewing for others during the pandemic, Elliott said — questions like, “is it visible as work that’s necessary to support communities?” and “is it being recognized as such, and in what ways?”

For Yavorsky, the pandemic has the potential to “expose a lot of the invisible work that many women shoulder” and to encourage society to value that labor more highly. “I am hopeful,” she said, “but I think it’s going to take a lot of hard work.”

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