I had planned to attend the U.S. presidential inauguration this year with my god-daughters – ages 17 and 9 – but the global pandemic and Capitol insurrection made that impractical.
They would have worn their pearls and marveled at the inspirational women who took the stage that day and paid tribute to trailblazers who had a role in making the historic inauguration possible: Barbara Jordan, Fannie Lou Hamer, Shirley Chisholm and Ruth Bader Ginsburg to name just a few.
As with all things in these times, events and harsh realities of a pandemic and insurrection disrupted the best of plans, and our inauguration celebration was virtual.
International Women’s Day (March 8) this year comes at a time when the COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted far more than family gatherings and plans to attend public events – globally, the pandemic has claimed nearly 2.6 million lives to date.
The pandemic has disproportionately affected populations that face systemic and institutional barriers and discrimination, such as, in the United States, communities of color and those living in poverty.
While vaccination availability and rates increase in our own country, providing hope for better days ahead, there are inequities in vaccine access in our own nation (including in my city of Washington, DC) and even more so globally.
For women, the pandemic has presented particular challenges.
Reports of domestic violence against women and children – “a pandemic within a pandemic” – have increased both in the U.S. and internationally, as periods of stress and isolation are key tools of abusers.
At the outset of the pandemic, there were a number of states that sought to restrict women’s access to reproductive health care during the pandemic, deeming it “non-essential,” and even federal policies have restricted access.
It is perhaps fitting that while International Women’s Day was first observed by the United Nations on March 8, 1975, the origins of the day are found decades earlier in the women’s labor and suffrage movements in the United States and other countries.
According to the National Women’s Law Center, in the US, female workforce participation has declined to 57% — the lowest level since the 1980s — with women of color being disproportionately impacted.
Industries in which women hold the majority of jobs, such as clothing retail, gift and department stores, have been some of the hardest hit by the pandemic.
Recent projections have estimated that women in the U.S. may not fully recover until 2024 – two years after men.
Some reports indicate that among the women most affected by these setbacks are those in senior leadership roles. As a result of enhanced family roles and workplace challenges, they are experiencing unprecedented levels of stress and leaving or considering leaving the workforce.
This type of exodus has an impact on overall workforce issues such as mentorship and sponsorship of a diverse workforce, as data shows that senior women in leadership tend to be more likely to sponsor and mentor historically unrepresented people in the workforce.
Women who prior to the pandemic did not work outside the home are also not immune to the pandemic’s enhanced challenges and stress, as depression rates among this population are reaching crisis levels.
The theme of this International Women’s Day is “Choose to Challenge.”
While it would be easy to attribute the setbacks that women have experienced during this time solely to the pandemic, this day calls us to challenge that oversimplified explanation and look at the realities prior to COVID-19.
Even prior to the global crisis, there was a stress gap between women and men – with women doing three times more unpaid domestic labor than men.
In the United States, the high expense associated with childcare, lack of access to paid parental leave, unequal distribution of household work and other systemic challenges disproportionately affected women and especially women of color.
There continues to be a wage gap between men and women for equal work. And laws that seek to achieve basic rights for women – such as the Violence Against Women Act and Equal Rights Amendment – continue to face substantial opposition.
It is, therefore, unsurprising that adding the stress of a global pandemic to an already precarious system has created such substantial setbacks.
We must resist the temptation to attribute all of the challenges and regressed strides that women are facing now to the onset of an unprecedented pandemic.
We must choose to challenge both the preexisting culture and structures that made our progress so vulnerable in the first place and the notion that the crisis of gender inequity affects only women and girls.
Achieving a more equitable world is important for our daughters – and our sons.
We know that gender inequity harms not only women but also communities, families and society, and that everyone benefits when women lead and contribute.
On International Women’s Day, may we be motivated to ask the hard questions and to choose to challenge the societal, cultural and political structures that prevent us from realizing an equitable world.
Our children have already faced enough disruption during this time of pandemic, and it is now time to dream – and work – toward a gender equal world.
A lawyer in Washington, DC, Perryman lives with her husband and five-year-old son. She presently serves as general counsel and chief legal officer of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, the nation’s leading organization of physicians dedicated to serving women and is also an instructor in American University’s Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Program. The views expressed in this column are her own and not her employers’. She is a member of the Good Faith Media advisory council for news and opinion.