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Gender, risk perceptions, and care work during the COVID-19 pandemic

By: Janani Umamaheswar and Catherine Tan

The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed striking gender differences in responses to the virus, with men expressing greater reluctance to adopt precautionary strategies such as mask-wearing. Additionally, women are sustaining disproportionate harms during the pandemic as they become more deeply entrenched in domestic responsibilities following school and daycare closures. In an effort to make sense of how men and women are experiencing the same pandemic differently, we explored men’s and women’s attitudes toward the risks associated with COVID-19.

Drawing on three waves of interviews with 45 college students (including, where possible, members of their families) for a total of 120 interviews conducted over a 16-week period between April and July 2020, we found that men and women share remarkably similar perceptions of the risks of contracting COVID-19, yet they differ drastically in their attitudes toward these risks. Women expressed fear and emotional distress when discussing the risks of COVID-19, while men’s attitudes toward these risks were much more relaxed and cavalier.

Hegemonic masculinity has been a popular explanation for why some men are neglecting COVID-19 precautionary measures. We argue, however, that these gender differences in attitudes toward COVID-19 risks are explained by women’s disproportionate shouldering of care work during the pandemic. Men’s dismissive attitudes and responses to COVID-19 are thus less a reflection of their efforts to appear “tough” and “strong,” and more a reflection of their psychological and social distance from the unique and burdensome care work responsibilities that have emerged during the pandemic.

Perceptions of, and attitudes toward, the risks associated with COVID-19: Our findings showed that men and women in comparable circumstances assessed similar levels of risk for contracting COVID-19. For instance, participants (regardless of gender) who were staying at home perceived lower levels of risk than those who were working outside the home. Despite these similarities, there were important gender differences in how men and women responded to these risks. Men in our sample reported following basic public health recommendations (by washing their hands and limiting social contact, for example), but they simultaneously expressed a relaxed approach toward disease prevention, diminishing the seriousness of COVID-19 by describing precautionary strategies as “annoying” or “outlandish.” In sharp contrast, women in our sample described a steadfast commitment to taking these strategies seriously, emphasizing the collective significance of these strategies. As one woman in our sample commented, “you should take precautions for everybody else.”

Gender, care work, and attitudes toward the risks of COVID-19: Despite the fact that the majority of women in our sample were unmarried and childless, our findings revealed that these participants were bearing the brunt of domestic care work during the COVID-19 pandemic. Although much of the emerging research has focused on mothers’ struggles during the pandemic, our findings thus highlight that the gendered burdens of care work are not limited to wives and mothers. As new care work burdens (such as childcare and homeschooling) are added to existing ones (such as cooking and cleaning), women in our sample expressed exhaustion, fear, and anxiety. Men in our sample, on the other hand, remained relatively unburdened by care work, as their mothers, sisters, and/or grandmothers managed these responsibilities on their behalf. These differences in care work burdens in turn shaped participants’ attitudes toward the risks of COVID-19. While women expressed significant distress about the possibility of contracting COVID-19 themselves and transmitting it to family members for whom they were responsible, men’s distance from significant care work responsibilities protected them from such feelings of distress. Importantly, the few men in our study who reported having care responsibilities shared the anxieties and precautionary strategies described by our women participants.

For both men and women, pandemic-related anxieties are thus rooted in a sense of responsibility toward others, but women experience these anxieties much more intensely than do men precisely because they carry a disproportionate share of the novel care work responsibilities precipitated by the pandemic. These findings suggest that the absence of care work responsibilities—rather than efforts to conform to a narrow, toxic model of masculinity—may better explain men’s dismissive attitudes toward COVID-19. Perhaps most importantly, they reveal the public health risks we collectively incur because of men’s exemption from care work responsibilities generated by the COVID-19 pandemic, and they therefore point to the importance of encouraging men to share in these responsibilities.

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