Montreal·Out of the Dark

How the pandemic is having a disproportionate impact on women

Women, more likely to do more childcare in a household before the pandemic, report having more trouble balancing their family obligations with work during the pandemic.

Women are struggling to juggle their families, careers and personal well-being

Women are often the primary caregivers for children and elderly, according to Catherine Des Rivières-Pigeon, an expert in feminist studies and a professor in sociology at Université du Québec à Montréal. (Shutterstock)

After losing her mother and sister within a year, the pandemic left Valérie Collette with so much work that she started to see her own mental health as dispensable.

"I didn't take the time to make it fit in my routine," Collette says. "I just put it all on the back burner, and I'm like 'well eventually I'll take care of myself.'"

But as the months drag on, she still hasn't been able to find time to care for herself.

After her mother passed away, she became her father's caregiver, too. That's in addition to looking after her son, and her nephew whom she and her husband are in the process of adopting.

"A motherly, womanly instinct just took everything on," says Collette. "So everybody else went on top of the list: father, sister, children, spouse — and then my needs went completely at the bottom."

Socialization and the weight of the pandemic

Catherine Des Rivières-Pigeon has observed women taking on these roles as the primary caregivers of children and the elderly. She is a professor at the Université du Québec à Montréal's department of sociology, and an expert in feminist studies and psychology.

"Women are socialized to be the specialists of the needs of children. They acquire some kind of expertise by doing maternity work. And it's difficult for them to ask for someone else to do the job," says Des Rivières-Pigeon.

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She adds that certain measures that limit the spread of COVID-19 have also harmed women, barring them from receiving social support that is vital to mental health.

"Mothers of very young babies can usually count on the help of their own mothers, of their sisters, of some friends. Now, maybe they have a partner, but they're mostly alone, so that's really stressful and really difficult."

A report commissioned by the Association pour la Santé Publique du Québec and the Observatoire québécois des inégalités suggests that parents, especially mothers, are having trouble balancing their responsibilities.

The survey took place in Quebec during the first wave of the pandemic, with over 2,100 respondents. Forty-one per cent of mothers said they experienced difficulty balancing family and professional work, compared to 34 per cent of fathers.

It says that the closure of schools and daycares, in addition to the loss of sports and other activities, led to overworked parents who had less time to "provide for the needs of children."

The report adds that the impact of certain pandemic measures particularly hit mothers, "who already take on a larger share of domestic work and childcare at home."

Additional barriers for immigrant women

On top of these issues, certain groups of women, such as immigrants, experience additional barriers during the shutdown — navigating through an unfamiliar country during a public health emergency.

Isabelle Gelinas, the director of communications at the Y des femmes de Montréal (YWCA), says those who do not speak perfect French or English face additional challenges during the pandemic

"Now, everybody is having to work and do interviews on the phone or through Zoom. Language becomes another barrier," she says.

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Gelinas says this barrier affects access to information for some immigrant women. She pointed to the case of a pregnant woman in her organization who was unable to be accompanied by her partner to her medical appointments to act as an interpreter.

"When it's your first kid, it's so stressful and frightening. I cannot begin to understand how she went through this first pregnancy," she says.

Des Rivières-Pigeon says governments need to be careful of the restriction measures they choose, and realize that women and other minorities experience the pandemic differently.

"We don't want the inequalities to be bigger at the end of the pandemic, and I'm really afraid of that," says Des Rivières-Pigeon.

"Inequalities for women, for people of low socioeconomic status, of immigrants and so forth."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Shahroze Rauf is a journalist based in Montreal, originally from Toronto. You can contact him at shahroze.rauf@cbc.ca for tips and story ideas.

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