The World Health Organization declared the coronavirus (“COVID-19”) outbreak a global pandemic on March 11, 2020. The virus posed new challenges to families, individuals, organizations, and the economy, all of which are continuing to evolve with newfound intricacies and ambiguous turns ahead.

As the world acclimated to an unforeseen reality – an evolving process still in flux – themes became abundantly clear. Jobs were lost. Unemployment swelled by more than 14 million in three months’ time. Adults struggled with mental health at alarming rates. Friends, family, and countrymen lost their lives to the virus.

So Brielle Valle, owner of Brielle Valle Consulting, a leadership consulting firm focused on educating and empowering middle management and implementing women's equity programming based on NYC wanted to understand how the COVID-19 pandemic is affecting women’s equality. She embarked upon an ethnographic research study to obtain information about the socio-cultural phenomena of the 2020 global pandemic through observation and interviews. She investigated what adjustments were taking place, not only in the home but in the workplace. She sought to understand both the mental health implications of the global pandemic and what feelings women had, with children and without, about being a female during this time. Brielle gained insight into the additional responsibilities that were assumed, learned how earning potential was being affected, and captured the reality of experienced mental and physical exhaustion.

The 66 women interviewed for this study were asked a series of 27 questions about their personal account from the onset of the pandemic to present day. Brielle predicted the effects of COVID-19 were ravaging women due to the disproportionate amount of labor being inflicted upon them and she found this to be true. She achieved an outcome of proposed solutions and recommendations about how to lead families and organizations forward to achieve gender parity, including the naming of a previously unnamed concept called Default to Responsibility:

Default to Responsibility is the cornerstone of gender inequity – the inequity that has permeated our homes and offices and remained there, billowing, growing in brawn. And now that it is exposed, knowledge and unity compromise its longevity. It is time for eviction.

Default to Responsibility is an implied responsibility based on biology and conditioning. The high repetition of gendered tasks further engrains assumed responsibility sets, ensuring that women continuously have a disproportionate burden of domestic work and childcare.

Women shared their experiences with her about the at-work and in-home dynamics. They recounted the scrutiny received from superiors when children interrupted calls, told her about how their bonuses were withheld, and 60% of the participants shared there were not only no adjustments made to their individual goals, but little recognition of the challenges that they were facing as a parent at home.

As she interviewed more women, learned that women were often the first person up to start the day and to get her child or children started on schooling at home and was the last to go to sleep after addressing the additional domestic work (a result of stay-at-home orders). Further, 70% of her participants with children maintained their level of weekly work or increased the hours worked in addition to being the person who cleaned, cooked, and cared for their children.

Burnout was rampant and women pleaded with her to help organizations understand that we must look at care differently (removing the assumption that women can do it all, especially as it pertains to domestic work), and we must level the playing field. Of the participants in my study, half shared the thought of leaving their job and staying home – even if they did not intend to act on it. “The second shift is too much to take any longer,” said Participant L. Of those, 50% knew it was not financially feasible. The other 50% shared it was a daily consideration – and admitted to this with sincere dread in their voices. They candidly stated that they did not know how much longer they could carry the responsibilities of the family along with their full-time careers.

The ripple effect of women being forced out of their careers based on systemic inequities that the COVID-19 pandemic illuminated is profound and will have severe economic implications. This is compounded by the long withstanding gremlin of pay inequity. The way we think about care and where to get it must be re-envisioned.

The interconnectivity among women’s inequitable pay, disproportionate home care, and child rearing capabilities is transpicuous. Corporations cannot stand idly by as women wait for legislation to be passed for equal pay. Companies have an opportunity to stimulate the economy, reduce poverty, and inject security into civilization; but instead, they have done little to assure psychological and financial safety.

Multiple solutions surfaced as an outcome to Brielle´s  research, some of which are shared hereto, but all can be read within the full publication here.

Gender Equity Steering Committee
At each corporation a steering committee should be erected. The group should be charged with assessing equity concerns and making observations of inequities. In partnering with HR, the Steering Committee Chair will have access to demographic and salary information. The Chair will also be empowered with decision-making autonomy to support the efforts and vision of the GESC, taking the committee’s considerations and concerns and turning the ideologies into actionable, company-wide changes.

Evaluation of Benefits
It is encouraged for HR teams to do an audit on all benefits, evaluating cost to value. The benefits under immediate review should include parental leave policies and health benefits. A multi-phased approach will likely be necessary based on workforce expenditures. The first correction is to match the paternity leave to the existing maternity leave.

Discussion of Default to Responsibility in the Home
In order for change to be long-lasting, we must talk about Default to Responsibility both within the home and at work. We must understand that our civilization evolved, with women pushing forward for equal rights, allowing for ample opportunity. With the ability for women to have successful careers, the antiquated expectations of female-specific work went unchanged. Thus, we must recognize the absence of a division in labor and recreate our reality, disseminating responsibility across individuals instead of the singular, and rethinking our own implicit Default to Responsibility within family life.

This story is filled with others’ stories: Women’s experiences, thoughts, and observations about what it means to be female during the COVID-19 global pandemic. It is these anecdotes that allow for critical evaluation of the present, and act as a catalyst for change.

About the author:

Brielle Valle holds a B.S. in Communication, an M.S. in Organizational Communication and Leadership, is PI certified, and has academic publications in SAGE Publications Ltd., Information Age Publishing, and Pearson. Her recent research aims to support corporations in reaching equality through understanding crisis preparation and crisis recovery. She is the owner of Brielle Valle Consulting, a leadership consulting firm focused on educating and empowering middle management and implementing women's equity programming based on NYC.