Image via the University of Pittsburgh
Jessica Isaac said she and many other women working during the COVID-19 pandemic struggle to take care of themselves and those around them as they’re facing burnout from the pandemic.
“[If] you’re drained at the end of the day, can you really give your all? Are people receiving quality care when you’re tired?” Isaac, a UPMC pharmacy administrative fellow, said.
The University Library System and Community Engagement Center in Homewood held the virtual event “Honoring Women on the Front Line of COVID-19” on Tuesday afternoon over Zoom in honor of Women’s History Month. The event featured a conversation on the various roles women were forced to take on the front line of the pandemic, with Audrey Murrell — a professor of business administration and former Honors College acting dean — as the moderator.
Crystal McCormick Ware, a panelist and the ULS coordinator of diversity and inclusion initiatives, said some of the women were mothers who had to sustain their jobs, as well as the education of their own children.
“They are not unique in this situation,” Ware said. “Studies have shown that women are taking a higher proportion of these duties, and even taking care of their elderly parents, as well as maintaining their jobs, sustaining their own households, the caring of their children and working even remotely or physically.”
Ware said some women have had to drop out of the workforce entirely due to these pressures. More than 10 million women — about 17% of working women — rely on child care and schools to take care of their children while they work. In contrast, only 12% of working men rely on these systems.
Robin Kear, a panelist and liaison librarian at Hillman Library, continued by highlighting the heavy impact COVID-19 has had on the labor market, particularly for working women and their families. Kear said women were disproportionately represented in low-income jobs, and child care and school systems did not meet the needs of working mothers before or during the pandemic.
Murrell asked panelists how the pandemic has changed the definition of an essential worker.
Allison McLaren, a panelist and a middle school English Language Learner and Spanish teacher at West Allegheny School District, said she always thought she was essential to society as a teacher. She said she started to realize she was an essential worker when she had to go out to the front line being around students during the pandemic, but without much support.
McLaren was unsure whether the government would acknowledge that teachers are essential workers.
“I’m not sure we will see a great shift in acknowledging what we have done and what we need to do,” McLaren said.
Bridgette Cofield — a panelist and assistant vice president of the human resources, diversity and inclusion department at Carlow University — echoed McLaren’s sentiment.
“It really resonated with me being the chief people officer at an institution of learning to understand that education is essential,” Cofield said.
Abby Jacobsen, media production equipment and services coordinator at Hillman Library, also said her perception of essential workers changed as a result of the pandemic. For her, she realized that the library is not just a space. She said the library is a place where people “become whole through education,” and are able to build community at Pitt.
“We are more essential than we even know, and I think it is harder to reflect on that when you’re living in it,” Jacobsen said.
Jacobsen said people have lost their communities, but by keeping the library open and having staff available, they can try to maintain normalcy in the most abnormal situation.
Murrell asked panelists about the unique effect of COVID-19 on women in the workforce. Isaac, a panelist, mentioned a few struggles she saw in her work experience in the health care setting. She said women who choose to have families while being health care professionals face the choice of going to work or not being able to stay at home with their children. She said some of her colleagues had to leave because of a lack in child care.
“As women, that self-care starts to fall by the wayside,” Isaac said. “Because you’re stuck with worrying about work, you’re stuck with taking care of your children, making sure that your spouse is happy and you’re just drained at the end of the day.”
Isaac said managing a work-life balance is “more specific to women than men” during the pandemic, especially for essential workers.
McLaren and Jacobsen, who are both mothers, emphasized this point. McLaren said as a teacher, everyone had to figure it out on their own, which made work very stressful. She said she panicked about going back to school due to expensive child care systems.
Jacobsen said there were certain things her husband could not do, such as nursing their daughter. She said they both had to figure out how to maintain their work schedules so that they could help each other.
Cofield said there was a “constant struggle with work-life balance,” but that the concepts of intentionality and grace are key.
“We’re in this together, and as women particularly, giving each other grace,” Cofield said. “I’ve had other colleagues that have helped to support me and I have tried to do the same.”
She said she believes these are lessons that people should take away beyond the pandemic, where everyone continues to uplift each other.
Isaac said one lesson she learned from the pandemic is that she was more creative than she thought, and said she wanted to keep her open and flexible mindset she learned throughout the pandemic.
Cofield agreed with Isaac on the importance of having a flexible mindset. She said flexibility allowed her to get creative and get to an optimal work-life balance. For her, this included scheduling time on the calendar for work and being intentional about self-time.
“Getting out of the comfort zone to do activities you may have never done before, you’ll find that it can bring you different joy than [what you normally do],” Cofield said.
Each of the panelists said they have struggled with issues like guilt during the pandemic.
Cofield said women often take the idea of doing everything into the workplace. She said they often have the opportunity to delegate and not do it all themselves, but many women choose to take on more burden due to societal biases and expectations.
Cofield said the concept of grace is important here.
“Giving ourselves grace and the opportunity to say that it doesn’t have to be done by me, there are five other people on this committee, can someone else do it?” Cofield said. “Actually you will find that they are more creative and innovative, and you have now created that innovation.”
Murrell said using available resources and taking care of emotional and mental health needs are crucial to dealing with the pandemic.
“It is OK not to be OK about these extraordinary circumstances,” Murrell said. “We have to allow ourselves the space and reach out to our resources.”
She said it was also important for the panelists to recognize their accomplishments. She asked each panelist what they were most proud of about themselves.
McLaren said she was proud of her hard work, innovation and adaptability.
“I made it work at home, at school, and I gave it my all,” McLaren said.
Isaac said she focused more on the idea of resilience in her work space, as well as her continuous growth. She said she felt more resilient with the events she could overcome over the last year.
“Continuous growth, that’s all we can do, regardless if there is a pandemic or not,” Isaac said. “So keeping an open mind and moving forward [is important].”
Murrell said she was the most proud of people and their show of resilience, compassion, grace, strength, laughter and joy that came out through the pandemic.
“In the worst of circumstances you often see the best in people,” Murrell said.