How will you Choose to Challenge?
“A Strong Woman looks a Challenge Dead in the Eye and Gives it a Wink” -Gina Carey
The unprecedented pressure of the global pandemic threatens to erase the gains of past decades that have previously narrowed the gender gap. The disproportionate pressure on women has led them to be squeezed out of the workforce more so than men. Women have borne the brunt of the pandemic’s economic carnage, leading experts to coin this women-centered economic downturn the “she-cession”.
The challenges facing women of late cannot be counted in dollars and cents alone. Women have been disproportionately affected by the mental health crisis, by a rise in domestic violence, by post-traumatic stress disorder as front line health workers and by long COVID syndrome. The post pandemic world will be altered in ways that threaten to leave women behind. More than ever, women must choose to challenge the status quo, rise to the occasion to strategically map out a better tomorrow.
While women lost 1.5 million jobs during the first phase of the pandemic, research showed that men gained back jobs at 3-fold the pace of women. Women’s jobs have been lost to a greater extent than men as they have dropped out of the workforce to take care of children and as they tend to work in industries more directly impacted by the pandemic such as retail and service. Female entrepreneurs have disproportionately been affected by shutdowns and restrictions as they are more likely to operate in affected industries and tend to be newer, smaller and less well financed than male-owned businesses.
A survey conducted by the Prosperity Project showed that one-third of Canadian women have considered quitting their jobs due to domestic pressure and home responsibilities. Founded by Pamela Jeffery, The Prosperity Project is a volunteer organization created to ensure Canadian women are not left behind in the COVID-19 recovery. Returning women to the workforce and empowering the economic recovery is key to post-pandemic recovery. The “she-covery” will require strategic and inclusive policy and reform to ensure that no one is left behind.
Recognizing this watershed moment and the need to ensure women’s economic recovery, the Ontario Chamber of Commerce has outlined the “she-covery project” with strategies to include women in leadership roles, ensure childcare, provide flexible work options, support female entrepreneurs and develop the workforce by accelerating the re-skilling of women to increase participation in fast growing industries.
The Mental Health Gender Gap
The mental health crisis poses to be perhaps the most critical fallout of COVID-19. Not surprisingly, women are reporting mental health concerns at a greater rate than men. The mental health gender gap sits atop what must be prioritized as an impending healthcare crisis. Approximately two thirds of women report new or worsening mental health symptoms, with increased prevalence for women with school aged children. Nearly one quarter (24.3%) of Canadian women studied by the Institute for Mental Health Policy Research at CAMH, reported moderate to severe anxiety as compared to 17.9% of men.
Globally women comprise over 70% of the healthcare workforce. Women are more likely to work in front line facing roles and female healthcare workers are more likely than their male counterparts to report anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Intimate partner violence is on the rise. The pandemic related stay-at-home measures confine women who may already be threatened by domestic violence. Globally, the past year has seen a rise in intimate partner violence increased 25% to 30% amongst reporting countries.
The Female Risks of Long COVID
The COVID-19 mental health blow is both indirect as discussed above but also direct. Women who have tested positive with COVID-19 are more likely than men to exhibit neuropsychological symptoms including depression, anxiety and mental fog. These symptoms can exist months after a diagnosis and are considered a hallmark of Long Covid.
Stress and Aging
Many women report feeling as though they have aged five years in the past one year of pandemic living. Indeed, chronic stress is a powerful accelerator of biologic aging. The Nobel prize research that uncovered the biologic limit to lifespan, namely the telomere, was discovered in a group of women who reported high levels of perceived stress as they were care givers to their chronically ill children. Dr. Elizabeth Blackburn’s discovery paved the way to measure biological aging and evaluate the therapeutic effect of interventions. The most reliable way to restore and lengthen telomeres has been shown to be stress reducing techniques like mindfulness and meditation.
Tips for your She-covery
Despite much of the stress of this past year seeming beyond our control, there are proactive steps that we can put in place as daily habits and routines to improve our physical health and emotional and social wellbring. Daily choices can curate a healthstyle to help buffer the impact of the pandemic on our health and wellbeing. Here are a few tips to get started:
- Finely Filter away Stress
As it is perceived stress that ages us more than our reality, we can choose to buffer or filter away the stressors we face to lessen the burden. Stress reducing techniques like mindfulness, meditation and deep breathing can be helpful to limit stress and have been shown to protect and lengthen telomeres.
- Take time out in Nature
Even 20 minutes of a moderate paced walk outside can help boost your mood, memory and concentration. Forest bathing, as the Japanese refer to it, can help improve immune health, reduce stress and anxiety and avoid insulin resistance.
- Deep Belly Breathing
Reset your breathing to increase Vagal tone and suppress the fight-or-flight reflex. With your open hands on your belly, inhale deeply lowering your diaphragm to fill your belly and your hands with air as you aerate the lower segments of your lungs. Hold the breath and then slowly exhale through your mouth as your diaphragm rises and your belly collapses. Visualization and counting time are useful cues. Take a slow and deep breath in through your nose, count to 12 and imagine you are smelling a rose, and then exhale out through your mouth while you count to 6 like your blowing a candle out. The practice of deep belly breathing has powerful anxiolytic effects.
- Stay Connected
Invest in your female friendships to ward off loneliness and isolation. Despite physical distancing requirements, social connections can be achieved both virtually and in person. Your social network is valued in depth not number so even one or two close female confidents are powerful pillars to bolster mental wellbeing. Even men consider women to be better listeners and easier to confide in.
- Financial Freedom
More than ever women need to challenge the economic status quo and address the gaps and problems in the workforce to achieve financial freedom. Stay informed and learn more about the Prosperity Project and the She-covery Project to ensure that women’s voices are at the table when reshaping the post-pandemic economy.
This International Women’s Day is themed #choosetochallenge calling on women to rise to the occasion and press for change. While we strive to shatter the glass ceiling and extrinsic barriers that society has placed on women, we must also heed the self imposed barriers that hold us back. Recognize and address our own thoughts, self-doubts and insecurities that may impede our ability to reach our full potential as individuals and our collective ability to achieve gender equality. Amongst women, there are those who need our voice for change to ring louder. Women of colour, women from minorities, indiginous and other marginalized communities will advance only with the solidarity of all of their sisters.
How will you choose to challenge? From our health and aging to our emotional wellbeing and cognitive vitality to our financial freedom and future employability there are so many levers at play. More than ever, women must rise up to face the challenges and boldly build a brighter tomorrow. Our daughters and our sons depend on it.
Dr. Jennifer Pearlman
Dr. Pearlman is a medical doctor in Toronto, Canada. She is owner and Medical Director of PearlMD Rejuvenation a Precision Integrative Medical Clinic offering expert medical care, leading technology and treatments to help patients achieve Ageless Vitality. Dr. Pearlman is an internationally recognized expert in Women’s health, hormones, aging and cosmetic medicine.