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Leading with a quiet voice — the irony of women’s influence during COVID-19

By: Heather McIntosh, Maria Giammarco

This op-ed by Heather McIntosh and Maria Gaimmarco was originally published in iPolitics on April 23, 2020.

In an age of obsessive media consumption, social media “influencers” shape our interactions and collective understanding. These influencers build platforms to sell products, but also to advocate for women’s rights, fight misinformation, and support evidence-based decision-making.

During crises and high-stress situations, consumers tend to be more susceptible to engagement with and influence from the traditional media. The volume of unknowns often heightens this influence, given the public’s desire for information about their new and emerging reality.

And the influence of women across media platforms shouldn’t be underestimated—especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. Canadians of all generations are turning to all forms of media for updates from politicians, thought leaders, and trusted medical professionals. These updates have become the lifeblood of our news cycle.

The voices and faces of women in the fight against COVID-19 have been paramount in the Canadian media. For instance, Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada’s chief public health officer, is a news media staple for her updates, expertise, and advice on Canada’s battle against the disease. Canadian political leaders such as Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland and Health Minister Patty Hadju have also become essential voices in political messaging about how our country navigates this crisis. These women have become key influencers in this crisis, and their influencer status spans mediums and generations.

Women, particularly women of colour, care workers, stay-at-home mothers, women in cycles of abuse, trans women, and disabled women, face exceptional challenges to their health and well-being. And physical distancing measures have dramatically decreased safety and support systems.

Having diverse women leaders as the providers of critical information for Canadians has created a scenario that amplifies female voices. Their status as role models and even celebrities has implications not only for our general perceptions of women’s credibility and leadership, but also for shaping our response to the crisis and inspiring youth who see themselves in these women.

Yet in this potential win for women, there is a particular irony that can’t be ignored. While women are leading the charge in many ways, they are also disproportionately impacted by COVID-19. Women, particularly those who are racialized; who work as care workers; or who are stay-at-home mothers; trans; disabled; or living in cycles of abuse, face exceptional challenges to their health and well-being. And physical distancing measures have dramatically decreased safety and support systems.

Women are overrepresented in professions that are essential front-line roles, including in the health services and hospitality industries. These jobs are directly involved in containing the pandemic and providing care and support, and they come with increased risk of contracting COVID-19. Over half of all working women in Canada (56 per cent) are employed in these occupations.

The impacts of this virus on women reflect a larger reality around how the weight of health care and other forms of caregiving—both paid and unpaid—disproportionately falls on women.

The global pandemic has brought the essential nature of what women do into focus. Might the surge in the influence of female leaders be an opportunity to make strides on pay gaps, workplace discrimination, workers’ compensation, and inclusive health policies?

Despite the leadership role women are playing during this crisis, they are generally underrepresented in senior leadership positions in Canada. Women, by and large, lack the decision-making power to change the systems and structures that reinforce gendered labour challenges in the first place.

 Will women leaders’ increased social capital and rising media influence be used to make progress on these challenges? Will this new influencer status—one that transcends platforms and generations—lend long-term credence to women’s voices? Will shifting perceptions translate into changes in whose voices and roles we value?

For now, these remain open questions. Yet the current situation has pushed women’s leadership, their voices, and their strong influence into the mediascape. This positions Canada to evolve on how we value women’s contributions to our safety and prosperity. Traditionally feminized roles are driving our battle against this pandemic, but we also need to recognize that the expert voices leading us to recovery largely belong to women.