It’s been four years since the Women’s Fund organizations representing the Fox Valley, Fond du Lac, Greater Green Bay and Oshkosh collaborated to complete their last study, and when it came time to embark on a new one in 2021, Julie Keller, executive director of the Women’s Fund of the Fox Valley Region, knew it would uncover a lot of issues. Indeed, the Northeast Wisconsin COVID-19 Impact on Women Survey showed the pandemic took a disproportionate toll on women, as many have struggled to keep up with work as they have taken on added responsibilities at home. The results of the survey will inform the work of the four organizations going forward. Keller talked with Insight about the survey’s findings and how communities, leaders and employers must work together to improve outcomes for all women. To learn more about the survey results or the Women’s Fund of the Fox Valley Region’s annual luncheon, taking place virtually Sept. 9, visit womensfundfvr.org.

 

What made you embark on the study, and what were some of your biggest takeaways?

We wanted to do another study focused on COVID because we heard the national statistics and studies about how COVID has impacted women, and we wanted to take a closer look in Northeast Wisconsin to see what the impact was locally.

Some of the biggest takeaways were in line with the national studies, (that it) was primarily the mother in the household who took on added responsibilities at home. A lot of the women who did the survey were working moms, so they not only had the responsibility of child care, but they also had the responsibility of work. A lot of women did report increased stress levels and increased mental health concerns in the study. We also asked a question about domestic violence, because we heard that there were a lot of women who did not have access to services when everything shut down or did not feel comfortable going to a shelter. What we found is that it did increase and become more severe during this time when there was already abuse in the home, and we found that for the children, too.

Who took the survey?

The survey was open from March 16 through April 27, so we wanted to have that one-year look, and we had 1,050 responses. We did get women who were more middle class with higher income levels. Half had a bachelor’s degree; 82 percent were employed. Most of them had incomes of over $50,000 in their households. If we see this for women who probably have more resources and a little bit more financial security, think about those women who don’t have as many resources. We did find that for women who weren’t married and single moms, it was just that much harder for them not having that financial or social support. 

Highlight the final recommendations you created.

This will be good data for the community to say, what do we want to work on as a community? As we’re finding with child care, that impacts families, employers and our economy. There are so many statistics about how many women have voluntarily dropped out of the workforce, how many women are struggling to maintain helping their children as well as doing well at work. (Better access to) child care … would really impact the community. There’s already work and conversations taking place at that level. It’s about really addressing those caregiver stresses and challenges. A lot of us, especially women and working moms, knew those challenges, but now more people know the extent of them and how devastating they can be for women and their families. The child care system is a high cost, oftentimes as much as a family’s mortgage. Those who work in child care are highly educated — and most of them are women — and have low wages. Not everybody has access based on what their needs are, in terms of being able to afford it, and if you don’t work your typical 9-to-5 job, it’s also hard to find child care. 

We also need to ensure women have access to those domestic abuse supports. During a pandemic, how can we help and support women during that time? Mental health was another big issue. The study showed that 19 percent needed counseling but were unable to access it, and 31 percent took prescription medication to help them deal. One of the community-wide steps is working with employers to talk about what are those things we can do for families that will benefit everyone? How can we come together and decide what the future workforce looks like and what are more flexible work hours? I think those will be some of the biggest benefits for women, some of those flexibilities that were put in place because we had no other choice. Now we need to figure out which of those we need to keep so we can be more successful. 

What are next steps?

That’s the biggest challenge, and the Women’s Funds want to lead that conversation and get people together and be the conveners to talk about these issues and focus on how women have been impacted and what are some of the solutions. It’s going to take everyone working together to help women be in a stronger position going forward. The next step is getting this information out there, having those conversations with community members and the women impacted. We should be talking to the women who are most impacted to see what will work best for them. 

A lot of people talk about, we just want to get back to normal, but normal wasn’t good for many women and families. What do we want to take that we learned in COVID? What do we want to get rid of that we did in the past that we see now doesn’t serve the purpose we thought it did? I think there’s so much more awareness that I would hope we would see initiatives and changes to address those issues. 

We know that if women have child care for their children, if they’re able to have schooling, if they can work, that’s better for our economy. We’ve seen national headlines that to get this economy back on track, we need to get women back to the workforce. It’s half the population, and a lot of them have opted out. They may not have wanted to opt out, but it was just the best decision for their family, so how can we make them want to opt back in knowing that their family has the supports they need? When you feel like you’re doing it all but you’re not doing anything really well, I think that’s probably one of the biggest stressors women have. Getting those supports in place is going to take everything from child care to businesses and corporations to get us to that point.