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COVID teaches the church some lessons in gender

Wednesday, 17 March 2021  | Megan Powell du Toit


COVID 19 has felt like a common experience, one that connects us across countries and backgrounds.  We have laughed together at toilet roll memes. Churches worldwide got together to sing The Blessing.[1] And yet, we haven’t experienced COVID in exactly the same ways. Many factors contribute to the experience of COVID being significantly different for different groups.

One such factor was gender. I have seen many Christian leaders using the COVID experience to suggest learning opportunities for the church. For instance, many have suggested it is a moment in which to rediscover community or worship. Yet, I have not so far seen any Christian leaders talk about what the COVID experience has to teach us about how we interact with gender in our churches.[2] There have, however, been many articles and studies in society as a whole examining the gendered impacts of COVID. And I have been living them out as well. How do we reflect on that with faith?

The first gendered impact to note is that while men and women have contracted COVID at equal rates, men have been more likely to require intensive care, and more likely to die.[3]  It is too early to pull apart exactly why that is the case. But it mirrors a wider truth. That men live shorter lives in general. There are various factors there, but often cited modifiable ones are that men are more likely to take risks, less likely to seek health care, more likely to successfully suicide, and less socially connected.[4] In Australia, the pre-COVID figures showed that ¾ of suicides are men.[5] Many are wondering whether this will be an even sharper divide when the figures for 2020 are released, as men may have become more isolated and lacked the resources to deal with the rise in anxiety.

 I have rarely heard this reality grappled with in any depth amongst Christians. Evangelical conversations about masculinity rarely ask why men seem more self-destructive. As I age, I look at the faces of the men I love and wonder when I will lose them. I hear rhetoric about reclaiming masculinity, about men stepping up and being real men. This ignores the foundational work on spiritual health required for things like leadership and courage to work well. Perhaps COVID is a timely reminder that more pressing issues with men are relational and emotional health. I wonder whether the call men need to hear more is that of the healer Jesus:

 “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. (Matthew 11:28-29)

 In creating burdens of expectations, without addressing male spiritual, emotional, and relational health, have we set men up for failure? I’ll come back to that when I address potential actions for the church.

While men have been more likely to suffer directly harmful consequences from COVID, women have been more likely to suffer other negative consequences. These consequences centre around women’s relationships with work and home.

I find that, when I talk about equality issues for women, some sectors of the church react to this as if it were a matter of grasping for power and rights. But COVID should serve as an illustration of the real-world effects of inequality.

Economic downturns can have different triggers. Often, male-dominated industries are more affected. This has not been the case with COVID. The industries most affected have included industries such as hospitality, tourism, retail, the arts, childcare, and education. Female participation is higher in such industries. Thus, a report by the Melbourne Institute in May 2020 showed that women were one of the groups whose employment was most affected by COVID.[6] Meanwhile, some have suggested that the government’s economic stimulus measures have failed to account for the greater impact on women.[7]

While this will fluctuate as the situation changes, it reminds us that gender affects financial stability. Women are, on the whole, worse off financially over the course of their lives. The gender pay gap, the impact of having children on long-term earning capacity and superannuation, lead to significant vulnerability for women.

One outcome is that the fastest-growing group of homeless people is women over 45.[8] One is reminded of the biblical injunctions to care for the widow. For instance, Deut 10:18 says of God, “he defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the foreigner residing among you, giving them food and clothing,” while James 1:27 tells us “religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.” It seems to me that these are precisely the women meant by those injunctions. Women who, for various reasons, find themselves single, with few financial resources.

Yet another reason that women find themselves in financial instability is the prevalence of domestic violence. This was already an epidemic, but in this pandemic there are indications that things have become worse. As this SMH article says, summarising the effects detailed in a study:

The results emphasised the economic impacts, which are driving an escalation of violence and abuse, while at the same time leaving victims with less financial means to escape their abusers.[9]

Of course, a pandemic has also meant people are more likely to be isolated at home with an abuser. COVID has brought into sharp relief that for some, home is not a haven.

Christians often fail to allow for the effects of sin in our understanding of societal problems. So, you will hear Christians calling for a renewed emphasis on marriage and family. But the Bible, as evidenced by the widow injunctions, has a real worldview. Whatever our ideals are, the reality is that many factors go towards producing an outcome in which women are supporting themselves and others on inadequate financial resources. We need to understand that at times gender inequality leads to dangerous outcomes for women and children.

Of course, the way society has structured itself around gender norms has negative implications for men as well. The gender norms for home life were affected by COVID when households have ended up in lockdown together. In general, prior to COVID, while women have been participating in the workforce in greater numbers, this hasn’t had the expected effect of equalising household and family load.[10] Women continue to bear the greater load in the home.

What happened, though, when suddenly men and women were both at home, sometimes with kids as well? COVID created more domestic labour – and as it happens, both women and men found themselves doing more of it. Neither group was happy about that.[11] Perhaps what that tells us is that juggling work and home life is difficult. Men had to come to terms with that as well. The answer, surely, is not to revert to a situation in which women are overburdened. Rather, we need to seek to find a way of living in which all in a household can thrive. I am reminded of the interdependent model for Christian community found in Galatians 6. We both carry our own loads and share each other’s burdens. Living in community should not be an experience of either being overburdened or relieved of burden, but instead of shared burden.

From conversations with friends, it has seemed to me while women have often found themselves further strained by the collision of their work and home lives under COVID, some men have welcomed the opportunity to spend more time with their families. This has some support from Australian studies.[12] Christians are often among the first to promote the importance of involvement with children from both mother and father. Yet, we often do so without understanding that families are in a bind due to societal structures and expectations. Platitudes about being good parents can merely frustrate people who find themselves in systems actively working against that.

There have already been reams of studies and articles published in the secular world about the gender impact of COVID and how we can respond. I have merely scraped the surface here. However, hopefully, it has been sufficient to show it will be important for the church to also reckon with the challenges and learnings of these gendered impacts. Some of this reckoning will be urgent practical assistance. Other reckonings will force us into an examination of how we interact with societal gender norms in ways that either help or harm.

I believe the gospel is good news for men and women. This is not just because the offer of salvation is open to all, but because in Christ we may find shalom (peace, wholeness) for all. So we should be vitally interested in how we might support people in finding shalom in their particularities – including gender.  

For men, I believe that we are being called to enable them to be more emotionally healthy and relationally connected, as this will have a multitude of good outcomes for the entire society. So much rhetoric is expended attempting to renew men’s sense of identity based upon external status, power, and roles within society. Yet, in centring our faith on Christ, we have an entirely different focus for what it is to be human, and that example is given to us in a man. In this, I see the wisdom of God. The one who takes up the cross first, was found incarnate as male, a startling reversal of societal norms. A man may find rest and shalom in the yoke of Christ, rather than the chains of narrow, unsatisfying forms of masculinity. Jess Hill, in her recent book on domestic violence, speaks about the way men carry deep shame for not conforming to a particular version of masculinity and find themselves at the same time forced by this same conditioning into alienation from their emotional selves.[13] Our faith has the resources to find a new way for men, if only we break our reliance on cultural forms of value of the self.

Similarly, we can eschew forms of family life that result in unfair burdens and disconnection. To do so, we will need to encourage families to find their own ways of navigating this, rather than promoting narrow family patterns which may just result yet again in disconnected fathers and overburdened mothers. We will also need to have leaders who model this, and church programs and practices which allow for this diversity. Ministries aimed at different genders often uphold unhelpful stereotypes and norms. Women aren’t always available during the day. Not all men connect with a class on how to butcher an animal well. Yes, that has been a recent trend for men’s events! Moreover, in these very programs we isolate men and women from each other. Yet if we want to model loving interdependent healthy community, it is good for us to work at the genders relating and working together. That there is no male and female in Christ Jesus points to more than equal access to salvation. It points to a way of being with each other, of mutuality and partnership.

Moreover, we can take action within our communities to advocate for structures that give priority to the importance of relationships for all people. In our advocacy, I think we need to urgently argue for societal support for women so that they can sustain themselves and their dependents with dignity. We can also identify areas in which society is failing different groups and try to meet those gaps alongside our advocacy. This might be, for instance, in giving to women’s refuges, or in supporting men to access counselling services. We can rethink support programs that may assume certain gender norms. As a pastor, we organised meals for families with new babies. This is often welcome. But it is often indicative of a perspective on helping others, which assumes that every household looks the same. As just one example, what about the single parent who needs occasional low-cost or free childcare in order to access services or just take a break? Or simply because they got stuck at work a bit late?  Christians and Christian organisations should also take no part in unequal work structures. I look around at Christian workplaces, and they are still paying women less and giving them roles with less security. When we look at the outcomes for women and children this produces, such as long-term insecurity or becoming stuck in abuse, we should take no part in this.

In all of this, I am encouraging us towards reflective and contextualised support for men and women. But perhaps too, it is time. Beyond time. To sit down and come to terms with how we as the church have participated in unhealthy gender norms. Repent. Confess. And humbling walk together with God again, hand in hand.

Megan Powell du Toit is an ordained Baptist Minister, Publishing Manager of the Australian College of Theology and editor of the journal ColloquiumShe hosts the With All Due Respect podcast with Michael Jensen.

This article is from the forthcoming issue of Equip magazine on ‘The Covid normal church’, Issue 38, March 2021. You can subscribe to Equip

Photo credits

‘Man in black jacket standing near wall’ by Max Bender on Unsplash.

‘White and pink cat sticker’ by the United Nations COVID-19 Response on Unsplash.

[1] Chris Brown, Cody Carnes, Kari Jobe, and Steven Furtick, ‘The Blessing Song’ (Elevation Worship, 2020).

[2] It is worth noting that the examination here of the gender impacts of COVID could likewise be made for other groups within our society, with constructive results.

[3] H. Peckham, N.M. de Gruijter, C. Raine et al., ‘Male Sex Identified by Global Covid-19 Meta-Analysis as a Risk Factor for Death and Itu Admission’, Nature Communication 11, no. 6317 (2020).

[4] Robert H. Shmerling, ‘Why Men Often Die Earlier Than Women’, Harvard Health Publishing, 19th February 2016, https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/why-men-often-die-earlier-than-women-201602199137.

[6] Roger Wilkins, ‘Who’s Hit Hardest by the Covid-19 Economic Shutdown?’, University of Melbourne, https://pursuit.unimelb.edu.au/articles/who-s-hit-hardest-by-the-covid-19-economic-shutdown.

[7] Wendy Tuohy, ‘Calls for Female-Focused Budget as Women Face Financial 'Gender Disaster'‘, The Age, 16th August 2020, https://www.theage.com.au/national/victoria/calls-for-female-focused-budget-as-women-face-financial-gender-disaster-20200815-p55m0e.html.

[8] Debbie Faulkner and Laurence Lester, ‘400,000 Women over 45 Are at Risk of Homelessness in Australia’, The Conversation, 4th August 2020, https://theconversation.com/400-000-women-over-45-are-at-risk-of-homelessness-in-australia-142906.

[9] Lucy Cormack, ‘Covid-19 Recession Is 'Trapping' Women in Violent Households’, Sydney Morning Herald, 14th September 2020, https://www.smh.com.au/national/nsw/covid-19-recession-is-trapping-women-in-violent-households-20200912-p55uyn.html.

[10] This is an ongoing finding of the ‘Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia (Hilda) Survey’  (Melbourne, Australia: Melbourne Institute, 2020).

[11] Zoe Daniel, ‘Coronavirus Has Prompted Both Men and Women to Do More Housework — and Nobody's Happy About It, New Data Shows’, ABC News, 20th June 2020, https://www.abc.net.au/news/2020-06-20/coronavirus-covid19-domestic-work-housework-gender-gap-women-men/12369708.

[12] Jennifer Baxter et al., ‘Report No.4: Dads Spend More Quality Time with Kids’, Families in Australia Survey: Life during COVID-19 (2020).

[13] Jess Hill, See What You Made Me Do: Power, Control and Domestic Abuse (Carlton, Victoria: Black Inc., 2019).

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