During this global pandemic, one of the few bright spots has been the stories of people helping others through the crisis. From a woman who has her dog deliver groceries to a self-isolating neighbor, to a chef that liquidates his restaurant’s inventory to pay his employees, these stories act as a welcome reminder that people are sometimes at their best when times are at their worst.
It’s similarly uplifting to hear about businesses pivoting to confront the Coronavirus outbreak. It’s refreshing to hear of distilleries producing hand sanitizer or fashion designers employing their seamstresses to make masks for the New York City healthcare force.
Women CEOs have been at the forefront of this response. The CEOs of Nurx and Everlywell, two companies that worked quickly to develop at-home COVID-19 tests, are women (Varsha Rao and Julia Cheek, respectively). Ava, a startup that makes wearable devices to track the temperature of women seeking to get pregnant, is run by CEO Lea von Bidden. Ava recently started working with researchers to use its hardware to study early detection of COVID-19. And it was two women, Melissa Hanesworth and Tara Engel, who came up with the idea of retooling Pernod Ricard’s distilleries to produce industrial quantities of hand sanitizer. That idea was immediately approved by the $35 billion company’s regional head, Ann Mukherjee. As Politico reported, women are also playing an important role in the COVID-19 effort at the White House.
This narrative is a bright contrast to the bleak picture often painted about the status of women in the workforce. Equal Pay Day, for example, perpetuates the narrative that women are paid less than men even though women make different choices than men, which leads to different salaries. For instance, women choose different industries, hours, flexibility, risk, and other factors that are relevant to salary decisions. Yet every year we’re told we’re being victimized, and politicians demand “equal pay” for supposedly “equal work.”
To take another example, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi recently proposed a stimulus bill that included various “diversity initiatives” aimed at helping women make it to the boardroom. That proposal follows on the heels of a 2018 California law that mandates publically-held corporations to have a minimum number of women on their boards of directors. These policies send the message that women can’t succeed without government help and relegate accomplished, deserving women to “quota hires.” But this disempowering narrative is belied by the facts: in 2019, about 40% of new board member hires across the top 3000 companies were women. And it’s undercut by myriad stories of female CEOs innovating responses to COVID-19. Women simply don’t need government help to succeed.
Women’s health startups are on the rise, making them well-positioned to respond to the pandemic. Given that many women (and in particular, pregnant women) are reluctant to visit the doctor’s office in person, Telehealth company Maven (run by founder and CEO Kate Ryder) is offering first free virtual appointments with its providers and has the largest women’s health telehealth network in the US. The company has also created webinars to answer questions like “Should I be going for runs if coronavirus is airborne?” and “Does COVID-19 transfer to breast milk?” Those of us who have been constantly Googling questions about the risk of infection know that quick answers to peculiar questions are high in demand. Maven is also offering short-term contracts to employers who want to provide telehealth benefits to employees, which benefits all of us who are trying to steer clear of urgent care or the hospital in favor of a teledoc.
These stories are empowering and demonstrate that rather than needing a helping hand, women are making their own way. In fact, we would be best served if the government simply got out of our way. After all, when Nurx CEO Varsha Rao and Everlywell CEO Julia Cheek developed the desperately needed at home COVID-19 tests, the FDA swiftly shut them down because they hadn’t yet gone through the onerous approval process. Some testing companies were even forced to advise customers to throw the tests they’d already received in the mail into the trash bin. Overregulation doesn’t help women succeed and it doesn’t help consumers.
Or take, Ava, the company seeking to provide telehealth services. Telehealth is illegal in some states, and until recently, Medicare and Medicaid reimbursement rules for telehealth were extremely strict. Arbitrary laws stand as a barrier to women succeeding. Women need the government to stop trying to “help” and to step back and let us do our jobs.
Attempts to “protect” women often paint a patronizing picture of women in need of government rescue. But women are leading the way out of the Coronavirus crisis. And we’d be even more empowered if government would step back, stop patronizing us, and watch us rise to the top.