Women’s Defense Against COVID-19

Studies show the female immune system is better at fighting the outbreak. But Korn Ferry’s Evelyn Orr sees an important flip slide.

In this regular column, Evelyn Orr, vice president and chief operating officer of the Korn Ferry Institute, shares her thoughts on the intersection of career, relationships, and gender.

Happy International Women’s Day, by the way. As we gear up for a day of celebration and call for gender parity, we get the news that the once diverse U.S. democratic presidential primary field has winnowed down to two white men as lead contenders. And, a report was released showing that women comprise an underground economy doing $11 trillion worth of unpaid labor around the world, annually. But on the bright side, virologists say that women are better at fighting off Covid-19; our immune systems are better equipped, apparently. To quote Tina Fey’s hit sitcom The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, “Females are strong as hell.”

It certainly isn’t a competition that warrants a medal, but if women around the world are taking on more hours of caregiving for young children, aging parents, household cleaning, and venturing out to get groceries, it’s a helpful silver lining that we appear to have some extra defense against this coronavirus. Women have a stronger immune response to infection, a stronger immune response after vaccinations, and a stronger memory immune response when we encounter something we’ve been exposed to in the past. As a result, while infection rates may be equal, death rates for COVID-19 are hitting men harder at 2.8% compared to 1.7% of women who are infected. It’s a pattern that has persisted. SARS, MERS, and even the flu pandemic of 1918 saw disproportionate death rates among men.

But there is a flip side to this super-strong immune response: it can turn on us. When the immune system creates antibodies that attack the body’s own tissue, it results in an autoimmune disease. Among people with autoimmune diseases like rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, and thyroid disease, 80% are women. It’s an interesting metaphor, given the increased susceptibility of women in the workplace to so-called “imposter syndrome,” where we attack ourselves with the feeling that we’re not good enough, or we’re going to be “found out” that we’re frauds. It’s a phenomenon that is sometimes referred to as a silent career killer.

Consider the combined triple threat to women’s careers posed by unconscious bias against women, women questioning their own fortitude, and the extra work outside of work that women shoulder—3.5 hours per day in Sweden and up to 6.5 hours per day in Turkey. The amount of unpaid labor that women around the world perform—$11 trillion worth when calculated at minimum wage—is greater than last year's combined revenue of the 50 largest companies on the Fortune Global 500 list. Men are also doing unpaid labor, and they have stepped up their share over time, but in every country around the world, women were responsible for more of the total share. Today in the US, on average, women are spending four hours per day on unpaid work on top of their jobs, compared to men’s 2.5 hours.

My family history reflects some of these trends. My great-grandfather died in the flu pandemic of 1918, leaving my great-grandmother a widow caring for three young children, shouldering plenty of unpaid labor. We have a history of autoimmune disease among women in my family—our immune systems going into overdrive and attacking our own bodies. And, even though I was the one who ventured out to stock up on some basics for our pantry, I am grateful to be in a family where we struggle to share the unpaid work equally. But truth be told, there is a different reward in caregiving—being there to wipe noses, serve tea and toast, and comfort the sick is a privilege and service we all can share.