When Heidi Hotmer, 48, first heard about the pandemic, she wasn’t sure how she’d get through it. But within days after her city’s shelter-in-place order was issued, she figured out a plan. Hotmer closed her business, an online handicrafting shop, took out her sewing machine and began making masks. “I decided that rather than try to sell stuff to people who were desperately hurting,” she said, “I would try to give back.” She began transforming bolts of fabric from her shop into masks she would give to others free.
Sometimes she sews all day. Sometimes she is only able to squeeze in a few hours while also spending time with her 11-year-old daughter. But what is certain is that each time she turns over masks to their new owners — 758 masks and counting — she feels a sense of purpose that she hasn’t felt before. “This has definitely helped me cope,” she said of helping people. “It’s just the best feeling.”
Desire to help others
During this pandemic, in a pattern that echoes other major crises, people across the world have stepped up to donate their time, skills, knowledge and resources, and have even risked their lives, for nothing material in return. But while men and women are equally likely to help, they tend to do it in different ways.
The evolutionary origins behind the human drive to cooperate and aid strangers is debated among academics, but what is certain is that our civilization depends on it. “Without it, the whole place would fall apart instantly,” said Robert Boyd, a professor in the School of Human Evolution and Social Change at Arizona State University.
The desire to help others is so strong, in fact, that Japan has implored its population to think selfishly during tsunamis, because the window to escape is so short. The guidance, called tendenko, directs people to run to safety instead of rescuing others but runs so contrary to human nature that it has had limited success.
An aching need in humans
The reason for this selflessness, says Kathleen Tierney, a co-author of “Disasters, Collective Behavior, and Social Organization,” is that crises bring out an aching need in humans to be part of something bigger. “We feel this pressure to care more than we do on the day to day,” she said.
It is no surprise, she notes, that the current anti-racist protests are taking place during one of the largest health crises of our time. “Covid-19 really increased people’s feeling of civic-mindedness,” she said, “and of caring for the larger community.”
As for how women and men help in high-risk situations, Alice Eagly, emeritus professor of psychology at Northwestern University and a co-author of “The Psychology of Gender,” found that men partake in spontaneous and public acts of altruism like rescuing a drowning person or running into a burning building, while women tend toward more subtle acts that include nurturing and social interaction.
For example, Eagly found that during World War II, women were more likely to provide refuge to Jewish families. “It’s no less dangerous,” Eagly said, “but what distinguishes it is it engages a lot of one-on-one time with potential victims.”
Women are stepping up
To say that women are the more nurturing and caring of the sexes is a deep-seated stereotype, but Eagly said that makes it no less real. “Stereotypes do have the power to create the realities they call for,” she said, “but they are also based on observation, and what we see is women doing a lot of the caring in our everyday lives.”
Debra Mesch, a professor of philanthropic studies at Indiana University, concurs: Men help too, of course, but it is women who are more likely to satisfy the needs of communities in more informal ways.
In the Covid-19 era, that looks like making masks, grocery shopping for neighbors, tutoring on Zoom and checking in with lonely older neighbors. “These are not things you could write off as a charitable deduction,” Mesch said, “but this is really where women are stepping up.”
Women seem to be playing similar roles in the anti-racist protests currently playing out against the backdrop of the pandemic. One example: The many women who are initiating bail funds and GoFundMe campaigns to ensure that fellow Black Lives Matter activists are able to eat and make rent, said Keisha N. Blain, an associate professor of history at the University of Pittsburgh and author of “Set The World on Fire: Black Nationalist Women and the Global Struggle for Freedom.” “Women make sure people are taken care of, not just as an activist, but as a person,” she said. “Connecting the personal with the political — that is where women’s activism is unique.”
Physiological benefits to helping
There are physiological benefits to helping as well.
“Disasters disrupt our sense of control and normalcy in the world,” said Lori Peek, director of the Natural Hazard Center at the University of Colorado Boulder, “so anything that can help us restore a sense of normalcy and purpose is so important for our emotional and psychological well-being.”
And beyond the positive emotions we get from giving, which economists refer to as warm glow, Femida Handy, professor of nonprofit studies at the University of Pennsylvania, found that when she and colleagues controlled for factors such as initial health, wealth and education, there was one big difference between people who volunteered and their less giving counterparts. “They live longer,” she said of the first group.
She explained that helping others improves mental and physical health, reduces inflammation and stress and lights up the same part of the brain as when we eat a lot of chocolate. “Who knew doing good benefits the person doing it?” she said.
In research they just completed, Handy and her co-author, Sara Konrath, found that giving seems to have such a profound impact on the body that people who do good are even rated as more attractive by strangers than their less-charitable peers. “People who do good actually look good,” she said.
Because there are so many benefits to helping, it can be detrimental when we can’t satisfy the urge. But women’s efforts in particular can be thwarted by having to take care of household demands first, like looking after children and older relatives.
That’s why Peek, who has studied disasters like Hurricane Katrina and the Sept. 11 attacks, says it’s essential in this environment to expand the definition of altruism. She referred to a colleague who stepped down from leading a working group because she was overwhelmed at home with her three children. The colleague, she said, was guilt-stricken and distraught about not contributing. “We carry all this burden and constantly feel like we aren’t doing enough,” Peek said. “But we need to reframe what it means to be helping our community right now, because whatever we are doing, every piece of it matters.”
She emphasized that in this fraught time, even our daily tasks — caring for our families, teaching our children and making them feel safe — are important contributions. “The invisible labor of holding a crying child at night — that doesn’t get seen, so that doesn’t get counted, but it’s so important,” she said. “Every little thing helps our community get up on its feet.”
By Mara Altman