Building a gender-equal recovery

Banner image: Shutterstock/Roman Samborskyi

Like Comment

This article is part of a series in which OECD experts and thought leaders  from around the world and all parts of society  address the COVID-19 crisis, discussing and developing solutions now and for the future.

To keep updated on all of the OECD's work supporting the fight against COVID-19, visit our Digital Content Hub.


The human, social and economic costs of the pandemic have weighed heavily on many—not least for half the population disproportionately on the COVID-19 front lines. Women are more likely to be healthcare workers, teachers, caregivers and working parents; they are more likely than men to worry about making ends meet after household finances take a hit (see OECD’s recent Risks that Matter survey); and they are also the victims of spikes in domestic violence following lockdown restrictions.

A recent OECD Forum event, Building a gender-equal recovery, gathered some of the subject’s foremost voices, bringing to our attention some of the unique pressures women have had to face since the pandemic outbreak. It has underscored the need to think big—to seek ways to effect profound and lasting change as part of the broader drive to build an inclusive recovery.

Three key takeaways emerged from our exchange. First, gender inequality continues to be a major challenge. Second, there is much work still to do to embed gender considerations in the development of policies (something the OECD has long championed). Third, we must reinforce the message that the systematic inclusion of gender in policy development is a matter of efficacy as well as of principle—after all, policies affect women as they do men.

It is paramount to apply a gender lens to all COVID-19 response and recovery efforts by reinforcing the view that gender equality, growth and development are inseparable.

– Angel Gurría, former Secretary-General, OECD

Applying a gender lens to all recovery efforts

Sixty-two percent of retail workers are women, as are two-thirds of healthcare workers. Women make up 90% of long-term care workers—a sector known for tough working conditions, low pay and minimal social or health benefits. Job losses have affected everyone, but, according to Monika Queisser, Head of Social Policy at OECD, women are more likely to work in sectors that have felt the greatest impact from COVID-19.

The pandemic has laid bare the vital importance of care work, which our economies need in order to function. “There is no paid, formal economy without the often unpaid, sometimes informal, and many times unseen care work of women”, said Julissa Reynoso, Co-Chair of the newly established White House Gender Policy Council. “Care work makes all other productivity possible—it holds together the foundation of our economies”.

This has prompted countries into action (see box, How are countries tackling gender?). In the United States itself, the new Gender Policy Council will seek to ensure that all policy issues be approached with gender equality in mind, with every government agency and policy team at the table. The aim of recovery plans is therefore to adopt a holistic approach to gender equality that addresses everything from economic security, remuneration for care work and pay equity to improving access to education, reproductive healthcare services and support to tackle gender-based violence.

How are countries tackling gender?
The OECD has long championed the inclusion of gender considerations in the development of all policies—notably through the 2015 OECD Recommendation on Gender Equality in Public Life. A central tenet of this approach is a “whole-of-government” approach to gender equality—meaning that it is central to governments’ priorities—in decision-making and resource allocation.
Women’s concerns and priorities are increasingly part of governments’ COVID-19 recovery plans—Canada, Iceland, Italy, Japan, Mexico, Sweden, Switzerland and the United States are among the countries that have moved in this direction, often drawing on pre-COVID experiences. These measures include providing women with access to leadership opportunities in emergency and recovery decision-making structures; inter-ministerial planning; a solid data infrastructure; and the availability of gender equality expertise and gender analysis tools.
However, only 11 OECD countries have said they are explicitly using gender analysis tools as part of their early responses to the pandemic. Moreover, women make up a mere 24% of members of COVID-19 task forces globally—not enough to ensure the interests of women are sufficiently represented in the recovery.

One country that has made great strides in embedding gender equality into policy decision-making over many years is Sweden. At least 50% women must be represented in government. Every minister is asked what they are doing to improve gender equality. Every issue, big or small, is evaluated through a gender lens, including in parliament. Disaggregated data is gathered to monitor progress and reorient the course for action.

Swedish member of parliament Eva Lindh reminded us that “Sweden’s government is the first feminist government in the world,” pointing to the country’s extraordinary success in moving the needle on gender equality and improving social equity more broadly. “The result is not just social equity, but economic growth”, she explained—underlining why tackling gender inequality and greater diversity more broadly matters for reasons of efficacy as well as of principle. Today, an estimated USD 6 trillion is lost due to uneven female employment rates across OECD countries.

Read the OECD report: "Towards gender-inclusive recovery" and visit the OECD's COVID-19 Hub to browse hundreds of policy responses

Visit the OECD's COVID-19 Hub

Changing mindsets and cultures

Against a backdrop of extreme turbulence over the past year, we have seen remarkable displays of leadership in many countries. Denmark, Finland, Germany, Iceland, New Zealand and Norway are among them—and they all have women leading their governments.

All leaders bring something different to the table. The recognition that different experiences and different world views mean different leadership traits can, however, be instructive. It is not a question of whether women make better leaders than men. Rather, explained Laura Liswood, Secretary General of the Council of Women World Leaders, being part of a non-dominant group of society means having to hone the types of skills that the dominant group is less likely to have—for example, empathy and compassion, listening skills, curiosity, and inclusiveness. These skills may be even more invaluable during a crisis. “Everyone benefits from the cognitive diversity and different sets of experiences that women bring to the table”, she said.

Women have traits of leadership that we need today. They do not confuse confidence with competence. 

– Laura Liswood, Secretary General, Council of Women World Leaders

This holds true for many sectors of society, including business, where women’s representation in top-level positions has helped change culture and ethics, pointing to the greater benefits of diversity for society and organisations as a whole. The presence of women on boards can have a galvanising effect on organisations’ standards and performance: they are more likely to read board material and ask more questions; they tend to look at the longer-term impact of decisions and give greater priority to stakeholders. “Organisations benefit from bringing together both male and female perspectives”, said Pavita Cooper, Deputy Chair of the 30% Club, which supports greater gender diversity in senior management.

However, there are no silver bullets—and there are risks. Supporting greater representation of women in senior leadership cannot be a matter of superficial tokenism. Appointing women leaders is not a substitute for broader-based change throughout an organisation at all levels of hierarchy. Real change means changing mindsets and cultures—and this needs commitment, time and patience.

Read more on the Forum Network: "Gender Equality in a Pandemic Era: The lessons we have learned can shape the future" by Natasha Mudhar, Founder, The World We Want

Read more on the Forum Network: "Gender Equality in a Pandemic Era: The lessons we have learned can shape the future" by Natasha Mudhar, Founder, The World We Want

This points to the deep-seated, lasting inequalities still present in our societies today that call on us to “always stay alert and raise expectations,” as Eva Lindh put it. Forcing organisations to confront prevailing myths of meritocracy through affirmative or active intervention mechanisms is one way of doing it. Working with established leaders—including men—to create change is another. This approach, according to Pavita Cooper, should start early, for example by equipping young girls with the skills and desire to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics-related (STEM) fields.

The challenges of gender inequality can be compounded by variables of race and ethnicity, which the new White House Council is taking on board as it looks at the unique obstacles facing women of colour. Cooper noted the lack of “black leaders sitting in top-three senior management roles across the FTSE 100” (the stock market of leading United Kingdom companies). There remains much work to do.

The pandemic has made clear that a government-wide strategy centred on gender equity with a particular focus, in our view, on the intersections with racial equity is urgently needed.

– Ambassador Julissa Reynoso, White House Gender Policy Council, Co-Chair and Chief of Staff to the First Lady of the United States

What can we draw from the personal, lived impact of the COVID-19 crisis to change norms and biases? I, for one, have experienced first-hand what being a “working dad” means, having now spent over a year doing my job from home, alongside my children, a challenging but rewarding adventure in work-life balance. Remote working has even freed parents—particularly women—from the pressure of presenteeism. It has also shone a light on all the unpaid domestic work that is needed to keep families going—a task more often done by women—on top of the work they may do outside the home. These changes are helping to alter men’s perceptions of what work-life balance and home caring roles should be.

We might draw solace from the fact that, whether big or small, the disruptions caused by the COVID-19 crisis might provide the wake-up we need to take a hard look at how we have done things until now—and dare to imagine a more equal future as we recover.

“Our ability to reach unity in diversity will be the beauty and the test of our civilisation”. Mahatma Gandhi’s words resonate more than ever as the world charts its path from pandemic to recovery.

Browse the OECD Gender Data Portal and see the latest OECD data, recommendations and policy advice on Gender Equality

Related Topics

Tackling COVID-19 New Societal Contract Gender Equality


Whether you agree, disagree or have another point of view, join the Forum Network for free using your email or social media accounts and tell us what's happening where you are. Your comments are what make the network the unique space it is, connecting citizens, experts and policy makers in open and respectful debate.