Four Building Blocks for a Gender Equitable and Sustainable Recovery

The COVID-19 crisis further widened the global gender pay gap. A gender lens, good jobs, access to sustainable careers and strong care infrastructure will help deliver a gender equitable recovery and a sustainable future for our economy and society. Banner image: Shutterstock/Monkey Business Images

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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. Aiming to foster the fruitful exchange of expertise and perspectives across fields to help us rise to this critical challenge, opinions expressed do not necessarily represent the views of the OECD.

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The global gender pay gap was unacceptably large before the pandemic. Over the two years of the coronavirus outbreak, it has been aggravated and amplified. The international evidence shows that gendered labour market inequalities—like extreme labour market gender segregation and the unequal distribution of unpaid labour at home—have worsened through COVID-19. As we approach the task of recovery, we must take urgent action to build back better and fairer to ensure that work is sustainable in every sense: socially, economically and ecologically. Doing any less risks creating an even larger gap, which will take longer to bridge. We propose four building blocks for governments and business that will form the foundation for this work.

1. A gender lens on the recovery

We won’t build back better unless we design for gender equality.

Past health and economic crises, such as the 2003 SARS outbreak and 2008 global financial crisis, show that labour markets don’t default to gender equality once the immediate crisis is over. Without conscious design, including women taking seats at the decision-making table, women’s interests and experience will be ignored. A gender lens on the recovery effort provides a framework for understanding how gender equality can be built into government policies and business investment from the ground up. This will require collecting data differently, with a focus on the unique impact policies have on women and men.

Gender-responsive economic planning will not only unlock women’s human capital—but given the overlap between highly-feminised occupations and low-carbon sectors of the economy, it will also set the global economy on a firm footing for an inclusive recovery. This will support long-term prosperity, well-being and environmental sustainability well into the future.

2. Good jobs and decent work

Good jobs are the hallmark of a gender equal recovery.

Women are overrepresented in bad jobs globally—jobs that are precarious, low paid and lack career paths and voice. This is especially the case in health, education, care and human services work, and the pandemic has highlighted how essential these jobs are to our social and economic well-being. They are also inherently lower carbon-emitting, requiring less dramatic adjustments than many other sectors to be environmentally sustainable in the long term. Ensuring that these jobs are attractive, secure, flexible and decently paid makes economic, social and environmental sense.  

Governments have a role to play here, providing a robust floor of universal worker rights that include a living wage, voice at work and working time security. Good job design is another essential action, and an area where business and government must lead. With the pandemic prompting shifts to remote or hybrid working in many professional sectors, high quality, flexible working options will be critical to a gender equal recovery. Job security is essential for men and women’s capacity to reconcile paid work with home and community responsibilities. This will require careful investment by employers in high-quality, flexible work design that does not further segment the workforce and which supports equitable career development.

3. Sharing the lucrative jobs

Women must have access to sustainable careers in high paid sectors.

Men dominate the best and most lucrative jobs globally, leaving women concentrated in low paid sectors and jobs at the lowest rung of the labour market. A gender equitable recovery will require action by government and business to reduce gendered labour market segregations, challenging social norms that discourage women from accessing and thriving in the highest paid and most senior jobs. Where women do enter very male-dominated jobs they struggle to thrive, progress and forge sustainable careers. Worryingly, the response of many national governments and global businesses to the COVID crisis has been to invest even more heavily in very male-dominated sectors such as construction, mining and aviation. This may further entrench labour market-wide gender inequalities and is a wasted opportunity to reconfigure crucial sectors of the economy for equality and environmental sustainability.

Read more on the Forum Network: What impact has COVID-19 had on women entrepreneurs and what can governments and policy makers do to put gender equality at the heart of global recovery? by Helen McEachern, CEO, The Cherie Blair Foundation for Women

4. Strong care infrastructure

A well-paid and trained care workforce is essential to gender equality.

The pandemic highlighted a truth we already knew: the economy is only as strong as its care infrastructure. To build back better and fairer, governments and business must invest new money in strong national care infrastructure, including child, elder and disability care, and national paid carer leave policies. The acute pressure placed on already vulnerable care services and workforces by the pandemic in many countries saw those services fail and the economy stop.  

Investment in the care sector is an employment-rich recovery strategy, producing more jobs than similar investment in construction and manufacturing. Strengthening care infrastructures supports women’s labour force participation and the opportunity to be employed in jobs that match skill and aspiration. It underwrites strong career paths, helps close the gender pay gap and builds economic security, while also lifting the human capabilities of the very young, those with a disability and the elderly. Achieving these goals means ensuring that care workforces are well-trained and professionally paid. Governments can invest in funding models that support workforce sustainability and good governance. Business can also invest in gender equal paid care leave policies for workers to complement formal service provision and support a culture of care as everyone’s responsibility.

These four building blocks will help deliver a gender equitable recovery and a sustainable future for our economy and society.


Watch the video The gender pay gap: A stubborn problem and learn how the OECD is addressing the gender pay gap with Valery Fey, Economist, Directorate for Employment, Labour and Social Affairs, OECD. 

Read the recent report Towards gender-inclusive recovery to learn more about how the OECD is supporting governments design gender-inclusive approaches to emergency management and recovery.

Related Topics 

Gender Equality New Societal Contract Tackling COVID-19 Green Recovery

Elizabeth Hill, Rae Cooper & Frances Flanagan

Political Economy Associate Professor; Gender, Work and Employment Relations Professor; & Sydney Fellow and Work and Organisational Studies Lecturer, The University of Sydney

Associate Professor Elizabeth Hill researches the political economy of women, work and care with a specific focus on how labour markets and public policy settings shape the gendered distribution of paid and unpaid work. She is co-convenor of the Australian Work and Family Policy Roundtable and Deputy Director of the Gender Equality in Working Life Research Initiative at The University of Sydney.

https://www.sydney.edu.au/business/about/our-people/academic-staff/rae-cooper.html

Professor Rae Cooper researches across all areas of women’s careers and working lives and am especially interested in the future of work, how women navigate their careers and the decisions that government and organisations can make to build equality at work. She is an Australian Research Council Future Fellow and the Director of the Gender Equality in Working Life Research Initiative at The University of Sydney.

https://www.sydney.edu.au/arts/about/our-people/academic-staff/elizabeth-hill.html

Dr Frances Flanagan's research concerns the changing role that work has played as a source of social cohesion, identity and belonging in the context of ongoing changes in employment relationships, gender relations, technology and the environment.

https://www.sydney.edu.au/business/about/our-people/academic-staff/frances-flanagan.html