Gender Equality in a Pandemic Era: The lessons we have learned can shape the future
Banner image: Shutterstock/nyker NEW YORK CITY CIRCA NOVEMBER 2017. Fearless Girl opposite the Charging Bull in Lower Manhattan aims to focus on gender equality and claims to bring attention to the lack of women leaders on Wall Street
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 socio-economic impact of COVID-19 has been felt in every corner of the world, by people from all walks of life, as well as different sectors and governments. As the world transformed into first responders in the face of the global outbreak, Sustainable Development Goal 5, achieving gender equality, has witnessed a well-documented downturn.
The disproportionate fallout from the ongoing pandemic—coupled with the reported under-representation of women in global and localised COVID-19 recovery strategies—threatens to wind the clock back on gender equality in the lead up to our global targets outlined by the UN for the year 2030. Today, over a year on since the global outbreak, what do we know about the impact of the pandemic on women? And how do we carefully manoeuvre, within a small margin of error, as we look to regain crucial momentum in the drive for equality?
What do we know?
Economy & Employment
The World Economic Forum reported in March that the pandemic had added 36 years to the estimated time needed to close the gender pay gap, culminating in a total average of 135.6 years to reach absolute parity between men and women on economic opportunity, political power, education and health.
The economic impact of the pandemic has been profound, yet statistics show that the female workforce and female-owned businesses have witnessed increased struggles. Nearly 60% of women around the world work in the informal economy and the industries that they statistically dominate—such as the garment, hospitality, real estate and education sectors— have been pulled apart over the past year. This has resulted in women earning less, saving less and being at greater risk of poverty.
According to International Labour Organization data, the employment loss measured in working hours for women worldwide was 5% in 2020, versus 3.9% for men. In low-income countries, the employment-to-population ratio fell 2.6% for women, compared to 1.8% for men.
Female-owned firms and self-employed women have faced additional barriers to maintaining operations throughout an era in which the hands of the education and domestic care sectors have been tied. The increase in unpaid domestic childcare resulting from the closures of schools and nurseries has left many female business owners around the world feeling backed into a corner.
During lockdowns, European women dedicated 18.4 hours per week on cooking and housework, compared to 12.1 hours for men—yet even before the pandemic, this figure was 15.8 hours and 6.8 hours, respectively.
In Europe and Central Asia, 25% of self-employed women have lost their jobs compared to 21% of men. Projections suggest the equivalent of 140 million full-time jobs may be lost due to COVID-19, and women’s employment is 19% more at risk than men.
A study by ImpactHer, investigating the impact of the pandemic on African female business owners, found that 80% of female-owned businesses had been partially halted due to the pandemic, and half of those enterprises had also reduced their employees’ hours. The survey also revealed that more than 90% of the businesses needed short-term financing to stay afloat during the pandemic.
More on the Forum Network: Policies to Support Women through the Crisis and Ensure an Inclusive Recovery: Presentation from the OECD Forum Virtual Event "Building a gender-equal recovery" by Monika Queisser, head of Social Policy Division, OECD
Despite the fact research has suggested that COVID-19 is in fact more deadly amongst men, the mental health impact of COVID-19 has disproportionately affected women. A study by CARE found that 27% of women had reported an increased strain on their mental health, compared to 10% of men. They identified that factors such as unpaid labour in the house had increased exponentially, in many cases leading to stress and worries about food, work and healthcare. Women also make up a larger majority of frontline health workers around the world, which has applied additional pressures and complications.
Across their lifetime, an estimated 30% of all women—globally almost three quarters of a billion— are subjected to sexual or physical violence by an intimate partner. Attacks against women have been known to increase during crises or turbulent times, and this pandemic has been no different.
Global examples after initial lockdowns include:
- China saw a 300% increase in domestic violence.
- Between January and March 2020, before the first lockdowns, UK charity Refuge recorded an average of 8,176 calls and messages per month. Between April 2020 and February 2021, it logged a total of more than 131,000 such contacts.
- In the UK, deaths from domestic abuse between 23 March and 12 April had more than doubled compared with the average rate in the previous 10 years.
- Tunisia reported significant increases in psychological and physical violence against women.
- Germany reported a 5% increase in violence against women during the April 2020 lockdowns.
- Lebanon reported a 45% rise in attacks against women during the same month, with Muslim women suffering most.
- India recorded a 21% increase during the 2020 lockdowns.
How do we learn from these lessons to drive action?
The impact of the pandemic on women is well reported, meaning the data are available. The past year has highlighted the fragilities of our eco-systems, which often result in women bearing the brunt of economic and physical crises. So, what can be done?
Accountability & Equal Representation in Recovery Strategies
Research in 2021 showed that in 30 countries, women account for just a quarter of decision makers on COVID-19 response panels tasked with determining how to handle the health emergency and economic fallout. This lack of decision-making women is not only less effective but also detrimental to our global recovery. Including women when identifying key policy issues—many of which they may have faced personally—is crucial to not only build back better but also to prevent a disproportionate impact on women in future crises of this nature.
Now more than ever we are looking for collaborative efforts driven by multi-stakeholder momentum. This is not about ticking boxes for equal representation on pandemic response panels purely for the interests of fairness: instead, it is a requisite to have women’s voices heard and draw on their authentic, first-hand experiences throughout this pandemic to ensure the quickest and most efficient recovery possible. For example, we need the female business owners who can relay the struggles of the past year to be heard, as opposed to just decision-making from afar. The equal representation of men and women in the COVID-19 recovery strategy is something that needs to be monitored, quantified and scrutinised.
Unless economic policies deliberately target women, supporting women-led businesses and their income security, their situation will only worsen. We need stronger links between national gender equality bodies and the national structures responsible for COVID-19 recovery efforts to ensure gender impact assessments and gender budgeting are used. Financial support for lone parents to assist with childcare, rent payments and other household expenses could help to alleviate some of the financial hardship, especially in light of potential job losses.
Multi-sector Collaboration & Dialogue
Drawing attention to the issues and backed by official statistics, we are able to see where our priorities lie, and as such are able to use this period to draw up the blueprint for multi-sector action. SDG 17, partnerships for the goals, is the substance that binds a large majority of our targets—no single sector, continent or country can implement a truly global recovery strategy alone.
If we are to replenish lost gender equality progress, multi-stakeholder collaborations with Global North-South dialogue and action are paramount. From members of the public, business leaders and organisation heads right through to top-level policy makers, we must all accept the weight of responsibility on our shoulders when it comes to regaining concise, strategic momentum—there is not a moment to spare. By highlighting gross inequalities and using them to create real meaningful action to shape policies and define priorities, we are able to draw on the collective strength of people, ideas, networks and technologies to pull in the same direction.
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