Success for Women is Success for Everyone: Closing Gender Gaps Starts with Understanding 

Women have borne the brunt of COVID-19 across all aspects of our lives. Gina Sheibley and Sydney Heimbrock from Qualtrics present four key ways leaders can elevate women’s voices and address the inequities they face to create a better normal for all. Banner: Shutterstock/LGC
Success for Women is Success for Everyone: Closing Gender Gaps Starts with Understanding 

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

Women have borne the brunt of COVID-19 across all aspects of our lives. At the same time, women have risen to the challenge with heroism — continuing to show up to work, take care their families and serve their communities. But global research shows that the fallout is widespread, affecting women in specific ways depending on their location, ethnicity, domestic relationships, economic status, and many other factors. The stories of these women echo shared experiences of cultural and political discrimination, social insecurity and isolation, economic inequality and instability, and deteriorating mental and physical health.

Governments working toward post-pandemic recovery must seize this historic opportunity to dismantle long standing structural barriers to women’s equality. Now is the moment to create a better normal designed for women to thrive and help propel their countries forward in economic competitiveness, political stability, social cohesion, and health. Here are four key ways leaders can elevate women’s voices and address the inequities they face.

  1. Listen to understand the specific experiences of a diverse female population

 Women are 50% of the world’s population, but each individual has unique needs. Policies must address the specific barriers and opportunities women experience based on their economic, social, racial, and ethnic identities. Studies using Qualtrics’ Experience Management (XM) platform have found that certain women experienced disproportionate financial strain, post-traumatic stress disorder, and abuse from intimate partners during COVID-19 — including abuse through blocking access to money. Lower-earning women, for example, experienced the highest number of these material hardships during the pandemic (Johnson 2021).

The pandemic has not improved things for women. Learn more with the OECD Data Insights "Young people and women hit hard by jobs crisis"

It’s critical for governments to analyze the intersectional experiences of populations in order to shape policies that effectively remove barriers. Providing all decision makers with qualitative data enables them to hear what is happening to people in real time and in their own voices. In the U.S. for example, the Federal Census Bureau added regular pulses to their household survey as COVID-19 unfolded to understand the pandemic’s impact on people’s lives. They then sent those insights to leaders of health, human services, housing, and workforce agencies. Combining qualitative insights with administrative data helps governments uncover root causes of the experiences women are having. Armed with these insights, governments are better equipped to design innovative solutions to challenges women face.

  1. Identify how policies and cultural factors collide to create negative experiences

Our global studies consistently show that siloed policy-making creates negative experiences for individuals — particularly women. In the U.S. for example, school closures led to 58% of working mothers shouldering exclusive responsibility for their children’s learning during the pandemic, compared to 34% of working fathers. Since 45% of working parents reported being discriminated against at work as a result of focusing on family responsibilities — including being passed over for promotion, or hourly workers forced to cut back their hours —  domestic responsibilities disproportionately placed on women put them at an additional financial disadvantage. Studies consistently demonstrate the direct correlation between women’s empowerment and economic success. Yet, because of their experiences during COVID-19, women’s intent to stay with their current employer has dropped from 71% in 2021 to 63% in 2022.

Our global studies consistently show that siloed policy-making creates negative experiences for individuals — particularly women. 

Thinking ahead about the ways public health measures intersect with other policy areas, like education and labor, can help leaders proactively solve problems. Policy makers should collaborate across agencies to map women’s life experience journeys — like losing a job, losing a spouse or partner to COVID-19, or facing a school closure — and identify and close the experience gaps. Policy makers can use technology to predict how probable scenarios will impact specific groups, and create better support systems for them.

  1. Pay attention to the whole person, including unseen experiences

Government leaders must place mental health at the center of their recovery plans and specifically target women’s mental health as a public health priority. Women are 65% more likely than men to say their mental health has declined over the course of the pandemic. According to research from Mind Share Partners in partnership with Qualtrics and ServiceNow, women and caregivers were all significantly more likely to experience at least one mental health symptom, including anxiety, depression, and burnout. And their symptoms lasted longer too.

Additional research shows that employees say the number one thing holding them back from taking care of their mental health is that leaders don’t talk about it enough. To remove stigma, leaders need to talk about mental health openly. Equally, it’s important for leaders to listen through multiple channels — like pulse surveys, in-person conversations, and social media — to what their employees or constituents are experiencing, in order to surface mental health risks and challenges. Most critical is taking speedy action like connecting people to services they need and following up to make sure their situation is improving.

Read more on the Forum Network: Fitter Minds, Fitter Jobs: The nexus between mental health, skills and employment, by Anthony Gooch, Director, OECD Forum

  1. Amplify and act on women’s voices

The role of government  is to create the conditions for all members of society to thrive. Success for our countries, businesses and communities requires bringing diverse perspectives to the table to challenge assumptions and solve complex problems. Gender inclusion means creating a culture where women can voice their vision and design a future that works better for all members of society.

That starts with bringing more women into leadership roles in all our public institutions. And there is no better time than now.

The OECD Gender Initiative examines existing barriers to gender equality in education, employment, and entrepreneurship. Find out more!

Related Topics

Tackling COVID-19 Gender Equality Future of Work New Societal Contract

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