This article, first published in April 2022, 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.
The pandemic has made it abundantly clear how much our societies and economies depend on paid and unpaid work in healthcare, childcare, long-term care and home care. According to Ulrik Vestergaard Knudsen, Deputy Secretary-General, OECD, frontline workers were disproportionately young, less-educated, foreign-born, from ethnic and racial minorities, and to a large extent, women. In OECD countries, 20 million women make up 75% of the work force in health and social care, compared with 6.3 million men. The representation of women increases in specific sectors, including the long-term care sector, where women hold about 90% of jobs.
Over the past 20 years, the gender pay gap across OECD countries dropped from about 18.1% to about 11.6%, a result of changing societies and labour markets, and successful public policies in a number of countries. But, unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic revealed the instability of these gains.
The OECD Forum Virtual Event "Women at the Frontline of the Recovery" took place on 31 March 2022. This event has ended and registration is now closed—but don't worry, you can still ► watch the replay!
The pandemic effects of the Great Exhaustion & increased feminisation
The pandemic gave rise to the so-called “Great Exhaustion”, with 42 % of women in the United States saying they are burnt out, according to McKinsey’s Women in the Workplace 2021 report. When we checked with the audience from around the world (106 countries) who joined the OECD Forum Virtual Event “Women at the Frontline of the Recovery” on 31 March 2022, 73% shared this same feeling of exhaustion.
As a result, women have indicated that the pandemic has driven them to leave the workforce or dramatically scale back their professional commitments. Many do not know when—or even if—they will return.
Women are being asked, yet again, to go to the back of the queue, and to wait until everything else is solved, and then 'we' will get around to addressing the role of women in the workplace, and pay justice. The big message I hear as part of the discussion is that women are not going to stand for that, so it is not okay to say to us, 'Wait until everything is solved, and the economy is back rocking-and-rolling again, and then we can have a conversation about valuing work that is done by women properly'.
– Esther Lynch
Rae Cooper, Professor of Gender, Work, and Employment Relations at the University of Sydney highlighted what she calls a “compounding problem”: women either losing jobs or being forced to work overtime, often in positions that put them at higher risk of exposure to the virus. This phenomenon was particularly true for working-class women.
Ms. Cooper also pointed to the “feminisation” of certain sectors, with women over represented in education, healthcare and long-term care. When women dominate a certain industry, this leads to low pay, high levels of precarity, poor career paths and no voice in terms of representation of rights in the workplace—for both women and men working in these types of jobs.
In these jobs, women also often face bias, discrimination and sexual harassment. Both Ms. Cooper and Esther Lynch, Deputy General Secretary of the European Trade Union Confederation, feared that these issues would not be addressed until the economy has recovered from both the pandemic and the war in Ukraine.
Helena Dali, the European Commissioner for Gender Equality, mentioned in her remarks that the European Commission would be presenting a European Care Strategy, outlining a comprehensive approach to care covering the entire life cycle. She also noted that the European Commission is putting gender equality at the core of the crisis response and recovery programmes. Last year the EU adopted a Recovery and Resilience Facility, which provides over EUR 670 billion to EU Member States to build back better. One aim of the facility is to mitigate the social and economic impacts of the pandemic on women. Many EU Member States have made good use of the facility, proposing significant investments in childcare facilities and long-term care.
Addressing recovery decision-making
If we are to build a more gender-inclusive recovery, we must ensure that women are present at the decision making table across industries.
While women were at the healthcare frontlines in the fight against COVID-19, they have mostly been absent from pandemic decision-making at a higher level. Magda Robalo, Global Managing Director of Women in Global Health, former high commissioner for COVID-19 and former Minister of Health for Guinea-Bissau, also underlined that “within the global health sector, 70% of the jobs are held by women, but only 25% of decision-making roles are held by them”, a dispiriting statistic that has worsened with the pandemic.
If we are to build a more gender-inclusive recovery, we must ensure that women are present at the decision making table across industries. This includes a commitment to shifting workplace systems and culture. Ms. Robalo said: “We need to remember that we have built systems that, across generations, favoured men for leadership roles. We need to create an enabling environment for women to achieve, including measures that enable women to achieve leadership positions”.
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These leadership positions must include the presence of women on boards—and economic diversity is key. Esther Lynch underlined that, “Women from all types of backgrounds and incomes [must] have the opportunity to get training to get on those panels. Unless we get working women, and their perspectives, their voices, their particular understandings onto boards, we’re not going to change as much as we could”.
We still have very strong norms that associate care, particularly of young children, with mothers. This means that women often have to step down to access a job that is more flexible, but might be worse paid or have fewer associated career opportunities. This is a choice they have to make, and it is not a free choice.
– Rae Cooper
Ms. Lynch also underlined a related, critical problem: while men often are promoted on potential, “women only get promoted after they have proven they can do that job 10 times over”. This is why we must ensure that women get the chances to prove that they can do the next job—a concern that has only become more salient as women have been pushed back into the home as a consequence of the pandemic. At the same time, we also need to get more men into predominantly female industries.
Unfortunately, even when women have proven themselves professionally, they are often still employed below their level of qualification. This must be understood as a structural problem—specifically one fundamentally linked to social attitudes concerning childcare. According to Ms. Cooper, “We still have very strong norms that associate care, particularly of young children, with mothers. This means that women often have to step down to access a job that is more flexible, but might be worse paid or have fewer associated career opportunities. This is a choice they have to make, and it is not a free choice”. This is not only not equitable but also highly inefficient from a resource perspective, as it means that hard-won, high-level skills are not being put to use.
The OECD Forum Virtual Event audience indicated that better pay and working conditions, as well as truly flexible working hours, would be key to persuading [women] to stay in the workforce despite the pressures they continue to face.
As we look toward the post-COVID world, what can we do to reverse these trends? How can we ensure that women can thrive in the workforce and lead as equals, both in their jobs and in society? Two goals emerged from the OECD Forum Virtual Event as fundamental to achieving this outcome: ensuring that women are central to decision-making; and levelling the playing field in terms of the recognition and remuneration of frontline jobs in education, (health) care and childcare.
Esther Lynch and Mary Goudie, Member of House of Lords, United Kingdom, and Founding Member of The 30% Club, also mentioned a number of practical issues that must be addressed. These include helping women identify workplace disrespect, and finding ways to counteract it. It will also be key to implement guidelines to help women negotiate better pay when changing jobs or re-entering the workforce.
These priorities resonated with the OECD Forum Virtual Event audience. Participants indicated that better pay and working conditions, as well as truly flexible working hours, would be key to persuading them to stay in the workforce despite the pressures they continue to face.
If we are to achieve a truly equitable post-COVID recovery, we must make sure that women across the socioeconomic spectrum have seats at the decision-making table. This means not only ensuring that women are present in leadership forums and boardrooms, but also fighting gender segregation across all sectors and industries. We must boost support in sectors where women may be present but are underutilised, undervalued, or lack agency, so that these industries are characterised by good jobs and decent work for women.
At the same time, we must introduce a degree of flexibility in day-to-day work that truly empowers women to succeed, rather than burdening them further—what Ms. Cooper refers to as “good flexibility”. This will require fighting discriminatory social norms around responsibility for childcare and work in the home, and ensuring that both women and men are encouraged and incentivised to take on these responsibilities. It will require being attentive to the potentially negative gendered impacts of the new paradigm of remote work, and making our jobs fit with our family lives and the obligations for care that should be shared equally by all.
The OECD Gender Initiative examines existing barriers to gender equality in education, employment, and entrepreneurship. Find out more!
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