Gender inequality is one of the main obstacles to sustainable development. Women’s exclusion from the heart of public policy-making is not new, and the response to the COVID-19 crisis is no exception, as the crisis’s gendered impact fails to be addressed. While available data reveal that men are more prone to die as a result of the coronavirus, there are many dimensions on which women are being disproportionately impacted by the virus—but analysis of this aspect of the crisis is scant, and gender is not adequately factored into debates about policy solutions. Now, as countries begin to design and implement short- and long-term responses (including stimulus packages) to adapt to and mitigate the effects of the pandemic, we have an opportunity to understand and rethink how our systems can be fully inclusive. In particular, we can address the following historical gender inequalities:
- Women comprise the majority of employees in the health sector. A study published by the WHO shows that 67% of health workers are women. Despite women’s prevalence in the sector and their consequent greater exposure to the virus, gender pay gaps persist across the industry, with men earning up to 11% more than women performing the same work. Additionally, gender segregation within the industry remains high: whereas male workers tend to occupy higher-paying jobs (e.g., physicians, dentists), women make up the majority of the workforce in lower-paying roles such as nursing and midwifery.
- Women are disproportionately burdened with unpaid work. Owing to traditional gender roles and long-ingrained expectations, women tend to be the primary caregivers in their households, disproportionately responsible for the caring of children, partners, and elderly family members. As the ILO reports: “women perform 76% of the total time spent in unpaid care work.” This means that women spend an average of 4 hours and 25 minutes per day doing domestic work, compared to men’s 1 hour and 23 minutes per day. Today, with countries implementing social distancing measures in response to the Covid-19 crisis, the already unequal distribution of unpaid work between men and women has been exacerbated, imposing additional burdens on working women. With schools closed and people obliged to work from home, women are juggling to balance the demands of their jobs (performed remotely) with the responsibilities of parenting and household chores.
- Gender-based violence (GBV) increases during lockdowns. Earlier this month, the UN Secretary-General called for concrete actions to address and prevent the “horrifying surge of GBV” during lockdowns implemented by governments worldwide. Prior to the virus, the data were already chilling. UN WOMEN reported that 243 million women and girls (aged 15-49) across the world have been subjected to sexual or physical violence by an intimate partner during 2019 and, according to WHO, 1 in 3 women have experienced some form of violence during their lifetime. In the current phase of increased uncertainty, stress, and tension surrounding health, finances, and the future, GBV is rapidly escalating, while women have more than usually limited options to escape from their abusers.
- The poverty penalty hits women harder. Recent data show that women account for the half of world’s extreme poor, But girls and women suffer higher poverty levels than men and it is harder for them to overcome structural barriers such as a lack of education and access to resources, poor employment conditions (informal economy, low wages, low-paying sectors), unpaid work, and violence. A World Bank study revealed that for every 100 men (aged 25-34) living in poverty, there are 122 women facing this situation. Moreover, because women comprise the greater proportion of workers in the informal economy (characterized by inadequate work conditions and a lack of benefits), they are disproportionately impacted by lockdowns, which hinder them from working and earning vital income.
- The fourth industrial revolution still has a long way to go for women. Prior to the COVID-19 crisis, women already faced critical obstacles to entering into and participating equally in a tech-driven world. According to McKinsey, in order to remain relevant in a technology-driven job market, between 40 and 160 million women must transition into other occupations by 2030. It is likely that, in the aftermath of this pandemic, the world will become more digital. Over recent decades, information and communication technologies (ICTs) have expanded rapidly, but women across the world still have limited access to computers, cell phones, and the internet (-10% compared to men), and lack the requisite digital skills to access employment opportunities, undermining their opportunities to adapt to this new model.
Successful response strategies to our current crisis rely on a proper understanding of gender dynamics. We need to recognize women’s real-life vulnerabilities, the structural barriers they face as they strive to achieve their full potential, and the diverse economic and familial roles they play in today’s world. Needless to say, women are not a homogenous group: they have myriad different interests and are impacted differently owing to factors such as age, class, race and ethnicity.
Response 1: Recognize, redistribute and reduce domestic work
Challenging traditional gender roles is key to addressing the unequal gender division of labor. This requires governments and business to invest in care policies that effectively recognize domestic chores and caregiving as work and ensure equal access to services for giving and receiving care. Examples include: educational campaigns, family leave (granted equally to parents regardless of gender), childcare services at work, and other flexible work policies.
Response 2: Prevent GBV & protect victims of GBV
Gender-based violence must be confronted on two fronts: short- and long-term. During the Covid-19 emergency, protocols for medical staff, police and social service workers should be adapted to effectively identify victims and protect their wellbeing. An important first step is to prevent cases of potential victims. Domestic violence is not an isolated occurrence; on the contrary, it tends to be a recurring act. Governments should work to prevent potential cases of violence by using their databases, extending protective measures in already-reported cases. Useful measures also include apps for reporting abuse and issuing alerts, in addition to the setting up of shelters for women survivors of violence. These measures are reactive and must be supplemented with long-term and robust reforms to tackle the roots of GBV and prevent GBV.
Response 3: Women’s economic empowerment
Women’s economic empowerment is not only a human rights imperative, it’s also good for business. At a time when financial institutions are projecting a global recession and significant losses in countries’ GDP, the case for gender equality, and women’s economic empowerment in particular, is gaining strength. Female talent remains largely under-utilized (55% of women are in the labor market, compared to 78% of men) and under-rewarded (gender pay gaps are up to 19%; only 21% of business leadership positions are held by women)—and all this is despite the fact that women are, on average, better educated than men. Achieving gender equality could add US$ 12 trillion to the global economy. Promoting women’s access to education, resources and equal working conditions is a clear way to foster economic recovery.
In the aftermath of the COVID-19 crisis, inequalities will be exacerbated across the globe. To ensure an inclusive future, we need to make women equal partners in development and reduce existing gender gaps. Let’s take this opportunity to stop overlooking and normalizing gender inequalities. Without equality, there is no future.