Feb 2

Gender Equality Progress Threatened by Pandemic

Dimitri Frolowsckii
Sep 4, 2020

Image: Annie Spratt via Unsplash.

The post-Covid economic slump could roll back advances in gender equality made over the past decades. Unless governments worldwide introduce proactive measures, hundreds of millions of women might end up in vulnerable positions, which could push back the goal of achieving gender parity for years to come.

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the adoption of the 19th Amendment in the United States,  which guaranteed all American women the right to vote. Although gender inequality has diminished significantly in the century since, the end of the struggle is nowhere near.

In the latest World Economic Forum Global Gender Gap Report 2020, the United States came in 53rd out of 153 economies in gender equality – just below Cape Verde and Bangladesh – and the pre-pandemic data suggested that progress in this area was stalling.

Wage and income gaps for women in the United States remain large – the country has only closed 69.9 percent of its wage gap and 65.6 percent of its income gap so far. Less than a quarter of corporate managing board members are women. And, even with a significant increase in the number of women in congressional and administration-level positions compared to previous years, women held only 23.6 percent of seats in Congress in 2019. As a result, the U.S. ranks  83rd in a global ranking of women in the lower house of the legislature, right between Tajikistan and Armenia. Furthermore, there has never been a woman president to date.

Globally, gender parity stands at 68.6 percent, while the bottom 10 countries have closed just 40 percent of the gender gap. Only 55 percent of women aged 15-64 are engaged in the labour market as opposed to 78 percent of men. In addition, there are 72 countries where women are barred from opening bank accounts or obtaining credit, and there is no country where men spend the same amount of time on unpaid work as women.

The WEF report offers a depressing conclusion: in terms of economic participation, the gender gap will take 257 years to close, while gender parity won’t be attained for another 99.5 years. In the U.S., that figure rises to 151 years.

But those were the numbers before the pandemic, while today there are multiple signs that the situation is deteriorating rapidly.

Women are more likely than men to work in “social sectors” (industries that require face-to-face interactions, such as hospitality and retail), which have been the hardest hit by social distancing rules, according to the WEF report.

In the U.S., 74 percent of women work in these “social sectors”, compared to only 48 percent of men, and unemployment in these industries was nearly double that of other sectors of the economy. Uncertainty about schools reopening can also lead to women exiting the labor force for a prolonged period of time to care for their children at home, which may bring long-term costs to their careers.

In addition, women have traditionally performed a disproportionate share of unpaid household labor and caregiving, and with the transition to remote work, the burden of parenthood has increased. A survey by Boston Consulting Group found that working moms are spending an average of 15 more hours than working dads on child care and household chores per week in the wake of the pandemic.

This situation pushes many women in the U.S. into a catch-22 situation. While many workers today need to adjust their skillsets in order to adapt to the post-covid economy, many women face the burden of increased household chores combined with a collapse in income, which makes additional training unattainable for many. And despite signs that the U.S. economy is gradually recovering, the current conditions promise to have a detrimental long-term effect on women and economic inclusivity.

American women are not the only ones suffering from the pandemic more than men. A report by the World Bank projects that poverty is set to rise for the first time since 1998, bringing 40-60 million people into extreme poverty, with a disproportionate share of them being women. This situation is equally worrisome for both developed countries such as the U.S. and Canada, and across the global South.

Elsewhere, World Trade Organization Director-General Roberto Azevêdo highlighted a WTO analysis on how the pandemic has impacted gender equality gains, observing that women “risk losing some really hard-won progress towards greater gender equality because of this crisis.”

In developing economies, women are also more likely to be employed in social sectors than men, as a result of which they have less job security and social protection, as well as lower pay. The burden on the predominantly ineffective healthcare systems in such countries also increases the chances of maternal mortality.

In addition, the pandemic may induce even more female school dropouts in the countries where such social pressure is already high. As a result, millions of girls might suffer from a permanent loss in human capital that could dramatically decrease their living standards during their lifetime.

One possible solution to the problem could be appropriate gender-responsive fiscal policies. The relevant set of policies may vary from country to country, but the core should remain unchanged and include increased investing into education and infrastructure as well as subsidizing childcare. Recent findings by the IMF indicate that such measures can support female labor force participation and have important macroeconomic and distributional effects.

Countries can also support women by choosing to engage in trade rather than introducing new barriers. This is specifically import for the low income countries. A WTO-World Bank report found that firms engaged in international trade employ an average of 33 percent women compared to 24 percent for non-exporting firms. In addition, women are more likely to be employed in formal jobs if they work in sectors that are more integrated in global value chains.

Finally, it is important to promote a shared universal commitment towards a more inclusive and sustainable economic future. The current numbers suggest that the world is losing ground in gender equality. Global policymakers need to undertake proactive measures to address the particular post-pandemic challenges that women face. If they don’t, the recent setbacks in economic inclusivity might impair trillions of dollars of economic growth in the future.

Dimitri Frolowsckii

Dimitri Frolowsckii is a political and energy analyst with over 15 years of experience in journalism.

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