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1 December 2020updated 04 Sep 2021 12:43pm

Why is gender equality being overlooked in the post-Covid recovery?

The pandemic threatens to reverse decades of feminist progress – governments must act now. 

By Alona Ferber

One of the clear trends of the Covid-19 crisis has been its unequal impact on the genders. The evidence is unequivocal. Women are more likely to lose their jobs and more likely to work in sectors with a higher risk of exposure to the virus. They are picking up more of the unpaid care burden at home, and domestic violence, with women making up the majority of victims, has escalated. The crisis in the care sector, certainly in the UK, risks exacerbating the issue unless it receives due attention.

Here is just a selection of the available evidence: women’s jobs are 1.8 times more vulnerable to the pandemic than those of men, according to McKinsey, and while women make up 39 per cent of employment globally, 54 per cent of job losses have been among women. In 38 countries, a survey by UN Women found, “both women and men have increased their unpaid workloads, but women are still doing the lion’s share”. The polling, published in November, indicated that inequalities were being passed down to the next generation. While 64 per cent of parents said their daughters were getting more involved in work at home, only 57 per cent said so for their sons. In May, the World Health Organisation reported a 60 per cent increase in emergency calls about domestic violence in European member states.  

And yet, despite the steady, months-long trickle of data, measures to address these problems have not been integral to most countries’ Covid recovery plans. The UN Development Programme’s (UNDP) Covid-19 Global Gender Response Tracker found that, of a recorded 2,517 measures responding to Covid-19 in 206 countries, only 992 (across 164 countries) were “gender sensitive”, addressing three key areas. The majority – 704 across 135 countries – have addressed violence against women and girls. There were fewer measures to “strengthen women’s economic security” – 177 – and “address unpaid care work” – 111. One-fifth of countries and territories in the tracker (42 out of 206) registered no “gender-sensitive” steps in response to the pandemic.

European countries are most likely to have at least one type of “gender-responsive” measure in Covid-19 recovery plans
Covid-19 policy measures by country within different regions

Gender equality is “essential for a sustainable recovery” from Covid-19, Norway’s prime minister Erna Solberg told the Reykjavík Global Forum – Women Leaders 2020 this month. Last week, Solberg told the New Statesman that “crises tend to reinforce traditional gender roles, and we see clearly how Covid-19 adversely and disproportionately affects women and girls on a broad range of issues”. If governments don’t act to counter this, she said, “we risk a severe, maybe even permanent setback on gender equality and a slower recovery from the pandemic.” The risk is that women will be pushed out of the labour market and back into the home, as well as continuing to do an increasingly unequal share of housework and childcare.

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Norway isn’t a stand-out example of action on these issues, however. According to the UNDP’s tracker, it has one measure recorded on unpaid care and nine on violence against women and girls, including improving data collection on domestic abuse. The UK, by comparison, had 12 – one on unpaid care and 11 on violence. Solberg added that Norway is “monitoring how measures to stop the virus are affecting women, and we are targeting efforts specifically to counter these effects”. 

Argentina, meanwhile, is one of only 25 countries to have introduced policy on all three measures of the UNDP’s tracker. “Social protection” steps included the government extending paid leave to groups such as domestic workers in private homes – the vast majority of whom are women – as well as people who needed to look after their children, once lockdown started in March. A lump sum “Emergency Family Income” was provided every two months to workers, including informal and domestic workers. Among its “gender-sensitive labour market measures” was eligibility of victims of gender-based violence for a national job training and education programme. To tackle violence against women, the government exempted women and LGBTIQ+ people from lockdown measures if they needed to report violence. An awareness campaign aimed at victims of gender-based violence was launched in April. 

[See also: Stella Creasy: “Coronavirus is like a magnifying lens on inequalities”​]

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On top of emergency measures, Valeria Esquivel, an economist and gender specialist at the International Labour Organisation (ILO), who is herself Argentinian, notes that the country’s 2021 National Budget is also the country’s “first gender-responsive [one], as gender equality considerations are embedded in economic policies, at the macro, sectoral and labour market levels”. 

Such policy isn’t just the right thing to do; it will ensure lasting economic recovery, as Esquivel argued in a recent ILO brief. “Gender equality, along with income equality more broadly, has to be a central consideration because this has been a very un-equalising crisis,” she told the New Statesman. “This is particularly evident in the impacts on women as workers, and on women as unpaid carers. Left on their own, the post-shock situation only deteriorates, and inequalities deepen – this is a lesson from previous crises.”

The extent to which women are employed in high-risk jobs varies by region
% employed in sectors at high- and medium-high- risk of income/job losses

But this crisis differs from the past in the extent to which it has hit female-dominated sectors. Esquivel noted that women are being affected in three stages during the coronavirus pandemic. First, in terms of employment and increased care burdens; second, because they are, on average, first in line to lose jobs as the economy shrinks; and third, as governments make cuts to public services. “In this sense, paying attention to the impacts on women is paving the path for a recovery that is better because it will be job-rich and inclusive,” she said. 

There is, of course, awareness of the issues, and some encouraging signs of a willingness to challenge them. Earlier this month, for instance, London, Tokyo, Barcelona, Los Angeles, Freetown and Mexico City launched a network of cities “in support of gender equity”. The mayors highlighted the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report, published in December 2019, which found that, on trends pre-dating the impacts of the pandemic, the economic gender gap will not close for 275 years. A recent City Hall report found that, since the pandemic began, “mothers in England were 47 per cent more likely than fathers to have lost or resigned from their jobs”.

[See also: Why Britain’s childcare system is on the brink of collapse]

The fact that these measures haven’t been central to national recovery plans is partly due to mistaken comparisons of this crisis with past crises, said Esquivel. Trade, rather than the effect of lockdown, was the focus of economic analysis at first, for instance. “In the same vein, recovery policies in the past [were] typically construction – the most male-dominated sector in terms of employment,” rather than, say, the care sector, she added. But it is also due to a dearth of female voices during the policymaking process. “You need evidence, knowledge and political will. And that political momentum is built through mobilisation and engagement, including on social dialogue. For that, women must be ‘at the table’,” she says.

This point has been made many times before, but it clearly bears repeating. That this crisis is an opportunity to “build back better” is fast becoming a cliché. There is a growing consensus across the political spectrum, certainly in the UK, that “better” also means “greener”. But if better doesn’t also mean a fairer world for women and girls, then this will surely be an opportunity wasted.