We stand at a critical juncture in modern human history. The COVID-19 pandemic presents a stark choice: ignore the impact of the crisis on women and allow societies to become less equal, more divided, and poorer; or, help women to emerge fully recognized as equal partners and key economic actors, and in the process boost the potential for a faster socio-economic recovery.

Each year, we research whether we're closing the gender gap and are on track to reach gender equality. To better understand the current situation and its likely future impact, we, in partnership with the W20, surveyed the direct and indirect impact of COVID-19 on people’s lives and livelihoods.

In this report, we first explore the dangers of doing nothing by highlighting the disproportionate impact of the pandemic on women. We then outline 10 key policy recommendations that would enable us to build a better future world, with equality and inclusion at the heart of our societies.

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The movement toward gender equality can be strengthened during periods of great adversity. After the combined horrors of World War I and the Spanish flu, women gained ground in multiple areas, from greater participation in the labor force and in leadership positions, to greater social and financial independence and the right to vote. And in China, women’s participation in both the labor force and higher education increased during the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution.

While some of the tangible gains may have proved superficial and temporary, the vital roles played by women during these periods of upheaval helped chip away at deeply engrained gender stereotypes.

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"History teaches that disease outbreaks...expose and exploit existing forces of marginalization, seeking out fault lines of gender, race, caste, and class."
Melinda Gates, Co-Chair - Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

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Women and COVID-19

Today, women are shouldering an outsized burden of the hardship caused by a global health and economic crisis.

Pathogens such as SARS-CoV-2, which causes COVID-19, do not discriminate—but society does. A range of factors—from affluence and age to gender and race—largely govern the impact the pandemic has had on people’s lives and livelihoods.

COVID-19 has burrowed deep into the cracks in the fabric of our societies, seeking out social and economic inequalities, and ruthlessly exploiting them. As the Institute for Fiscal Studies noted: “The specific nature of the economic shock associated with COVID-19 has interacted with many old and deep inequalities.”

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Women and their working environment

Gender inequality is no exception: a number of studies have highlighted the devastating macro-level impact of COVID-19 on women. The International Labour Organization (ILO) reports that women are more likely to work in harder-hit and higher risk sectors—such as healthcare, social and domestic work; and United Nations (UN) analysis finds that women (and girls) have borne the brunt of school closures in terms of increased unpaid work and reduced levels of education and that “gender-based violence is increasing exponentially.”

By 2021, an additional 47 million women are expected to be living on less than US$1.90 a day as a result of the pandemic. Online analytics show a 7 percent increase in discussion of gender equality issues between 2019 and 2020. This erosion of female empowerment and poverty reduction threatens not only progress made towards implementing the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), but also the development agenda in countries across the world.

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16.5%

The average decline in women’s incomes versus 10.1 percent for men

79%

Women more likely to become redundant compared to men.

 

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Our survey findings confirm that the pandemic has had a negative impact on most people—but women have consistently been hit harder across countries, age groups, and lifestyle indicators. For example, we find that:

  • Women have seen their earnings decline almost two-thirds more sharply than men, dropping by 16.5 percent on average since the pandemic began, compared with a drop of 10.1 percent for men.
  • Among those respondents in employment when the pandemic struck, 5 percent of the women are now unemployed, compared with just 2.8 percent of the men.
  • Mothers are spending an additional one hour 20 minutes per day on childcare—an increase of 29 percent. For men, the increase is, fortunately, higher at 34 percent.
  • The proportion of women with easy access to healthcare, including maternal and reproductive services, has dropped by more than half—from 69 percent pre-pandemic to just 32 percent.
  • Half of the women say levels of tension and stress in their household are high, up from just 15 percent pre-pandemic.

These tough experiences translate into significant concern over the short to long-term impact of the crisis on women. Forty-two percent of female respondents believe their government has failed to account for the impact of the crisis on women.

A further 44 percent believe women will suffer more than men from the economic fallout. And looking to the future, 31 percent of female respondents believe the pandemic has set progress towards gender equality back by at least 10 years.

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Our econometric analysis suggests respondents’ fears are not unfounded. We estimate that the unequal impact of the crisis may have added as many as 51 years to the time it will take to reach gender equality. This might seem an unbelievably large impact in such a relatively short period of time—but this is no ordinary economic recession, and it is no ordinary health emergency. COVID-19 has precipitated an economic and social crisis that has touched almost every aspect of our lives.

We are also measuring the pandemic ‘shock’ at a specific point in time. The sooner a vaccine is found, the more likely it is that some of the losses women have suffered relative to men during the pandemic would disappear, lowering our estimate.

However, some changes will never be reversed. With every day that women and girls suffer, the more we erode the hard-won progress made towards gender equality over recent decades, and the firmer our extended timeline becomes.

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14.1%

The gender pay gap in the EU (women earn 85.9 percent of what men do).  [Source: Eurostat]

18%

The proportion of companies led by a woman around the globe. [Source: IMF]

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But it does not have to be this way. The uneven impact of the pandemic on women has not gone unnoticed. Important debates on issues ranging from the burden of household responsibilities and increased domestic violence, to equal pay and female reproductive health, have become mainstream concerns.

But while recognition and energetic public discourse are crucial first steps toward a more gender-equal world, this not sufficient to drive significant change.

We need to act. Unfortunately, the picture here is bleaker. United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) analysis of government action to tackle the COVID-19 crisis finds that just 39 percent of enacted policy measures have integrated a gender lens—and that 20 percent of the countries analyzed have yet to introduce any measures to combat gender-based violence, support unpaid work or strengthen women’s economic security.

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“[In this crisis] we risk walking back on what we have actually moved forward on. We can easily let go if we don’t pay attention. Gender equality doesn’t fall from the sky. It has to be written into policies, and it has to be fought for.”
Kristalina Georgieva, Managing Director - IMF

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The W20 delegates have, therefore, identified 10 areas where G20 leaders must take immediate action to correct the stark gender imbalances and ensure an equitable economic recovery.

  1. HEALTH Increase the provision of—and the equal access to—high-quality healthcare services through a significant increase in investment in social infrastructure.
  2. EDUCATION Ensure women and girls have access to education, including online learning, and that they can participate in training with special attention to technical and vocational education, e-skills, and lifelong learning opportunities through a significant increase in investment in social infrastructure.
  3. DIGITAL INCLUSION Increase women’s and girls’ access to digital technology, especially in remote and rural areas, by investing in infrastructure, high-speed connectivity, and training to improve skills.
  4. FINANCIAL INCLUSION Develop, in partnership with public and private financial institutions and banks, innovative and easily accessible digital financial products to increase women’s access to financial services.
  5. LABOR FORCE INCLUSION Adopt gender-responsive budgeting informed by gender impact assessments to ensure that pandemic recovery measures foster a gender-inclusive workforce.
  6. UNPAID WORK Significantly increase investment in social infrastructure to create jobs and build resilience in order to provide affordable and quality child, dependents, and eldercare through a significant increase in investment in social infrastructure.
  7. INCOME PROTECTION Implement social and income protection mechanisms for alternative employment models to ensure appropriate coverage for all workers in the formal and informal economy. Special attention should be given to essential workers, part-time workers, the self-employed, and vulnerable groups, particularly those in low-income countries.
  8. ADVANCEMENT AND LEADERSHIP Urgently ensure equal representation of women at all levels of decision-making in national and global political and economic bodies, including those in the private and public sectors.
  9. ENTREPRENEURSHIP Develop and fund action plans to stimulate women’s participation in entrepreneurship and innovation ecosystems by supporting the start-up, scale-up, and sustainability of women-owned businesses, particularly in e-commerce and the digital economy.
  10. SEX-DISAGGREGATED DATA Fund the research and the collection of sex-disaggregated data on the course of the pandemic.

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