Opinion: COVID-19 recovery provides a unique opportunity to close the gender gap

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Female market vendors participate in a workshop to help them take an active role in the governance of markets in Lautoka, Fiji. Photo by: Ellie van Baaren / UN Women Asia and the Pacific / CC BY-NC-ND

A year into the COVID-19 pandemic, the rollout of vaccines provides some hope we are turning the corner on a global health crisis. But the pandemic also triggered a global depression, and a vaccine will not automatically reverse rising unemployment and poverty — particularly in low- and middle-income countries and especially among women who have been hit hardest.

While it’s still too soon to know definitively what’s happening across the globe to women during the pandemic, data from 26,000 business owners and managers collected across 50 countries revealed that women were more likely than men to close their businesses as a result of the crisis. In sub-Saharan Africa, 43% of women-owned businesses closed versus 34% of those owned by men, and in Latin America and the Caribbean, these figures were 39% versus 29%.

And wage workers aren’t doing any better. Though during past economic crises men’s employment suffered while women were able to enter the workforce or increase the amount of paid work they did to supplement household income, this time early evidence suggests that women in the formal sector have been hit hardest and are now crowding into the informal sector, with those previously working informally turning to subsistence production — farming that may cover households’ food needs but doesn’t bring in income.

Policymakers must seize this important opportunity to put the women who have suffered the largest economic effects at the center of recovery efforts.

In light of these widening gender inequalities, policymakers across the globe need to ensure an inclusive recovery — one that makes gender equality core to building back better. Here's what needs to happen.

First, promoting gender equality can't begin and end with a focus on middle-class women in high-income countries. While thousands of news stories have understandably focused on the struggles of women who suddenly can’t rely on formal child care, the majority of women in the world have never been able to afford that, let alone live in places where quality child care centers exist.

And while the global conversation is largely about the challenges for women in the formal workforce whose jobs and lives have been upended by the coronavirus, the vast majority of women in lower-income countries work informally and lack the safety nets of unemployment insurance and health care. All women deserve access to child care options and universal safety nets that extend beyond the formal sector to cover all workers.

Second, solutions must be designed to ensure long-term progress. Gender gaps in the economy didn’t start with the onset of the COVID-19 crisis, and they won’t end with the distribution of a vaccine. Even before the crisis, women’s global labor force participation rate was 47%, compared with 74% for men, and the global gender pay gap stood at 22%. Now is the time for policymakers to think big about changes that help permanently level the playing field for women — because gender inequality won’t disappear when COVID-19 does.

To do this, governments and donor institutions will need to ensure women can take advantage of economic opportunities when labor markets expand, rather than risk leaving women farther behind. Lower-income women need access to cash assistance and savings instruments in the immediate term to weather the crisis, and policymakers must also invest in expanded access to technology, job training programs, and sexual and reproductive health services that meet women’s needs.

Third, it can’t just be policymakers with the word “gender” or “women” in their job titles who take on this challenge; it has to be health ministers, labor ministers, finance ministers, and everyone else involved in global and national recovery efforts.

Pandemic is widening poverty gap between women and men, new UN findings show

For every 100 men aged 25 to 34 living in extreme poverty in 2021, there will be 118 women living on $1.90 or less per day, according to a U.N. report. The findings offer one of the first insights into the pandemic's gendered — and long-term — impacts.

Full recovery won’t happen if there are some investments and policies “for women” alongside many others that fail to consider existing gender inequalities and exclude women from benefits. Governments have rolled out social assistance programs in unprecedented fashion during the COVID-19 pandemic, and they deserve credit for doing so. But where not carefully designed or where gender is ignored, even social protection programs risk exacerbating inequalities.

For example, if cash transfer programs are delivered through mobile phones or preexisting bank accounts, as with programs in Cape Verde, India, and Pakistan, those lacking access to phones or accounts — disproportionately women in many countries — are likely to be excluded from equal access. Gender should be core to all policymaking around the pandemic recovery.

Finally, decisions must be based on data, and we need better and more data now. Most data collection efforts on COVID-19’s impacts have relied on mobile phone surveys, which exclude people — disproportionately women — who do not own mobile phones and who are most in need of social assistance support and most vulnerable to the risks of extreme poverty, as well as food and shelter insecurity. But policies and programs designed around data that excludes them will likely not reach or benefit these at-risk communities.

Regaining economic momentum after the pandemic isn’t going to be easy, especially in countries where governments are already underfunded, health systems are fragile, and vaccine distribution will likely take a lot longer. But policymakers must seize this important opportunity to put the women who have suffered the largest economic effects at the center of recovery efforts and work toward fixing long-standing inequalities.

Devex, with support from our partner UN Women, is exploring how data is being used to inform policy and advocacy to advance gender equality. Gender data is crucial to make every woman and girl count. Visit the Focus on: Gender Data page for more. Disclaimer: The views in this article do not necessarily represent the views of UN Women.

The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the author

  • Megan O’Donnell

    Megan O’Donnell leads the Center for Global Development’s COVID-19 Gender and Development Initiative, which aims to promote gender equality and long-term prosperity in low- and middle-income countries by informing global and national decision-makers' policy responses to the current pandemic and future crises.