Women are more vulnerable to COVID-19–related economic effects because of existing gender inequalities

March 22, 2022

Women are more vulnerable to COVID-19–related economic effects because of existing gender inequalities 

As COVID-19 continues to affect lives and livelihoods around the world, we can already see that the pandemic and its economic fallout are having a regressive effect on gender equality. By McKinsey’s calculation, women’s jobs are 1.8 times more vulnerable to this crisis than men’s jobs. Women make up 39 percent of global employment but account for 54 percent of overall job losses. One reason for this greater effect on women is that the virus is significantly increasing the burden of unpaid care, which is disproportionately carried by women. This, among other factors, means that women’s employment is dropping faster than average, even accounting for the fact that women and men work in different sectors. Now, without intervention to address the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on women, there’s a risk that progress could go into reverse. This would not just set back the cause of gender equality but also hold back the global economy.  

What is clear is that doing nothing to maintain and advance gender parity could negatively influence both the economic and social lives of women, as well as economic growth more broadly. By contrast, investing in women and girls in the recovery represents a significant opportunity to improve gender equality and drive inclusive economic growth. 

Under the circumstances, what measures should policy and business leaders consider?  

  • Interventions to address unpaid child care. The importance of reducing the gender imbalance in responsibility for care cannot be overstated. Interventions to tackle this problem include better recognition of unpaid work, reducing the amount of unpaid work, and rebalancing it between men and women. Potential interventions could include these: 
  1. employer- or state-funded provision of childcare or tax policies that encourage both spouses to work 
  2. family-friendly policies, including flexible programs and part-time programs, to support workers experiencing an increased childcare burden during the pandemic and beyond 
  3. rethinking performance reviews and promotions, as well as senior- and middle-management buy-in to ensure the widescale adoption of changes 
  4. a professionalized childcare industry, with public-financing support, in developing countries, where the social-services infrastructure is less well developed; this could not just enable many women to work but also create employment for many others 
  5. access to basic infrastructure, which in the long run can reduce the time women spend on unpaid work; for example, in lower-income countries, a significant portion of the time women devote to such work includes tasks like fetching water and firewood 
  6. crucial measures to change social norms about who bears childcare responsibilities 
  •  Interventions to address digital and financial inclusion. Closing the gender gap in digital inclusion is an urgent priority in the pandemic. Many essentials, such as food and groceries, have migrated to online channels, making it hard to manage the day-to-day business of living without access to digital devices. From a labor-market standpoint, COVID-19 is accelerating remote-work and independent-work platforms. This could be a boon for women, who can benefit from the flexibility that such platforms offer, especially for workers in remote, digitally delivered services, such as software, design, or sales and marketing. But a persistent gender gap in digital access may keep work opportunities away from millions of women. Furthermore, many stimulus programs targeted at individuals or small enterprises depend on reliable identification and digital channels to reach the intended beneficiaries. Women are disadvantaged, as they disproportionately lack both digital access and the means for reliable identification. For example, 45 percent of women over the age of 15 lack identification in low-income countries, compared with only 30 percent of men. Business leaders and policy makers can work together to address these inequalities—for example, by using the following steps: 
  1. increasing digital infrastructure, particularly in emerging economies 
  2. addressing gender stereotypes that inhibit women’s access to mobile phones and improving women’s digital literacy 

  3. measures to promote gender diversity in funding for women entrepreneurs, including eliminating biases in recruitment and selection processes for incubators or accelerators 

  4. a special focus on women-owned enterprises under the stimulus programs of various countries 

  5. building foundational, enabling technologies ensuring that women have access to the means of identification through high-assurance digital-ID systems with simple, inclusive registration processes, use cases that meet critical needs in the time of the pandemic, and a rigorous regulatory framework to ensure the protection of privacy 

  • Interventions to address attitudinal biases. Any drive toward gender parity arguably starts with efforts to change entrenched, widespread attitudes about women’s role in society. This is an extremely difficult and complex challenge that will require all stakeholders to play a sustained part over the long term. Governments, businesses, and other stakeholders can run campaigns and enlist male champions to help drive home the idea that a larger number of women at work represents socially and economically beneficial progress.