Why a post-pandemic world must improve women’s lives
Today’s celebration of International Women’s Day comes at a particularly difficult time for women around the world. The pandemic and its economic and social impacts threaten to roll back the progress that women have made over the last few decades.
While men are more likely to die from a COVID-19 infection, other health impacts have fallen heavily on women. Women comprise 70 percent of the world’s healthcare workers, according to the World Health Organization. They also are far more likely than men to provide care for sick relatives. These factors have put them at high risk of infection, as well as significantly increasing their labor hours.
As many health systems were forced to shift limited resources to cope with the pandemic, that reallocation often came at the cost of maternal care, access to contraception and other aspects of women’s healthcare. Furthermore, the UN has said domestic violence increased “exponentially” during the pandemic.
It has led to extensive job losses for men and women, but has had a disproportionate impact on women’s employment. The pandemic hurt sectors that tend to employ many women, such as retail, hospitality, education and domestic services. In many less-developed countries, the informal sector is important to women’s income, and pandemic mitigation measures posed major challenges to informal sector work.
Women are less likely than men to have job protections and financial resources to help them cope with periods of unemployment. A 2020 UN report estimated that the pandemic would push 47 million women and girls into extreme poverty by 2021.
At the same time that women were struggling to maintain their incomes, the pandemic dumped huge amounts of unpaid work on them. Before the pandemic, the UN estimated that women did three times the amount of unpaid care and domestic work as men. COVID-19 sickened millions of people, and women were often the ones caring for them. Overwhelmed health facilities often sent many other ill people home early, again requiring women to assist them.
On top of this, schools closed around the world, leaving mothers and other female relatives to care for children and try to assist with online schooling. Uncertainty over schooling and childcare has forced many women to leave jobs or delay returning to the workforce.
School closures also threaten to derail progress in girls’ education. The UN has estimated that “an additional 11 million girls may leave school” by the end of the pandemic.
This region has the world’s lowest rate of female participation in the labor market. This reality offers an opportunity for significant economic growth through increasing women’s role in the workforce.
Kerry Boyd Anderson
These experiences are global. Women around the world have struggled with job losses, health crises and impossible expectations to balance paid work with the role of unpaid teacher and domestic worker. The pandemic has intensified the challenges that women in different countries already faced.
In the US, the combination of job losses that disproportionately hurt women and lengthy school closures led far more women than men to leave the workforce. According to a September report from McKinsey and LeanIn.Org, one in four working women were considering leaving the workforce or “downshifting” their careers.
While American fathers have taken on a greater share of childcare and other housework in recent decades, mothers — even those with a fulltime job — still take on more unpaid work than men; the pandemic further exacerbated this situation.
These trends threaten to halt progress made toward reducing pay inequality and expanding the role of women in leadership positions in the workforce. With limited or no maternity leave, inadequate affordable childcare and other challenges, working mothers in the US were struggling before the pandemic and now are in a state of crisis.
In the Middle East and North Africa, women faced huge challenges in the workforce before the pandemic. Most countries in the region fall within the lower third of the World Economic Forum’s Gender Gap Index. The region has the world’s lowest rate of female participation in the labor market. This reality offers an opportunity for significant economic growth through increasing women’s role in the workforce.
However, the pandemic was likely to cost 700,000 women’s jobs in Arab countries in 2020, according to the UN. Furthermore, Arab women do 4.7 times more unpaid work than men, the UN says. School closures added to that burden.
The pandemic might accelerate the trend toward women working in digital jobs, which has potential to increase their participation in the workforce in the region. However, digital jobs require access to reliable internet, a device that the worker does not regularly share with others in the household, and hours available to work rather than attending to online schooling and other household needs.
Women around the world will need help from their governments, societies and the men in their lives to recover. Governments can consider protections such as maternity leave and assistance such as support for affordable childcare and prioritizing reopening schools. Where legal barriers exist to women’s employment, governments can remove those. Recovery plans should ensure that assistance reaches women as well as men. Employers can try to offer flexibility and consider adjusting expectations for mothers and fathers.
Overall, societies need to do more to value care — the essential work of caring for children, the sick and the elderly that women so often do without pay or praise. The pandemic has highlighted gender disparities and women’s roles. It is time to plan for a post-pandemic world that improves women’s lives, which in turn improves the lives for their families.
- Kerry Boyd Anderson is a writer and political risk consultant with more than 16 years' experience as a professional analyst of international security issues and Middle East political and business risk. Her previous positions include deputy director for advisory with Oxford Analytica and managing editor of Arms Control Today. Twitter: @KBAresearch