Why women have suffered more financially during the pandemic

New data reveal why women aren’t recovering as quickly from the pandemic’s economic toll as men.

Published 2 Jul 2021, 12:14 BST
How women have been economically affected by COVID
A woman wearing a protective face mask walks past a mural by street artist Alex Martinez outside a shop which sells bags in Athens. More women work in industries, like retail, which are still reeling from pandemic-related shutdowns.
Photograph by Petros Giannakouris, AP

The disproportionate economic harm that the pandemic has done to women—what some are calling the “shecession”—seems to have taken many people by surprise. But longstanding inequities made women especially vulnerable.

The Gates Foundation has released new findings from the Eurasia Group and the International Labour Organisation, in conjunction with UN Women’s Generation Equality Forum, documenting why women across the globe were hardest hit and have been slowest to recover.

“It’s not just in the global north,” says Anita Zaidi, president of the Gates Foundation’s Gender Equality Division. “It’s everywhere.”

Though a similar proportion of men and women lost their jobs during the pandemic, fewer women are getting rehired, according to the new data. There will likely be 13 million fewer women employed this year than there were in 2019.

One major reason for that employment gap is that more women work in industries still reeling from shutdowns—retail, tourism, hospitality, restaurants. Another is childcare: With schools and nurseries closed, many women around the world had no option but to leave their jobs to care for their children. Before the pandemic, a quarter of women spent more than nine hours a day caring for their children; now a third spend at least that amount of time.

“People think about a pandemic only from a health perspective,” says Zaidi. “Nobody thought about, okay, what will the damage to education, schooling, childcare actually be?”

The vision and priorities for life beyond the pandemic will stem in large part from who is in charge. COVID-19 taskforces have proliferated during the crisis—there are 225 in 137 countries—but women fill only a quarter of their seats. More broadly, while women make up 70 percent of healthcare workers, they account for just 25 percent of healthcare leaders. (Related: Women are on the frontlines of the fight against COVID-19).

That leaves large gaps in knowledge—and in care that’s foundational in many women’s lives but didn’t earn the official rating of essential. Women’s health programs, such as contraception, were not considered essential services during lockdowns, says Zaidi. The result? Some 12 million women are estimated to have lost access to contraception, leading to 1.4 million unintended pregnancies.

The cumulative effects of lost jobs, unobtainable childcare, and unplanned pregnancies is increased poverty. Before the pandemic, global poverty rates were decreasing at the rate of 2.5 percent. This year poverty rates are estimated to increase by nine percent.

But it is possible to reverse this trend, according to the new findings. Data from the Eurasia Group indicates that providing childcare to women would add £2 trillion to the global economy, while cash transfer programs—small amounts distributed to women earning less than £1.50 a day—could lift as many as 100 million women out of poverty.

The Gates Foundation is pledging to donate $2.1 billion (£1.5 billion) over the next five years toward women’s economic empowerment, health and family planning, and leadership development. “Poverty is sexist,” says Zaidi—so solutions must take gender into account.

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