No time to slow the fight for an equally female future

The pandemic has been hard on gender equality. This International Women’s Day, it’s critical we address trends reversing progress and get back on track improving the lives of millions worldwide.

by Phyllis Costanza, Head UBS Philanthropy and CEO Optimus Foundation
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As we celebrate International Women’s Day this year, we’re acutely aware that the COVID-19 pandemic risks reversing progress toward women’s equality and damaging livelihoods far into the future. Across the globe, women have faced particularly damaging effects from the crisis. We need to take action now, redoubling our efforts. Trillions in GDP – benefitting entire societies – depend on it.

A disproportionate burden

Looking at employment loss relative to a no-pandemic scenario, the ILO estimates the 5 percent of women became unemployed or withdrew from the labor force due to the crisis. For men the figure was 3.9 percent. The gendered nature of work – with women more disproportionately represented in sectors negatively affected by the crisis, like retail and manufacturing – likely explains some of this difference. Recent data from the United States shows unemployment for mothers and fathers now about equal (but still high). Hopefully women globally can regain lost ground quickly and we can continue work narrowing the inequality gap.

The crisis has been particularly hard on the livelihoods of domestic workers, two-thirds of whom are female and many of whom are migrant workers. The ILO found that in June of last year, over 70 percent of domestic workers were significantly impacted by the lockdown measures. The vast majority of these workers are in informal employment so lack effective access to benefits to compensate for reduced hours or job loss.

An increase in women’s unpaid work

The pandemic has also overburdened women on the domestic front. UN Women data from 38 countries show that while the COVID-19 pandemic increased unpaid care and domestic work for both men and women, women have carried the heaviest burden. Prior to the pandemic, women already spent about three times as many hours on unpaid work as men. Now it’s even worse.

This increase in women’s unpaid work appears to be having a worrying impact on their paid work. Analyzing labor market data with the ILO from 55 high- and middle-income countries, UN Women found that the number of women completely exiting the labor force between the last quarter of 2019 and the second quarter of 2020 was greater than the number of men exiting – 28 million compared to 24.1 million – even though they were already underrepresented. By mid-2020 there was 1.7 times as many women outside the labor force as men outside it.

A risk of gender equality regress

These inequities in job loss and unpaid work threaten to worsen poverty for women. UN Women reports that the crisis will likely increase the gender poverty gap in the coming years. By 2030 the gap could worsen for young adult women from today’s rate of 1.18 in poverty for every man, to 1.21.

Losing female workers has impact beyond hurting their livelihoods. The ILO echoes what many have been realizing: gender diversity improves business outcomes. Having women at every level of business can boost profits and improve economies. Every percentage point increase in female employment is associated with, on average, annual GDP growth of 0.16 percent. So, the global economic consequences of failing to progress on gender equality are profound.

McKinsey updated its Power of Parity analysis to measure the impact of the COVID-19 crisis on GDP. Doing nothing about the gender-regressive fallout of the pandemic would result in a $1 trillion GDP loss in 2030. But if we act immediately to advance gender equality, we could actually increase global GDP in 2030 by $13 trillion.

No time to let up

Our work supporting women’s education, health and livelihoods has never been more pressing. We know that improving gender equality goes way beyond helping women. It can lift up the social and economic well-being of entire societies. UN Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 5 aims to achieve gender equality and, as the UN notes, “all the SDGs depend on the achievement of Goal 5.”

We hope you’ll join us in this year’s International Women’s Day campaign to #choosetochallenge in forming a more inclusive world at work and elsewhere. Let’s all double down on achieving the goal of gender equality by 2030. The future can’t afford to fail to be equally female.