Health and Healthcare Systems

What the COVID-19 pandemic tells us about gender equality

Nurses check medical records at a field hospital set up at a sports gym, to treat patients suffering from the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Santo Andre, Sao Paulo state, Brazil, May 6, 2020. Picture taken May 6, 2020. REUTERS/Amanda Perobelli - RC2RJG92JV48

The majority of those on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic are women. Image: REUTERS/Amanda Perobelli

Ann Linde
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Education, Gender and Work

  • Women make up 70% of all health and social-services staff globally.
  • Domestic, sexual and gender-based violence increases during crises.
  • Women earn just 79 cents for every dollar men make.

Given that the COVID-19 crisis affects men and women in different ways, measures to resolve it must take gender into account. For women and girls, vulnerabilities in the home, on the front lines of health care, and in the labor market must be addressed.

Regardless of where one looks, it is women who bear most of the responsibility for holding societies together, be it at home, in health care, at school, or in caring for the elderly. In many countries, women perform these tasks without pay. Yet even when the work is carried out by professionals, those professions tend to be dominated by women, and they tend to pay less than male-dominated professions.

The COVID-19 crisis has thrown these gender-based differences into even sharper relief. Regional frameworks, multilateral organizations, and international financial institutions must recognize that women will play a critical role in resolving the crisis, and that measures to address the pandemic and its economic fallout should include a gender perspective.

We see three areas where women and girls are particularly at risk and in need of stronger protections in the current crisis.

First, experience shows that domestic, sexual, and gender-based violence increases during crises and disasters. It happened during the 2014-16 Ebola and 2015-16 Zika epidemics, and it appears to be happening now. Under conditions of quarantine or stay-at-home measures, women and children who live with violent and controlling men are exposed to considerably greater danger.

The need to support these women and children will only increase when the crisis is over and people are free to move around again. We must ensure that women’s shelters and other forms of assistance are maintained and strengthened accordingly. Governments and civil-society groups must provide more resources such as emergency housing and telephone helplines, perhaps leveraging mobile technologies in innovative new ways, as is happening in so many other domains.

Second, the majority of those on the front lines of the pandemic are women, because women make up 70% of all health and social-services staff globally. We urgently need to empower these women, starting by providing more resources to those who also assume primary responsibility for household work. Increasingly, that could include caring for infected family members, which will subject these women to even greater risk.

Gender equity in the health workforce research paper
Women make up 70% of all health and social-services staff globally. Image: Gender equity in the health workforce

Women also account for the majority of the world’s older population – particularly those over 80 – and thus a majority of potential patients. Yet they tend to have less access to health services than men do. Worse, in several countries that experienced previous epidemics, the provision of sexual- and reproductive-health services – including prenatal and maternal care and access to contraceptives and safe abortions – was reduced as soon as resources needed to be reallocated for the crisis. Such defunding has grave consequences for women and girls, and must be prevented at all costs.

Finally, women are particularly vulnerable economically. Globally, women’s personal finances are weaker than men’s, and their position in the labor market is less secure. Moreover, women are more likely to be single parents who will be hit harder by the economic downturn that is now in full swing.

Given these differences, it is critical that economic crisis-response measures account for women’s unique situation. Particularly in conflict zones and other areas where gender equality receives short shrift, women and girls risk being excluded from decision-making processes, and potentially left behind altogether.

This year marks the 25th anniversary of the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women, where the international community adopted the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action. We are calling on all governments to recommit to the principle that women have the same right to participate in decision-making as men do – that their perspectives must be accounted for.

To that end, policymakers at all levels need to listen to and engage with women’s rights organizations when formulating responses to this crisis, and when preparing for the next one. The guiding question always should be: Are women and men affected differently by this issue, and, if so, how can we achieve fairer outcomes?

We must ensure that girls have just as much time to study as boys do and do not bear full responsibility for the care of siblings and parents. We also must learn the right lessons from the COVID-19 crisis, which demands that we take a hard look at how we value and pay for women’s contributions to health care, social services, and the economy. How can we ensure that women are not excluded from important political processes now and in the future?

Today, all countries are facing the same crisis, and none will prevail over COVID-19 by acting alone. Given that we share the same future, all of us must work to ensure that it is one built on solidarity and partnership. Governments and the UN must show leadership. We know that gender-equal societies are more prosperous and sustainable than those with deep disparities. The world’s decision-makers have an opportunity to make gender equality a top priority. We urge them to rise to the occasion.

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