• Women around the world are losing paid work and doing more unpaid work as a result of the pandemic.

• Female entrepreneurs now need support, because much rebuilding will fall on them.

• Full economy parity was 257 years away, even before the crisis.

This week I spoke at an event that was both bleak and inspiring in equal measure. I was speaking alongside the World Bank, Dutch Development Bank and other experts on the disproportionate impact that COVID-19 is having on women entrepreneurs.

It was bleak, because the outlook for women in the face of this pandemic is devastating. But inspiring, because I felt a collective desire to tackle the problem head-on. Let me be clear: the longer-term impact of the COVID-19 pandemic will not be equal for women and men. We are currently experiencing the biggest setback in gender equality for a generation. It’s not just humanitarian and development agencies like CARE who are saying this – my co-panellists from the banks also had hard evidence to support it; for example, the World Bank has seen more female businesses closing during this pandemic than men’s.

This pandemic is having a deep impact on women and is throwing away decades of hard-won battles both in terms of gender equality and women’s economic rights. COVID-19 has seen the burden of unpaid work on women significantly increase around the globe. There has also been a sharp rise in gender-based violence as a result of the worldwide lockdown. Women are also more likely to be in informal and low-paid jobs, and millions have lost their livelihoods overnight. In Latin America alone, there are around 19 million domestic workers, 80% without contracts, who have been laid off with very little legal and social protection.

For women entrepreneurs from our programmes, the picture is as stark. In Sri Lanka, 90% say their income has decreased and their supply chains are disrupted. In Guatemala, 96% do not have enough money to buy basic food items, and the same amount say the crisis has increased unemployment in their community. Many of these women are now truly on a cliff edge, at risk of hurtling right back into poverty. A devastating prospect after they've worked so hard to succeed.

The burden of care falls disproportionately on women.
The burden of care falls disproportionately on women.
Image: OECD

Before this crisis, the World Economic Forum predicted it would take 257 years to reach economic parity between women and men – this was already scandalous. It is both devastating and frustrating that this figure has been set back by generations more.

Women entrepreneurs have overcome so many barriers to get their businesses thriving and to overcome poverty. And it is precisely these women that hold the power to face the gigantic task ahead. We’ve seen it with the Ebola crisis, with women from war-torn countries, and we know we will see it after this pandemic. Women can and will elevate their communities back out of poverty, rebuilding what they have lost, and they urgently need our support and help.

Having worked in this sector for 25 years, I remain in awe of the strength and resilience of women – even those in the most dire circumstances who are struggling to feed their families every day. Hearing Dorcas, an entrepreneur from Sierra Leone, speak during the Women Mean Business event once again reinforced that strength. She has had to close her restaurant business and training school as a result of COVID-19, but she is already diversifying and is clear on what is needed.

In Dorcas’s own words: “Women need training and financial support so that they can build up their businesses, and support their families and their communities.” Women hold this power to get their communities back on track. That’s why I am calling on decision-makers to double their support for women-led micro and small enterprises as an explicit part of international COVID-19 responses.

What's the World Economic Forum doing about the gender gap?

The World Economic Forum has been measuring gender gaps since 2006 in the annual Global Gender Gap Report.

The Global Gender Gap Report tracks progress towards closing gender gaps on a national level. To turn these insights into concrete action and national progress, we have developed the Closing the Gender Gap Accelerators model for public private collaboration.

These accelerators have been convened in ten countries across three regions. Accelerators are established in Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, and Panama in partnership with the InterAmerican Development Bank in Latin America and the Caribbean, Egypt and Jordan in the Middle East and North Africa, and Kazakhstan in Central Asia.

All Country Accelerators, along with Knowledge Partner countries demonstrating global leadership in closing gender gaps, are part of a wider ecosystem, the Global Learning Network, that facilitates exchange of insights and experiences through the Forum’s platform.

In 2019 Egypt became the first country in the Middle East and Africa to launch a Closing the Gender Gap Accelerator. While more women than men are now enrolled in university, women represent only a little over a third of professional and technical workers in Egypt. Women who are in the workforce are also less likely to be paid the same as their male colleagues for equivalent work or to reach senior management roles.

In these countries CEOs and ministers are working together in a three-year time frame on policies that help to further close the economic gender gaps in their countries. This includes extended parental leave, subsidized childcare and removing unconscious bias in recruitment, retention and promotion practices.

If you are a business in one of the Closing the Gender Gap Accelerator countries you can join the local membership base.

If you are a business or government in a country where we currently do not have a Closing the Gender Gap Accelerator you can reach out to us to explore opportunities for setting one up.

Women represent the biggest opportunity for economic growth. In a full potential scenario in which women play an identical role in labour markets to men, as much as $28 trillion could be added to global annual GDP in 2025.

This is why my heart is breaking, and, as we continue to face a global financial recession, yours should be too.