Gender Inequality

COVID isn't gender neutral- it hit women hardest. How to reset the world of work, by the head of UN Women

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka says women have been disproportionately affected by the pademic.

'We need men and women leading the recovery,' says Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka. Image: Copyright by World Economic Forum/Walter Duerst

Joe Myers
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Gender Inequality

This article is part of: The Jobs Reset Summit
  • Phumzile Mlambo-Ngucka speaks during Jobs Reset Summit.
  • Two-thirds of jobs lost permanently to COVID are women's jobs -ILO.
  • We must avoid offices becoming 'locker rooms' - places reserved for men.
  • Subscribe to The Great Reset wherever you get your podcasts.

This Q&A is an edited version of an interview with Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, United Nations Under-Secretary-General and Executive Director of UN Women, which took place ahead of the Jobs Reset Summit.

It features on The Great Reset podcast - subscribe here for daily coverage throughout the Summit.


What impact has COVID-19 had on women's employment opportunities?

COVID-19 is not like many other pandemics. It is not gender neutral – it has disproportionately affected women. It's a health crisis, but it is also an economic and social crisis.

Women have been affected not only because of the disease itself, but because they work in jobs that are not secure. So it's easy for them to be laid off because they don't have enforceable contracts, they don't have savings and they don't have insurance. That has made it more difficult for them to sustain their economic activity.

Have you read?

What we have seen during COVID is that the majority of the people who have lost jobs are women. The ILO [International Labour Organization] estimates that two-thirds of the jobs that will be lost and not recovered are women's jobs. This is because women are employed in the service industry, in hospitality and in tourism. And, also, because they are employed at levels where there are no proper contracts to be enforced. We now must build back better by giving women better contracts and not putting them in this situation.

What's needed now, in terms of stimulus plans and to ensure a full recovery from the pandemic?

As governments support and rescue industries out of this crisis, it is important that even when the stimulus packages are being offered to employers, they are also being directed to the women that work in those companies. Women shouldn't be passed over just because they don't have the right contract and can't make the right demands.

It's important that fiscal stimulus also targets women, who are mostly in the informal sector. It's important to support them, because in the informal sector, women do not have a way of getting back on their feet by themselves.

COVID-19 coronavirus gender equality women
Image: World Economic Forum

We learned from the Ebola crisis, for instance, that while men were able to recover economically after a crisis like that, for women, it took much longer. And in some cases they could never recover, because they were the only person standing behind their business. No structure, no supports, no labour laws – they just had themselves. So this time we are saying to governments: there has got to be a targeted way of addressing women's needs.

Some countries are engaging women in their recovery plans, but the majority of countries are not. So there is room for improvement, to engage and include more women in the recovery activities that are being undertaken by different governments and countries.

What are the long-term impacts of women shouldering the burden of care work during the crisis?

COVID has also impacted women because they are caregivers. Unpaid care work was exploited, because women stepped in and looked after ill relatives. They looked after older parents. They also looked after children.

So the burden of care, which is already three times higher for women than for men, increased significantly. This is something that most economies need to measure, need to reduce, need to redistribute and they need to formulate policies that enable women not to carry this burden of unpaid care work. It is also true [that] in many countries that have adequate policies for caregivers, women are able to play a bigger role in the labour market. But we have seen during COVID-19, the number of women who have carried the burden at home.

So we have to be careful that women don't retreat from the labour market, and end up being home care-givers rather than workers in the open market, because that would take us back. We've worked so hard to take women out of the home, by their own choice, so that they can be in the labour market.

And as the world advances out of the pandemic, and we say that women can also work from home, we must not create a situation where it's only women who end up working from home and men go to the office. So the offices become locker rooms – the places where men only go. Employers needs to be aware of this, to make sure policies don't encourage it. Otherwise, we'll create a new problem for society.


What is the World Economic Forum’s Jobs Reset Summit?

What about leadership positions?

85% of nurses on the frontlines are women, but women are not part of leadership groups in this crisis. For every three people who present public statements about COVID, only one is a woman.

And so then we are seeing the challenge of women being under-represented in leadership roles, even in sectors where they are well represented generally.

In the health sectors where women are already the majority, we don't have a pipeline [to leadership positions]. Women must be included – there's no reason why men should be at the forefront. We need men and women leading the recovery, in order to make sure that the issues that affect women and the issues that are affect men are equally addressed.

What needs to happen next?

Some of the gains that women had made are being eroded. Part of what we need to do now is to protect those gains, as well advancing at the same time. We cannot accept that, as a result of the pandemic, issues that affect gender equality must be shelved.

Building back better and creating a new normal which is significantly different from the bad old normal means that we address these issues head on, right now, and not leave them unattended.

Think about girls and girls' education, for instance. When schools were closed in the countries where there is child marriage, child marriage increased.

So we're calling on governments to address these facts and to save the situation. This is bad talent management because girls are talent.

If girls are denied the opportunity to contribute to society and to take care of themselves and their families, it means that you are reducing the number of people who will contribute towards a higher GDP. You are reducing the number of people who will contribute towards good health outcomes of a country.

You are also decreasing the number of people who will be able to provide a contribution and make society better. Because there's no way we could ever think that a world that is led by men is a world that is good for everybody. It just doesn't work like that.

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Related topics:
Gender InequalityCOVID-19Davos Agenda
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