How COVID deepened gender inequality - this week's Radio Davos podcast

gender inequality: A demonstrator takes part in a march to mark International Women's Day in Almaty, Kazakhstan March 8, 2021. REUTERS/Pavel Mikheyev     TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY - RC2Y6M9BCWFD

A demonstrator takes part in a march to mark International Women's Day in Almaty, Kazakhstan, March 8, 2021. Image: REUTERS/Pavel Mikheyev

Robin Pomeroy
Podcast Editor, World Economic Forum
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SDG 05: Gender Equality

  • The World Economic Forum's annual Gender Gap Report is in its 15th year.
  • Data from 156 countries shows the impact of COVID pandemic.
  • Subscribe to Radio Davos here. Hear this episode here.

After more than a year living with the COVID pandemic, the data is starting to roll in, showing what impact it's had on societies around the world.

This week, the World Economic Forum published its annual Gender Gap Report, an analysis of 156 countries that proves what many people had suspected: the global virus outbreak has delivered a big blow to gender equality.

Have you read?

On the latest episode of Radio Davos, we hear from the Forum's Saadia Zahidi on how and why the pandemic has set back what had been a gradual reduction in the inequalities between men and women.

And we find out how LinkedIn is a treasure trove of data on women in work around the world.

Saadia Zahidi, Managing Director of the World Economic Forum

We started this report in 2006. So this year will actually be the 15th edition of the report. And what we wanted to try to do is use the benchmarking capabilities that the World Economic Forum is renowned for, particularly through our Global Competitiveness work, and actually apply that to a topic like gender. And so try to understand where gender gaps currently are across countries and find a way to measure them over time. What's great is that this is a consistent methodology and so we actually have useful information for the entire 15 years and we can compare one year to the other. And we look at four dimensions: education, health, economic participation, and political empowerment. So across those four areas, how equitably are resources and opportunities and access being distributed between women and men? That's essentially what the report tells us.

Robin Pomeroy, host of Radio Davos

So this 15th year is an extraordinary year of COVID-19. And this is one of the first reports, I guess, that gives us proper data we can get our teeth into, that covers a whole year of the pandemic and asks the question, hopefully answers it: "What impact has the pandemic had on the gender gap?"


Yeah, so I want to be slightly cautious about the data. We have partly the impact of COVID covered in this data, but there is a lot more to come. And I would say we don't yet have the full picture. We should see that next year. But we're starting to have a pretty good view of what is happening due to COVID, and it is quite worrying because there has been a regression in terms of the gains that were previously made, and some of the impact that we're seeing, this might leave permanent scars. And so overall, the picture is quite dire and it does require urgent action.


Because over the years, the gender gap on most of those those four areas you're talking about has been closing, albeit very slowly. This is the first time we've seen a slowdown or a reversal in most of those, is that right?


Well, I wouldn't say that the picture was too rosy last year either. So, for example, the gender gap would have taken 100 years to close at the rate of change that we saw last year. But now this has opened up. Now it's up to 135 years. So that's easily another generation and a half that's going to have to wait for gender equality. So things have slowed down dramatically over this last year.

gender gap income gap
Pay disparity - one of the main gaps in gender equality. Image: WEF


What are the main reasons, do you think, that COVID has widened this gap or slowed down progress on the gender gap? What has happened?


So there's a number of things going on. One is just the very immediate impact of COVID on closures of various workplaces and what that means for women and men. Some of the jobs that have been lost or are at further risk are jobs, for example, in the consumer industry or in the consumer and retail industry more broadly. Now, that is a sector that tends to employ much larger numbers of women than, for example, the IT sector where a lot of people are able to work from home. And so you're starting to see the impact of these closures and overall unemployment affecting women in higher numbers than men. Now, absolute numbers, it's still men that are losing out more, but proportionally, given that women were a smaller part of the workforce overall, you're starting to see that that scarring happening.

A second element is the role of women and men in the home. And we're starting to see that there has been this regression back to traditional models of how care responsibilities are divided. And so even for women that have been able to retain a job, there's a sort of 'double shift'. There's the shift in the home and there's a shift in the workplace. And even for white collar women, not only have working hours gone up, but in addition, in the home, they're having to take on a lot more of the care responsibility.

Then the third area is that even where there has been an uptick in hiring - so certain areas where people are starting to rehire again - that's where you're seeing a slower uptake of women into the workforce than men. And so not only has there been a greater loss of jobs, but there's also a slower gain in new jobs.

And then the fourth area is sort of a longer-term trend that has become accelerated due to COVID, and that is the overall automation and digitization of work. And that's something that we knew was coming and that impacts all workers and in particular lower-skilled workers. But now it's happening at a greater speed than ever before as more companies automate and digitize. And that means that the jobs of the future, which tend to integrate a lot of technology, tend to be the ones where there are smaller pipelines of women. And so we're not set up well for the future. Now, that's not wholly true when it comes, for example, to care jobs or education jobs - jobs that are in sectors that actually tend to be quite dominated by women, but those also tend to be lower-paid roles. And so, overall, the picture is a wider economic gender gap, less women in leadership roles, and a wider wage gap.


So I suppose the next question is: was this the year that this report looks at a 'blip'?

This is a quote from the report: "Gender gaps are more likely in sectors that require disruptive technical skills. For example, in Cloud Computing, women make up 14% of the workforce; in Engineering, 20%; and in Data and AI, 32%."

These are areas where presumably there'll be lots of growth in the coming years. How concerned should we be about that when it comes to women's representation in those industries?


It's a major concern. Cloud computing is used across multiple industries. Data and AI is used across multiple industries. This is no longer simply about the gender gap within the IT industry. This is about the gender gap across multiple industries, all of which are using a lot more technology than they did before. So this is a major area of concern, especially because these happen to be well-paid roles. And so not only is the broader participation gap getting wider, but the wage gap is also getting worse because these tend to be the higher paid roles. To connect this to what you were asking about - "is this a blip or is this something that we're likely to see long term" - I think that's exactly where the answer lies. Because some of these are structural shifts and they simply got sped up because of the pandemic, I think we can expect what the data is currently showing to be actually an underestimate. And I would imagine that if things continue down the current trend, we're likely to see wider gender gaps in the future unless, of course, we act today.


Is there anything in the report that gives us reasons to be hopeful?


Even though we're overall looking at some of these alarming statistics, I think the report does point to some signs of hope. And one is that overall, around the world, one trend that hasn't moved backward is that on health and education, we're pretty close to having completely closed the gender gap. So both on health and on education, there's just a few years remaining and after that we should have overall parity.

Now, of course, what that means is that women do actually have the full set of capabilities that men have. Overall, there's been roughly as much investment in terms of education, in particular, for women as for men, but they're not necessarily getting the same set of opportunities. And so removing the opportunity, roadblocks and designing an economy that is much more equal in the future, that's something that should be a win-win. Not only is that important for women, but it's actually important for society as a whole. If we want our economies to be more resilient in the future, then it makes absolute sense to use this crisis to actually embed parity and accelerate parity in the future rather than sort of wait for the economy to go back to quote unquote, 'normal' before we focus on gender-parity related efforts.


What about policies then? Because we can all wish for gender equality, are there some things that we should be doing to achieve it?


Depending on where you are in the world, there's four sets of things that could be very helpful and that could accelerate parity, particularly as we come out of the crisis.

One is a lot more investment into the care sector and ensuring that care-related roles and care-related leave is more equitably distributed between women and men. The care sector, by the way, is also a massive job creator. So for a lot of countries, as they're looking to revive their economies, this is not just a sunk cost. This is actually an investment for the future.

Second: the types of policies and practices that can help overcome this growing segregation in the labour market. So ensuring that a lot more women are, for example, going into science, technology, engineering and maths and at the same time ensuring that the barriers for them getting into the workplace are being removed: that's insisting upon more gender-equal hiring, better managerial practices, and essentially creating the right kinds of incentives for women to go into very male-dominated industries at present.

And then the third element is if we know that a number of workers are going to be at risk and we need broadly a 'reskilling revolution', that can't be a gender-blind reskilling revolution, it has to be one that is specifically tailored to the needs of women and men, to their current starting points, to the fact that they do tend to have specialisations in different areas. And so two sets, two cohorts of people have to be migrated into the jobs of the future, and that requires applying a gender lens.

So those are three sets of policies broadly. But of course, at the same time, this really depends on where you are in the world. There are parts of the world where it's going to be important to keep investing in the very basics, which is, for example, girls' education. So countries that are at the bottom of the list - Afghanistan, Pakistan, Chad these are all countries where a lot more still needs to be done on girls and women's health and education. There's other parts of the world where, for example, in much of sub-Saharan Africa, there are a lot of women that are actually part of the workforce. In fact, some of the very few countries in the world where women form a bigger part of the labour force than men are in sub-Saharan Africa. But there has to be a lot more done to ensure that that is high quality, high wage work in the future. And again, that requires ensuring and equipping people with skills and doing that with a gender lens in place. So it really depends on where you are.

Of course, across advanced countries, some of these issues look very different - in Europe versus, for example, the United States. In the United States, there still is no federally-mandated maternity leave, and you're starting to see some of the impact of that when it comes to the distribution of care work in the U.S. during this pandemic compared to parts of Europe. There's also, of course, this intersectionality between gender and race. And that's another area where there has to be a lot more focus, particularly in some advanced economies, to ensure that women of colour are not at a double disadvantage.


So the report surveys 156 countries - pretty much the whole world or getting close to it. Are there any things you would pick out that show things are particularly good or particularly bad? Are there any areas that really struck you this year geographically?


Having the broader coverage helps because, I think, that we can provide just a very, very clear lens to the world on gender gaps. Now, what's interesting and important about the report's methodology is that we're not looking at countries according to their income levels. We're basically saying: regardless of your income level, regardless of whether it's a rich country or a poor country, how equally are you dividing resources, opportunities and access between women and men? And so, while the very top of the rankings is dominated, for example, by the Nordic countries, Namibia and Rwanda also make it to the top 10. Now, these are countries where there is, out of the current set of resources, a fairly equitable share between women and men. When you look towards the bottom of the rankings, one of the countries that has made the most progress over this last year is, for example, the United Arab Emirates - starting out at a fairly low base, but having made constant strides over the last few years. So it really depends on where you look in the world. but I think what we have to ensure is that this is not seen as sort of an afterthought, that gender equality is not something that countries aspire to after they get rich - in fact, they will perform better economically and their societies will be more resilient if they invest in gender equality today, regardless of their current stage of development.


That's an optimistic note to end on. What's the next step in this journey towards closing the gender gap? What should we be looking out for in the next 12 months or a little after that?


What's going to be critical is that as economies around the world, particularly advanced economies, think about the kind of stimulus they put in place for longer-term recovery, they will need to apply a gender lens. They will need to think about investing in the care infrastructure, they will need to ensure that, as the labour market recovers, it takes into account the distribution of roles between women and men. They will need to take into account a much more gender-focussed lens to reskilling and upskilling and redeployment of people into new roles. So it's going to be important to watch out for that. And at the World Economic Forum, we run what we call the Closing the Gender Gap Accelerators, and that is essentially a three-year process that helps an economy put into place the kinds of measures that will not only bring more women into the labour force, but also ensure that they're able to rise to positions of leadership. And we've been doing this in about 10 countries at the moment around the world: in Latin America and the Middle East and Europe. And we will be taking this forward, and what's positive again, for me, one of the hopeful signs is that many countries have been reaching out and are interested in putting in place a model like this today so that their recovery can be more gender equal. And that's, I think, what all countries will need to aspire to.


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

Sue Duke, Vice President, Head of Global Public Policy and Economic Graph Team at LinkedIn

One of the big features that we've brought to this year's report, as we have over a couple of previous reports, is what we call LinkedIn's Economic Graph Data. So most people know LinkedIn as the world's largest professional network, the place they go to get a job, get advice, learn a new skill or connect with others. But if you take a step back and think about the millions of interactions that happen on LinkedIn every day amongst our 740 million members with their 8,000 different skills, there's 57 million companies with over 14 million open roles there, you quickly realise that LinkedIn is also this rich, living, interactive map of the world's labour markets. We call that map LinkedIn's Economic Graph and we use that map to help governments, organisations and members to really understand what's going on in their labour markets in real time and in real detail. Having that real time granular information has never been more important, given the unprecedented upheavals that we've seen in the labour market over the past year, including understanding what has the impact of the pandemic been on women. That impact shows up very clearly and very worryingly in today's report.


So what is the most notable finding that came out of your graph data specifically about the gender gap?


We start to think about what the world looks like post-COVID. One of the things that really jumped out at me was how few women are working in those fast-growing tech roles and, in particular, what little progress we've made in that space over the past couple of years despite all the rhetoric and despite all the attention that's being paid to that space. Of course we need women getting equal access to the jobs of tomorrow, but these jobs in particular - those roles in cloud computing, engineering, A.I. and data - they are precisely the roles that will have a huge say in what kind of technology is developed and how it shows up in the world. I don't think anybody knows at this stage precisely how the world of work will have changed as a result of the pandemic. But one of the clear consequences at this stage is that massive acceleration and digitization and that deep integration of technology into all of our lives. We all see that and live that every day. We have to have women's voices and perspectives at that very foundational, formative stage. And we need to have women playing an equal role in determining what technologies are developed, how they're deployed, and what impact they have.

Image: World Economic Forum Global Gender Gap Report 2021


Do you have any idea why women are not getting those jobs? These roles you're talking about here are things that didn't exist five years ago - is it culturally ingrained that these these are perceived as boys roles and men's roles - or should we be looking elsewhere? Why is it that there's so little female representation in those areas?


What we do know what we can see very clearly from LinkedIn's data is that there is a large female talent pool. So those skills are out there and they're not being fully utilized. And we can also see very clearly that where women have equal skills and equal skill levelling as men, they are not getting those same opportunities, particularly in those roles that you've highlighted, those disruptive tech skill roles like cloud computing, like AI and data. So we need to put in place policies that really encourage women to maximize their potential. At LinkedIn, we've developed what we call a skills-based hiring approach, where we're really encouraging companies to assess candidates based on skills, transferable skills and potential. And we think that doing that will allow companies to broaden their talent pools, to include these women who have these skills but who aren't currently getting those jobs. It will get more diversity into their organizations and crucially it will also level the playing field for everybody looking to get a job.


That's really interesting. So the women there with the skills, but they're just not getting the jobs in the way the men are.


That's exactly what we're seeing in the data. So in the report, you'll see we have an analysis of the skills similarity of men and women, particularly in those fields. We look at cohorts of men and women with equal level of skill, same type, same level: men are taking those opportunities and women aren't. And we need to start addressing that.


I was talking to Saadia about is it a blip or are we going to get over this soon once the pandemic's over? Graph 2.6b in the report shows is a big dip in the percentage of women getting hired at the start of the pandemic a year ago with more junior positions taking the biggest hit. Those figures have since recovered, but for senior management roles, they're now well less for women. On that graph, that number didn't pick up in the same way. Does this imply there's a long term legacy from COVID?

Year-on-year points change in share of female hires, by seniority
Graph 2.6b - senior roles for women have not recovered from COVID Image: LinkedInEconomic Graph Team/WEF Gender Gap Report 2021


We have to make sure that there isn't. As you say, our insights allow us to really get behind those headline employment numbers, and take a look at how the pandemic has impacted different cohorts in different ways. Yes, as you say, we did see female employment recover in the second half of last year, but that recovery wasn't complete and it certainly wasn't uniform. For women in leadership roles, we really have seen a decrease there and we've yet to recover the level we were at pre-COVID, which basically means that we've undone one-to-two years of progress over the course of last year.

Today's report is very clear: the data and insights, qualitative and quantitative, are very clear. Too often women are having to disproportionally step up their caregiving responsibilities, which means they have to take a step back from their work or from their careers. We need governments and companies to really factor that in and to put in place policies around diversity, flexibility and inclusion as they respond to this crisis. Short term, that means things like prioritising the reopening of schools, putting in place flexible working options, and equalising the paid care leave for both genders. Longer term, as we discussed earlier, that means we really have to encourage women to get into those roles right up to the most senior levels, right across the boar, in all types of areas, and to maximise their potential. At LinkedIn, our hope is that putting in place and having companies and organisations adopt a skills-first approach to hiring, to development and talent will really make a big difference in helping us get there.


So we've seen the challenge now that's been posed by COVID-19, I suppose in 12 months' time we'll have an indication then if it was a blip, if we're over it, if there's progress being made. So hopefully you'll be back with some more data this time next year.


I hope so. Achieving equity, including gender equity, goes right to the heart of everything we're about at LinkedIn. That's why we have this partnership with the World Economic Forum around this really important report. And I hope that today's economic insights will help shine a light on some of those trends that we're starting to see.

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