• Female leaders have been praised for their roles in response to COVID-19, but remain under-represented in decision-making.
  • International Women’s Day 2021 focuses on the role women can play in ‘building back better’, thanks to their different skills and experience.
  • Women have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic, representing 54% of overall job losses.
  • But the "role model effect" is helping to close the gender gap, Forum research shows.

The crucial role played by women in the ongoing recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic is being celebrated this International Women’s Day (IWD).

"Women in leadership: Achieving an equal future in a COVID-19 world" is the theme for IWD 2021 on 8 March. This year's IWD aims to highlight the role women have been playing at the forefront of the global health crisis – as health workers and caregivers, community organizers and innovators.

Women have also been acknowledged as some of the most effective leaders during the pandemic, with female heads of government, including New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, having been praised for their handling of the crisis.

A more collaborative approach

In May 2020, at the height of the outbreak, 21 countries had a female head of government or state, according to UN Women.

Female medical and health experts were also increasingly found in leadership positions and taking the lead in press briefings in Canada, Ethiopia, India and Madagascar.

A chart showing female representation at decision making level
Women remain under represented at policy making level.
Image: UN Women

Lack of female voices at all levels

Yet women remain woefully under-represented at all levels of decision-making worldwide. They only account for a quarter of members of parliament and, as of 1 January 2020, only 21.3% of ministers were women, according to UN Women. And while women make up 70% of health sector workers, only 24.7% of health ministers are female.

Women were also disproportionately impacted by the pandemic. McKinsey estimates that women’s jobs were 1.8 times more vulnerable due to COVID-19 than those of their male counterparts. While women make up 39% of the global workforce, they also account for over half of overall job losses during the pandemic.

A UN Women report in November 2020 found that while both men and women had seen their unpaid workloads increase during the COVID-19 crisis, women were more likely to increase the amount of time they spend on household chores and caring duties.

Gender parity for thriving societies

It is vital for policy-makers at all levels to recognize what women leaders are doing – and the challenges they face – to help them fully participate in "building back better" in a post-pandemic world, UN Women argues.

The issues raised for IWD 2021 echo those addressed by the Forum's The Global Gender Gap Report, which argues that gender parity is fundamental for economies and societies to thrive.

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 Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, Panama and Peru in partnership with the InterAmerican Development Bank.



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.

Political empowerment is the area where women are most severely under-presented, with only 24.7% of the gender gap closed by 2020, the report says, followed by economic participation and opportunity.

However, the Forum's gender report adds that a “role model effect” may be starting to have an impact in terms of leadership and pay, with signs that increased female political representation corresponds with a growing number of women in senior private sector jobs.