Equity, Diversity and Inclusion

Women are essential to the economy – so let’s treat them that way

A health worker wears protective clothing as she prepares for testing travellers for the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) amid a nationwide COVID-19 lockdown, at the Grasmere Toll Plaza, in Lenasia, South Africa, January 14, 2021. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko - RC2R7L9ZSRWX

As economies reopen, policymakers should address gender gaps. Image: REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko

Lindiwe Matlali
Chief Executive Officer, Africa Teen Geeks
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Education, Gender and Work

This article is part of: The Jobs Reset Summit
  • COVID-19 has exacerbated existing gender gaps.
  • 1 in 3 jobs held by women has been designated "essential" – yet women have faced disproportionately high unemployment along with additional childcare responsibilities.
  • As economies reopen, policymakers must address structural inequities in essential industries that are anchored by a female workforce.

The coronavirus pandemic has revealed much about the nature of work in the world – and the important yet undervalued role of women in it.

Prior to the pandemic, essential workers – many of them women – provided critical services that often went unnoticed. According to a New York Times analysis, in the United States, 1 in 3 jobs held by women has been designated as essential. In addition, non-white women are more likely to be doing essential jobs than anyone else. The work they do has often been underpaid and undervalued, making them an unseen labor force that keeps the world’s economy running.

Share of essential workers who are women
1 in 3 jobs held by women has been deemed Image: The New York Times

The pandemic-induced recession hit women particularly hard. "In the months after the spring 2020 shutdowns, 11.3 million jobs held by women vanished almost immediately, as women are overrepresented in the retail, restaurant, travel and hospitality sectors," explains a Washington Post report.

"Plus, lack of child care and closed schools meant many women, including those who didn’t lose their jobs, had to take on the bulk of caring for children," the Washington Post continues. I personally – like many women – became a teacher overnight, a responsibility in addition to my full-time job and taking care of my family.

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In South Africa, estimates suggest COVID-19 destroyed a decade’s worth of employment growth in just four months. And of the 3 million jobs lost in Q1 and Q2 of 2020, according to NIDS-CRAM data, 2 million were held by women.

The pandemic’s economic impacts exacerbated pre-existing gender inequities. The fact that women were more severely impacted by the economic downturn is perhaps unsurprising, given the wider historical context. Gendered differences in employment and income were already severe before the pandemic, with a gender pay gap across all sectors. Research by Stanford University found that the gender gap in STEM is not just a pipeline problem; technology companies alienate women during recruitment in the language used and behavior of recruiters, which actually causes female graduates to not even apply for STEM jobs after they graduate.

In South Africa, the Department of Trade and Industry reported that women faced particular challenges in starting small businesses including poor financial literacy, negative attitudes toward women borrowers within banks and a lack of appropriate financial products. And women who were able to launch their own businesses typically saw lower incomes compared to businesses owned by men.

As the vaccines roll out and many economies begin to open, it's important that policymakers take a serious look at the structure of the economy and, specifically, the essential industries that keep economies going and are anchored by the female workforce.

As the burden of childcare is unlikely to shift away from women anytime soon, more needs to be done to subsidize the costs of childcare, especially for the women working in essential services, in recognition of the value and role they play in keeping the economic engine running.

As work is realigned in the post-pandemic world, policymakers, CEOs and decisionmakers should not want to go back to “normal” – because normal did not work for all workers, especially women and people of color. We know it will now take 135.6 years to reach gender parity, up from about 100 years before the pandemic hit. However, this doesn’t have to be the case if policymakers and decisionmakers become intentional about closing the gender gap and using the crisis to fix what was wrong with the system.


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