• 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.

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.

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.