• Women have borne the brunt of the economic impact of the pandemic.
  • They have also suffered more violence and carried the burden of caring.
  • The UN says the recovery is a chance to build a gender-equal world.

“COVID-19 has revealed and worsened inequalities and is a reminder of just how unsustainable and fragile the world’s economies and democracies are,” according to
a new United Nations blueprint for a post-COVID recovery that seeks equality and justice for women.

“Beyond COVID-19: A Feminist Plan for Sustainability and Social Justice” describes itself as “a visionary but practical roadmap for putting gender equality, social justice and sustainability at the centre of the recovery and transformation.” It was compiled over the course of a year, drawing on more than 100 experts from the UN, civil society and research institutes.

The report calls for macroeconomic policies such as progressive taxes and debt relief for poorer countries, as well as highlighting the need for a power shift to include more women in leadership positions.

This chimes with separate research from The World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report 2021 which found that the pandemic had set back progress to equality for women by a generation - increasing the time needed to achieve parity between the genders from 99.5 years to 135.6 years.

The pandemic provides an opportunity to rethink economic and social policies, and the report urges governments to re-evaluate their priorities in order to build a more equal and sustainable future.

Tackling the care crisis

Job losses hit women disproportionately hard. Some 54 million women were pushed out of work around the world. This represents a 4.2% decline in female employment, compared with 3% for men. By the end of 2021, men’s jobs are forecast to have recovered, but there will still be 13 million fewer women in employment.

But the harm suffered by women is not only financial. The amount of domestic abuse spiralled higher during lockdowns. And with more girls out of school, there is expected to be an increase in both child marriage and female genital mutilation.

COVID-19 has also caused a care crisis.

a diagram entitled 'Lessons from COVID-19 - the economy in crisis mode'
COVID-19 has caused a care crisis.
Image: UN Women

When health systems buckled under the pandemic, it was women who stepped in to provide support for families and communities, “often at the expense of their own mental and physical health,” the report says.

The care crisis has left millions of children and vulnerable adults without support “imposing hard choices and enormous costs on women and girls”. As a result, the provision of care must be at the centre of creating a sustainable and just economy.

The report also proposes using public procurement to support local food markets, and working with trade unions to extend workers rights to women in the informal economy.

Warning of the dangers of a “botched recovery” the report says that a slow recovery “risks cementing women’s status as second-class workers even further.”

Being heard

At the same time, democratic systems must be overhauled so that women and the most marginalised can make their voices heard. The report says parliaments around the world must take action to ensure equal representation for women.

“Instead of being dominated by the voices of male elites and corporate interests, decision-making spaces would include historically excluded groups, and women would have an equal voice to men over all decisions that affect their lives,” the report says.

And when it comes to fighting the pandemic, women make up only 24% of the membership of 225 COVID-19 task forces in 137 countries. 84% of these task forces are dominated by men, while there are no women at all on task forces in 24 countries.

this diagram shows the lesson from COVID-19 that major systemic crises are gendered and the environment is next
The poorest women in low income countries are those most harshly affected by the climate crisis.
Image: UN Women

Women and the climate crisis

The aftermath of the pandemic also shines a light on what may happen as climate change increasingly impacts people’s lives.

The global environmental crisis is “gendered”, the report says, adding: “Paradoxically, those who have contributed the least to the problem, notably the poorest women in low income countries, are those most harshly impacted.”

Blaming the current economic system for causing global environmental breakdown, it says that in a sustainable and just future, the purpose of the economy would be to enable “the flourishing and survival of life”, with human and ecological well-being as the ultimate goal.

Developed nations should use carbon taxes to fund support for developing nations, the report says, adding that less than US$60 billion of the US$100 billion promised by rich nations had been provided by 2018 - two-fifths of it as loans which add to existing debt burdens.

Economic changes should include governments taking an active role in directing their economies towards sustainability and social justice and public-private partnerships “must have a clear purpose, which prioritizes people and the environment over profits,” the report says.

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.

“World leaders can choose to allow the global economy to stumble into another lost decade marked by austerity and economic stagnation or lay the foundations for gender-just transitions through public investments in the care economy, renewable energy and sustainable agriculture.”

“They can choose to use nationalism, xenophobia and misogyny to appeal to increasingly alienated citizens or win people over by reimagining a new social contract—based on partnerships with families, communities and businesses—that provides universal access to collective goods and services.”