• COVID-19 led to women falling out of paid employment at higher rates than men.
  • But women entrepreneurs are now breaking barriers by increasingly entering occupations traditionally dominated by men.
  • Women are still held back by unconscious biases, societal norms and even laws in many countries.
  • Improved access to higher education and work-based training, as well as legal reforms and the support of male relatives and peers are needed to ensure that inequality does not become entrenched.

The unequal impact of the COVID-19 pandemic is undeniable: Women have been affected disproportionately, as they dropped out of paid employment at higher rates than men, taking on responsibilities for the care of children and the ill. Multiple crises from conflict to climate change are exacerbating the challenge, hitting developing economies particularly hard.

But women are proving their mettle, playing a critical role in the nascent economic recovery. They are breaking barriers, crossing into occupational areas that were traditionally for ‘men only’. They are innovating, as entrepreneurs adopting technologies to enhance resilience.

For Sharon Tumusiime, who runs a carpentry business in Kampala, Uganda, the inspiration to move into this ‘non-traditional’ line of work came when she needed a playhouse for her daughter. She got some extra pallets from her employer at the time, a shipping company, and asked a carpenter to build it. Seeing an unmet demand for furniture orders, she went into business for herself 5 years ago.

It was tough, but today, she’s leading efforts to source timber from more sustainable sources, attributing her success to joining a business network early, having a supportive family and gaining confidence from her parents who raised their children equally. She laments the lack of access to capital to grow her business, thinking of investing in 3D printers and other equipment.

Women like Tumusiime show that tackling occupational segregation can create more opportunities for women. According to World Bank analysis, women who enter occupational areas dominated by men earn 67 % higher profits on average than women who remain in traditional areas.

Yet women around the world are often surrounded by ‘glass walls,’ making it difficult for them to enter more profitable areas. They are held back by unconscious biases, societal norms, capital constraints and laws. Women face some form of job restriction under the law in 86 out of 190 economies surveyed in the new Women Business and the Law report.

Access to higher education, exposure to traditionally male occupational areas through work experience and training, and the support of male relatives and peers can help women break barriers. Legal reforms are also important, to make sure that existing inequality does not become entrenched. On this front, progress is being made: Over the past year, Bahrain and Vietnam eliminated all legal restrictions on women’s employment, while Benin struck down restrictions on women’s ability to work in industrial jobs, and Pakistan removed restrictions on women’s ability to work at night.

Digital transformation, accelerated by the pandemic, is another area that holds great potential for women’s economic empowerment. Digital technologies can facilitate access to information and training, support networks and foster financial inclusion – but the large digital gender divide may be an impediment. Women are still 10% less likely than men to own a mobile phone and are 23% less likely than men to use the mobile Internet.

During a recent visit to Nigeria, I met with women who were receiving digital skills training as part of the local government’s initiative to prepare young people for 21st century jobs. We must make sure that women are included in such efforts. Technological change could create up to 365 million new jobs worldwide, but 60% will be in currently male-dominated fields, particularly STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics). Equal access to digital technologies, such as mobile phones, computers, and the internet, can help women start new businesses, discover new markets, and find better jobs.

Supporting occupational choice and including women in the digital transformation are but two areas where we can take concrete action, as part of overall efforts to put women at the center of the recovery. As the pandemic has made clear, providing quality childcare services will allow women to participate in paid work, and access to social protection programs will prevent shocks from pushing them into poverty. To inform policies, we need to improve evidence because we can’t manage what we don’t measure. The World Bank‘s new Gender Data Portal is one example of how better data can make the invisible visible to spur action.

The global labor force participation rate for women is just over 50% compared to 80% for men. Women are less likely to work in formal employment and have fewer opportunities for business expansion or career progression. When women do work, they earn less. Recent household survey data suggests that these gender gaps are heightened due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

As countries emerge from the crisis, reforms to accelerate equality must not take a back seat, so that women can continue to realize their aspirations. We need both men and women to work as equal partners to recover and achieve green, resilient and inclusive development.