The Impact of COVID on Gender Inequality in the Workforce

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The consequences of any crisis are never gender-neutral, and usually women bear the brunt of it. With Coronavirus, the story is not very different.

Although research suggests that men are more likely to die from the virus, women are more impacted by the social and economic factors. More women have lost their livelihoods during the pandemic than men, and the numbers continue to rise, suggests a new report titled ‘COVID-19 and gender equality: Countering the regressive effects,’ published by McKinsey Global Institute (a US-based management consulting firm).

It states  that while women make up almost two-fifths of the global labour force, they have suffered more than half of the total job losses from the crisis. Moreover, women are 1.8 times more vulnerable to job losses than men, at 5.7% versus 3.1% respectively. And that’s not all – the report estimates that 4.5% of women’s employment is at risk in the pandemic globally, as compared with 3.8% of men’s employment, based on the industries that men and women participate in.

Besides, COVID-19 and the ensuing lockdown measures have led to broader implications for gender inequality. Due to unanticipated disruptions in labour, and with the increasing burden of unpaid care at home, gender relations might shift at a societal scale.

The impacts are not just economic.

Widening of gender and economic inequalities

One of the biggest reasons why women are suffering from more job losses today is because the virus has increased the burden of unpaid care for children, the elderly and the sick, driving several of them to breaking point.

As per research, women do an average of 75% of the world’s total unpaid care work which  includes childcare, cooking and cleaning, as well as looking after the elderly. In some regions like South Asia, Middle East and North Africa, women’s share of unpaid work is as high as 80-90%.

Another study by the international economics body, Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development reveals that COVID-19 has disproportionately increased the time spent by women on their  families by an estimated 30% in India, and 1.5 to 2 hours in the United States.

This is alarming to say the least.

Women’s employment is dropping faster than average,because across the globe, women earn less, save less, and do not have security in their jobs. Their employment is largely visible in the informal sector. “They also have less access to social protections and are the majority of single-parent households. Their capacity to absorb economic shocks is therefore less than that of men,” says United Nations’ ‘ Policy Brief: The Impact of COVID-19 on Women’.

Women and the informal sector

According to the International Labour Organisation, an estimated 740 million work in the informal sector globally. In developing economies, informal work constitutes up to 70% of women’s employment. In the times of crises, these jobs are wiped out first. Even in the case of COVID-19, the most affected sectors include hospitality as well as the travel sector that employ women in large numbers. Women are also largely employed by the media industry, and the healthcare sector.

On the other hand, they are grossly under-represented in the Mobility, Information and Communication Technology, Energy and Basic and Infrastructure sectors.

A parallel can be drawn with the Ebola crisis that has earlier affected western Africa. A case in point is Liberia, where up to 85% of daily market traders are women. They were heavily impacted by unemployment more than men, and although men reached economic levels similar to what was before the crisis, the effect on women’s security and livelihood continued for a longer time.

Moreover, the McKinsey report (mentioned above) estimates that women’s jobs are at 19% greater risk than men’s. While women account for 39% of the global workforce, they are over-represented in three of the four most in-decline parts of the global economy: accommodation and food services (54%); retail and wholesale trade (43%); and services such as arts, recreation and public administration (46%).

There are some industries such as manufacturing that employ a majority of men that are also severely affected. Others like healthcare and education, where women largely take the lead, have not been as affected.In India, women made up 20% of the workforce before COVID-19. Today, their share of job losses resulting from the industry mix alone is estimated at 17%.

There are only some markets where labour market dynamics differ, with respect to women’s employment. In France, men were more impacted than women.

The case was no different before the pandemic

There has been some progress when it comes to gender equality, but the progress toward equality in work has stayed almost the same between 2014 and 2019. In 2014, the Global Gender Parity Score (GPS) was 0.60; today it is 0.61(on a scale of 0 to 1, where 1 signifies full parity between women and men).

Gender equality in work shows a GPS of 0.52 versus 0.67, respectively.

Maternal mortality has seen a reduction and the share of women in professional and technical jobs has increased, yet the level of female participation in the labour force is about two-thirds of men, and that has seen no shift. In the case of India, the participation of females in the workforce has seen a slight decrease in the last five years, while a country like Indonesia has seen a small rise.

There’s a long, long way to go to bridge this wide gap.

Why gender parity is the need of the hour

The World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report 2020 observes that gender inequality hinders economic growth, competitiveness as well as future prospects. The McKinsey report also validates these findings.

“The global GDP growth could be $1 trillion lower in 2030, than it would be if women’s unemployment simply tracked that of men in each sector. Conversely, taking action now to advance gender equality could be valuable, adding $13 trillion to global GDP in 2030 compared with the gender-regressive scenario,” notes the report.

“A middle path—taking action only after the crisis has subsided rather than now—would reduce the potential opportunity by more than $5 trillion. The cost of that delay amounts to three-fourths of the total global GDP we could potentially lose to COVID-19 this year.”

According to the McKinsey report, there are three scenarios – “do nothing”, “wait to take action” and “take action now” – to measure the impact gender inequality caused by the pandemic could have on economic performance post-COVID-19.

As part of the ‘do nothing’ scenario, women are likely to experience a disproportionate share of job losses from the pandemic, which would have a ripple effect on the female-to-male labour to force participation rate. Without taking any steps to boost gender parity, reduced female participation would persist post-pandemic, leaving global GDP $1 trillion below where it would be if the coronavirus had affected both sexes equally.

The ‘Take action now” scenario maximises the contribution women can make to the global economy, increasing the participation rate to 0.71. Under these circumstances, decisions by policy-makers would significantly improve gender equality by 2030, leading to a $13 trillion boost to global GDP in that year – an 11% increase over the do-nothing scenario,” says the report.

Lastly, waiting until 2024, would have a beneficial impact on the GDP in 2030, but $5.4 trillion less than what would have been in the case of ‘take action now’ scenario.

Addressing the imbalances

Taking effective action is the key to greater gender equality, thereby ensuring enhanced economic output by 2030. It is also important to reduce the gender imbalance when it comes to unpaid care. The interventions to tackle this issue include more recognition of unpaid work, as well as reducing the amount of unpaid work, as well as properly balancing it between men and women.

There must also be steps taken to address digital and financial inclusion for women. During the pandemic, the most essential things like food and groceries, have also moved online. In case women do not have access to digital devices and no literacy around its use, it will be difficult for them to manage day-to-day living.

On the other hand, being digitally and financially literate might even open up a plethora of opportunities for women, in these times of remote work.

Last but not the least, any drive towards gender parity starts with “efforts to change entrenched, widespread attitudes about women’s role in society.” This is a huge challenge that requires the support of all stakeholders. The Global Gender Gap Report 2020 predicts that gender parity will not be achieved for 99.5 years, until requisite action is taken to address the imbalance.

That’s a big wake-up call for governments and stakeholders across the world to do something, for a bright and equitable tomorrow.

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