Are women economically hardest hit by the Covid-19 pandemic?

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Although it has been proven that men are at a higher medical risk of being affected by the Coronavirus itself, as lock downs ease, it is becoming increasingly evident that women are economically disproportionately affected.

Despite decades of progress to diminish the gender pay gap between men and women, the COVID-19 pandemic threatens to bring this back to square one. Just two months before the outbreak, women had exceeded 51% of the workforce in the United States, the first time in a non-recessionary period in the country. As the graph below shows, this has now dropped to 49.2 %, the lowest since the 2008 recession.

In the past

As history as shown, the rate of employment for female fare better than male’s during an economic downturn. But this time, it is different. When a recession usually hits a country, a loss in customer confidence leads to lower consumption of discretionary goods, which greatly impacts industries such as manufacturing and construction; these are globally male dominated industries, resulting in greater unemployment in these regions. However, during this unorthodox time, the businesses hit by the pandemic are those where face to face interaction is essential such as social services including tourism and education and retail.

Here, women are generally overrepresented. Women hold 70% of all jobs in the social work sector in the UK, an industry forced to come to a halt during the national lockdown period. Similarly, tourism and hospitality have seen by far the largest hike in the rate of unemployment as affected by social distancing measures because teleworking is not viable here.

Lockdown has not only put pressure on women’s careers as many may not be able to work from home, but regardless of their occupations, it has also put strains on their family lives. Working a ‘second shift’ is a reality for most working women with young children as years of social convention make it certain that this is primarily their responsibility. Closure of childcare has made it a struggle for many to attend work.

As unemployment begins to rise, experts now believe redundancies are one and a half times more likely for mothers than men due to a lower level of productivity as they juggle their day jobs with unpaid work such as home-schooling children. Consequently, 86% of salary cuts globally being made on women alone. As some industries begin to reopen, women are resigning at a much faster rate than men, due to commitments at home such as children, where it is uncertain when childcare and education will reopen. This early signal unveils the economic uncertainty which will last much longer for women. Furthermore, men are getting back into the workplace faster than women, creating fears of a ‘two tier’ workplace for the future. This can be seen in Canada where women’s employment has only increased by 1.1% as lockdowns ease, whereas men have seen a 2.4% rise.

Care giving predominantly has fallen on women, but during this pandemic it is not only limited to young children. Due to shielding, care giving extends to elder relatives as well as family members with underlying conditions, which increases the pressures on women further.

In many developing and emerging nations, much of the workforce consists of the informal sector, yet another place where women hold a majority of jobs. In South Asia, 80% of women in non-agricultural jobs work in the informal sector. Unsurprisingly, these jobs offer no safety net, so when industries were forced to shut, many of these women were left with no protection from labour laws or other measures such as health insurance. In the short term, this not only exacerbates the rate of female poverty in countries, but also leaves them with no security of employment for the future. Small compensations in cash have been granted to a minority, however this is definitely not a sustainable solution. In Columbia, as a result of lockdown, women’s poverty has increased by 3.3% in only 3 months, a considerably larger figure than men.

If the economic effect of the virus is evidently not gender neutral, the responses to this should not be either. Economic policies should be targeted towards preventing the damaging effect of the pandemic on women’s careers as well as preserving the years of progress which has been already to reduce the gender pay gap.

In Latin America, the “Coalition of Action for the Economic Empowerment of Women” has been established to increase participation of women in economic recovery from the pandemic. A shorter-term response includes several European countries such as France and Slovenia introducing a paid leave for parents with children of a young age if they are affected by sudden school closures.

Several women’s unions have expanded the social safety net program to informal workers to help them cope through lockdown. Further measures to preserve livelihoods in developing countries where a long-term compensation may not be possible should be taken such as adapting jobs to fit the needs of the pandemic. Fiscal policies like investing in schools and universities also ensure that young women return to education, which will help to reduce gender gap in education. More policies to increase equality in the workplace also need to be introduced such as incentivising women to work again as well as subsidising childcare. This is vital in developing an inclusive economic recovery.


References

  1. ”Women were making strides in the workforce, then the pandemic hit” Time News, June 18th, 2020
  2. “Covid-19 Gender Gap” IMF blogs, July 21th, 2020
  3. ” the virus set women back decades” The Guardian, May 29th, 2020
  4. “Covid-19 impacts” UN Women Interactive, April 2020
  5. “Covid-19 a driver of widespread inequality, study finds” Exeter University Research, July 15th 2020

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