The fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic has been especially damaging to the economic well-being of women—worsening gender inequality by crippling women’s employment and earning opportunities while exacerbating household challenges such as violence against women.
Today—Monday, March 8—marks International Women’s Day, this year aptly themed “Women in leadership: Achieving an equal future in a COVID-19 world.” As the agenda takes shape for the Group of Twenty (G20) presidency—which passed to Italy in December 2020 in the midst of the coronavirus crisis—to address the pandemic, climate change, and other transnational challenges, the bloc must take steps to ensure women are central to the more equitable and inclusive recovery that it seeks, the world’s women need, and the global economy demands.
Gender inequality is certainly not a new feature of G20 economies; only around a third or less of women are formally employed in India, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey, and low rates of female labor-force participation have long mired economies worldwide. But since the onset of the pandemic in early 2020, women’s employment rates have fallen precipitously in many nations, usually at a quicker pace than those of men. In the United States, women suffered 55 percent of job losses in the first few months of COVID-related economic restrictions. By late 2020, some 2.5 million women had lost their jobs or dropped out of the workforce. In Latin America, women were 50 percent more likely than men to lose their jobs as the pandemic took hold—a figure that does not include losses among the large number of women working in the informal economy or performing unpaid work. In Turkey, surveyed women experienced higher levels of job loss than men did after the spread of COVID-19. Across the Middle East and North Africa region, estimates indicate that women will suffer a third of job losses even though they represent only a fifth of the labor force.
Even when women can find formal employment, wage disparities between women and men have been a key driver of inequality for years: women in the United States make only eighty-two cents for every dollar earned by men, and the gender pay gap is 23 percent globally. The global average of men’s overall income is nearly double that of women, due in part to the fact that women are more likely to be employed in lower-paid, lower-skill work with more job insecurity and fewer benefits.
Youth employment has also been highly vulnerable to the pandemic, dealing young women a double blow. In Argentina, for example, unemployment among those aged fourteen to twenty-nine increased significantly in the first quarter of 2020, to 18 percent, but the figure rose to 24 percent for young women. In the United Kingdom, sectors that shut down due to social-distancing measures employed 25 percent of young men under twenty-five years old but 36 percent of young women in the same age cohort. These sectors employed just 13 percent of workers over age twenty-five.
Beyond employment, women’s enterprises have also been further imperiled by the virus. The latest World Bank Findex in 2017 found that the financial-inclusion gap between men and women, measured in terms of having a bank account, remained at nine percentage points in favor of men in developing economies—unchanged since 2011. In several countries, even those in the middle-income strata, this gap is much more significant. In one COVID-19 impact survey of 30,000 small and micro enterprises worldwide, the gender disparity between shuttered businesses owned by women versus by men reached as high as 10 percent in countries with strict lockdowns. Women around the world also carry out as much as triple the unpaid household and care hours as men do. From India to Japan, and across Europe and the Americas, wage inequality combined with cultural or social norms push women to forego work, especially because of care constraints.
These dynamics account in part for COVID-19’s calamitous, disproportionate effect on women’s earning opportunities across advanced, emerging, and developing countries alike, putting economic participation and prosperity further from their reach. The Women 20 (W20) engagement group has been the traditional hub for consideration of gender issues at the G20. But to address the multitude of acute challenges faced by the world’s women, G20 leaders and finance ministers must now make use of the full range of policy instruments at their disposal. These include gender-responsive budgeting, entrepreneurial and employment tax incentives, healthcare, social-protection measures, improved property rights, increased hiring of women in government, and the collection of disaggregated data to better identify deficits and measure change. The G20 should also take a more integrated and intersectional approach, ensuring women’s inclusion across all of the forum’s engagement and working groups.
The Business 20 (B20), for example, should encourage businesses to promote women to management and decision-making roles; champion employer-provided childcare, healthcare and paid-leave policies, and digital access to close the gender digital divide; and expand access to the platform economy, workplace safety, and gender-elastic lending products and services, including loan-repayment deferments. The Energy Transition and Climate Sustainability Working Group should highlight women’s successes to entice more women to enter non-traditional sectors and engage men and families to shift social norms. Targeted lending and carveouts for women-owned small- and medium-sized enterprises in green business should also be promoted.
The Labour Working Group and Labour 20 (L20) should place the specific needs of women workers—including those in the informal economy—atop their agenda. That should include addressing issues related to wage gaps, childcare, upskilling and on-the-job training, and sexual harassment. As it tackles the education and employment crises, the Education Working Group and Youth 20 (Y20) should focus on young women’s training, skills, and digital access, as well as financial inclusion for productive self-employment and entrepreneurship. These efforts should embrace the future of work and the post-pandemic economy, including ensuring downstream STEM and technical vocational training for the emerging green, orange, care, and digital economies.
The Development Working Group can have an impact in this space by steering multilateral and bilateral donor resources toward the needs of women and girls in low-income countries. Given rapid urbanization in G20 countries and cities worldwide, the Urban 20 (U20) has an important opportunity to advance gender-sensitive urban planning, job creation, and city governance.
In its handover communiqué, the 2020 Saudi W20 stated that “G20 leaders must pave the way for equitable economic recovery where women, as equal partners and key economic actors, are part of the solution.” The Italian presidency must urgently heed this call and advance an energetic, holistic, women-centered agenda that mobilizes resources, directs financing, and ushers in data-informed policies. What’s needed is a strategy that both curbs the damage that the pandemic has inflicted on women and unlocks opportunities for reimagining women’s education, employment, and entrepreneurship in the post-pandemic era. If it succeeds in implementing this two-track strategy, the Italian G20 will be a boon to inclusive growth in member states and the global economy.
Nicole Goldin is a nonresident senior fellow in the Atlantic Council’s GeoEconomics Program and managing principal of NRG Advisory. Follow her on Twitter @NicoleGoldin.