These hectic months have placed an extra burden on women’s shoulders and persistent lockdowns threaten to erase decades of gender equality earned in the labour force.
Although COVID-19 kills slightly more men than women, the labour market impact is the reverse. Female-dominated jobs are almost twice as vulnerable as male-dominated jobs, according to an estimate by McKinsey & Company.
The prevailing reasons include a high concentration of women in the industries most affected by the pandemic, the extra burden of household tasks and impediments to human capital formation.
An unfortunate side effect of the lockdown strategy to contain the COVID-19 pandemic is that economic gains for women are slipping. The McKinsey report urges governments and companies to take action. Ignoring this drawback could result in a $1 trillion loss of global gross domestic product by 2030.
Disproportionate layoffs for women
Although women make up 49 per cent of the global workforce, they account for 54 per cent of layoffs during the pandemic.
McKinsey estimates predominantly female occupations are 19 per cent more at risk of unemployment than male ones. The explanation arises when looking at the industries decimated by lockdowns: more than half of female workers are employed in hospitality, tourism, retail, services and public administration.
That’s not to say other industries such as manufacturing – where men are a large majority of the workforce – have not suffered from social distancing. In addition, economic activity in education and health care, where women prevail, has remained constant and even increased.
However, the long-run consequence of the pandemic and lockdowns will be a permanent dent in women’s outcomes, especially in economies swiftly replacing and repurposing workers.
The scenario looks even gloomier for the developing world. In many Latin American countries, for instance, the informal sector accounts for at least half of the economy. In these nations, women are on the precarious frontlines, with no First World luxuries such as paid maternity leaves nor other safety nets to fall back on.
Double work at home
Shutdowns disrupted household routines overnight. Remote jobs and home schooling, for instance, have increased the time family members are home.
Many families laid off domestic employees who used to help with housekeeping and childcare, either because they couldn’t afford them or for health reasons.
Women, who already did around 75 per cent of household work around the world before the pandemic, are now devoting even more time to home chores. Those fortunate enough to have remote jobs face the dilemma of working or doing unpaid domestic tasks. There’s no time left for networking or engaging in career-advancement opportunities.
Not all the news is bad. The BBC reports men are devoting more time to domestic chores. In Canada, for example, more than 40 per cent of fathers are cooking more, and around 30 per cent have begun doing laundry and cleaning.
Shutdowns economically, socially unaffordable
Taking into account past epidemics, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) points out girls are more likely than boys to abandon school. In developing countries, those teen girls who abandon school tend to end up pregnant and unable to study or work. The UN Population Fund estimates that pandemic-related factors will lead to 13 million child marriages over the next decade.
The long-term loss of human capital in women is compounded if we examine the fourth industrial revolution: automation. Even if it equally impacts female and male workers, harsher conditions for women now prevent them from being equipped to face the challenge later. If the pandemic leaves them with less time and fewer resources, they will have fewer opportunities relative to men to learn new skills or change jobs.
The scarcity or depletion of existing resources can also hinder female entrepreneurship, according to the McKinsey report. For instance, because households are prioritizing computers and tablets for children’s education needs and cutting back on spending, women face additional constraints for doing business.
Building on what works
The IMF warns that the pandemic could set back female workforce accomplishments by 30 years. Since women usually earn and save less, hold more insecure jobs, and make up more than half of single-parent households, they’re less capable than men of weathering economic shocks.
All this can be prevented or at least mitigated. Lockdowns are not the be-all and end-all of pandemic management, as Sweden has shown. Sound policies that allow the economy to reopen gradually while testing broadly to isolate infections are the way to resume our trend to prosperous and equal societies.
Consider that before the pandemic, countries with the most economic freedom were the most conducive to prosperity for women.
Given the drastic effects of unforeseen shutdowns, temporary gender-focused support for specific sectors could help individuals and firms get back on their feet. However, social engineers must acknowledge the limits of top-down approaches.
Haphazard quarantines have already generated too much collateral damage. Continuing with this path will only mean entrenching the inequalities we’ve fought so hard to dismantle.
Paz Gomez is a research associate with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy.