2020 is certainly a year that will never be forgotten, lockdowns, social distancing, work from home orders and economic devastation that threatens millions of livelihoods and exacerbate inequality.
The economic devastation has hit everybody, but women in particular have faced disproportionate job losses. Citigroup estimates that more than 220 million women are in sectors vulnerable to job cuts amid the pandemic; “The greater vulnerability of women to job losses is due to the segmentation of female labourers into sectors that are the most negatively affected by coronavirus disruptions,” Citi economists Dana Peterson and Catherine Mann wrote in a research note.
On top of being disproportionately impacted by job losses, women are also facing the brunt of the social impact of the virus. They face significant challenges balancing working from home with their traditional roles in the home as the primary caregivers. The challenges are immense, but we need to act to prevent further gender inequality and see a generation lost to the twin devastations of the Covid-19 pandemic and economic recession.
Let’s explore the three major challenges disproportionally impacting women during the global pandemic.
Pandemic job losses disproportionately impact women
Around the globe, the economic lockdown has resulted in millions of jobs being lost. In the US alone, it has resulted in over 40 million workers losing their jobs, and in China, it is estimated close to 80 million have suffered job losses since the pandemic outbreak.
Indeed, the International Labor Organization estimates that 400 million jobs could be eliminated globally due to the pandemic, with a majority in sectors dominated by women. One primary reason that women are seeing higher unemployment rates is that the pandemic and the lockdowns have hit sectors of the economy that disproportionately employ women.
Industries like tourism & hospitality, retail, food & beverage have been directly hit by the pandemic. Furthermore, over 740 million women around the world work in the informal sector as low-wage workers, in employment that is vulnerable to elimination due to Covid-19, and which often lacks protections against exploitation and harassment. For many of the most vulnerable workers in our societies, they face an immediate challenge of no income, which means no food, no security and no future.
Covid-19 is leading to greater gender inequality
Before the pandemic, women were already fighting for equal pay for equal work, to reduce the embedded gender pay gap between men and women. In some parts of developing Asia, women in some cases were paid 34% less for doing the same job.
Even advanced countries like Korea, Japan, and Singapore do not come close to gender pay parity. Despite rising awareness on this issue, women in Asia still earn less than men on average and have to spend more time taking care of their families, which has become a major hurdle for them advancing at work. The global pandemic has accelerated the gender pay gap due to many female workers facing a drop income due to lockdowns, or because they work in hard-hit sectors. Some have also seen their working hours decline as companies reduce part-time workers hours.
Women are on the Covid-19 front line
Women globally have been on the front line confronting the battle against Covid-19, carrying out the heroic work of essential workers such as nurses and community care workers caring for the sick and helping to stem the spread of the virus. Women do this essential work in spite of obstacles and inequalities and also earn 11% less than men in the same field according to the World Health Organisation.
Without the heroic, selfless efforts of these frontline workers, who knows the greater devastation this insidious virus could have caused. But the heroism of the frontline health workers has also seen a countless loss of life among these brave heroes.
It is, however, not just on the front line of the healthcare system that women have played this heroic role — they have also been on the front line at home, as governments around the world have temporarily closed schools in order to contain the spread of COVID-19. Women have had to tutor their children whilst also managing the household and working from home. Women do this essential work in spite of obstacles and inequalities.
We’re all in this together
The scarcity of comprehensive gender-based data analysis makes it difficult to make effective gender comparisons on how the pandemic is affecting women more during this crisis. But given early indicators in job losses, the number of frontline workers exposed to the virus, and the challenges women are facing caregiving whilst managing work from home indicates that the crisis is impacting women far greater than it does men.
What can be done about it?
We need a response that meets the most urgent needs of women. Governments and the private sector need to address the immediate needs of women being impacted by job losses. This should include targeted economic safety nets that acknowledge the added responsibility women take on. Working mothers, in particular, undertake more responsibilities as primary caregivers. Schemes should be also be targeted to reskilling women for the future of work so that the crisis does not consign millions of female workers to permanent unemployment and a future devoid of hope.
As the lockdowns are eased, we are all going to have to work together so that no one is left behind. As the founder of a career platform for women, I must say that we are determined to make accessible information on job availability that would help both men and women match with potential employers in this time of crisis.
The “new normal” will impact both men and women alike, but as we transition to a new digital-first landscape, women will face a bigger challenge in bridging the digital divide due to historical legacies. We must redouble our efforts to ensure women’s chances of accessing the jobs of the future are not hindered.
Sabrina Ho is the founder of Half The Sky, a career and headhunting platform connecting female professionals with equal opportunity employers. Through Half The Sky, Sabrina hopes to empower women in the workplace and level the playing field for women at work.