I. WOMEN AT THE EPICENTER OF COVID-19
With 3 million cases and 300,000 deaths touching every part of the world, the COVID-19 crisis continues to escalate, damaging health and economic well-being globally. While no one is untouched by the effects of the crisis, women stand at its epicenter on the frontlines of this global health emergency, as noted in a recent OECD report.
In occupations most affected by the crisis, women account for over 70% of the health care workforce, 1/2 of all doctors and 95% of the long-term care workforce globally, a majority of pharmacists, pharmacy aides and technicians, and more than 2/3 of grocery store workers and staff at the counter at fast food eateries. In fact, one in three jobs held by women during this health crisis has been designated as essential in the U.S., according to a New York Times analysis.
Unfortunately, much of this work has long been underpaid and undervalued. Among home health and personal care aides, pay comes close to minimum wage. Simultaneously, women are also shouldering more of a burden at home, given school and childcare closures throughout most countries. Industries suffering huge job losses due to the virus, such as the service sector, domestic work, and childcare, are disproportionately staffed by women. In the U.S. for instance, 70% of restaurant workers and 93% of domestic workers are women, so they form a large segment of the unemployed.
"Women are such pivotal cogs in all economies globally and always have been," said President of the Global Summit of Women Irene Natividad. "The current crisis has thrown a spotlight on the value of what is often seen as women's work. We salute all the work done by these women in all parts of the world, but we also want this attention to translate into policy changes that improve women's work and family lives." GlobeWomen is part of the W20 currently drafting a document to be presented to G20 leaders enumerating policies that address gender equity in the post-pandemic world.
II. LEADING THE WAY DURING THE HEALTH CRISIS
Women may account for only 7% of Heads of State globally, but where women are in charge, there is a better chance that the rate of COVID-19 infections has reached a plateau.
In countries led by women, governments acted quickly, closing borders and businesses early, implementing clear, thorough and well-executed social distancing plans at least a week before their first death, in contrast to other countries whose leaders initially downplayed the seriousness of the virus’ impact. In Germany, Norway, New Zealand, Iceland and Finland – all headed by women – lock-downs were initiated earlier than some of their neighbors and, as a result, have had fewer fatalities.
Other women government leaders are also making positive impacts in the fight against the economic effects of the virus. One such leader is France’s Minister of Labor Muriel Penicaud, who pushed through legislation requiring the French government to cover up to 84% of a worker’s salary, providing job security for the employee and saving the employer from paying wages while business is halted. Similar programs to reduce unemployment through wage subsidies have been enacted in Germany and the UK. In contrast to these European efforts to keep wages flowing, the unemployment rate in the U.S. has swelled to 26%, with unemployment benefits not nearly as generous.
In Kenya, Charity Ngilu, the former Minister of Health and current governor of a region in the eastern part of the country, saw the need for protective gear, none of which was available in her country. Rather than wait for expensive imports, she worked with the owner of a garment factory to begin producing 30,000 protective masks a day from the factory where 80% of the workers are women.
This experience may potentially lead to more jobs being created as a result of the crisis. Governor Ngilu would like to build more factories as soon as possible, perhaps with funds raised from exporting excess masks. With many women currently without their jobs in the "informal" economy as a result of a curfew, she would like to train these women to make masks in the new factories, easing joblessness and potential for social unrest. (Sources: Forbes, "Why do women make such good leaders during Covid-19," April 19, 2020; Washington Post, "In Kenyan Factory, a Swift Alteration," April 17, 2020)
III. POST-PANDEMIC BRAVE NEW WORLD
A flipside to the fact that women are enduring the worst of the crisis at the moment and women’s roles in the workplace are being more affected than men by COVID-19 is the possibility that the crisis will alter gender norms in a way that could lead to a more equitable workplace and society.
According to new research shared by the U.S. National Bureau of Economic Research, the COVID-19 crisis might generate long-lasting change. In the same way that World War II shifted gender roles by putting more women in the workforce, COVID-19 is spurring a surge of male caregivers since women currently make up the majority of “essential” jobs. This is in contrast to previous recessions, which affected men’s employment more severely than women’s employment.
“There are opposing forces which may ultimately promote gender equality in the labor market,” the researchers write. “First, businesses are rapidly adopting flexible work arrangements, which are likely to persist. Second, there are also many fathers who now have to take primary responsibility for childcare, which may erode social norms that currently lead to a lopsided distribution of labor in housework and child care.”
In an OECD policy brief on “Women at the Core of the Fight Against Covid-19 Crisis,” recommendations center on governments operating a well-functioning system of gender mainstreaming in emergency policies in the short-term but with an eye towards long-term commitments
“Women are risking their lives, yet their pay, status, social recognition and visibility are limited,” said OECD Chief of Staff and Sherpa to the G-20 Gabriela Ramos. “Essentially, we face two options as we respond to this crisis: we can either let these disproportionate impacts exacerbate existing inequalities, or we can make sure to embed a strong gender lens in response and recovery efforts to emerge stronger – and our choice is obvious. The post Covid-19 world will never be the same, and it is up to all of us to ensure that women fare better.”
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