Women were disproportionately affected by COVID-19 lockdowns, supply chain disruptions, and school closures. With decades of progress erased, it will take everyone to reclaim what’s been lost.
Each new study and special report coming from Asia’s development banks, regional monitors, and even governments is telling the same grim story. Women workers and women-led micro, small and medium-sized enterprises (MSMEs) have thus far borne the brunt of the economic downturn from COVID-19. Even worse? The fallout isn’t over.
In Thailand, for example, women accounted for 60% of all job losses, while in the Philippines approximately one in five were out of work. In Viet Nam, of the women who left the workplace, some 90 percent of women who exited in 2020 had given up on looking for new employment by the end of the year. Chinese women, who started with hard lockdowns and then enjoyed relative freedom to work, have seen their 2022 massively disrupted by large national lockdowns again. The net result? Throughout the region, millions upon millions of women are exiting the workplace or seeing their businesses fail.
While women in the leisure, hospitality, and tourism industries were obvious targets of pandemic era problems, supply chain disruptions and company closures meant that even women in higher tech fields and knowledge industries have been left unemployed or forced to watch their own MSMEs go bankrupt. With an explosion in at-home responsibilities thanks to school closures and virtual learning, many are still not confidently able to return to the workforce or reopen their own shops or service-based businesses.
Culture is a factor. Men’s employment levels in many Asian nations are recovering dramatically, while women’s numbers creep up anemically. Men are, to be blunt, considered more available to return to work. Caring for vulnerable elders and serving as a home-school supervisor is still considered to be very much women’s work, and regional studies show it is primarily being done by women abruptly reassigned to household duties full-time.
This division of labor along stereotypically male vs. female lines has occurred world-wide, leading some analysts to refer to the current state of affairs as a “She-cession” due to so many women being forced away from their jobs. However, while their European and American counterparts face similar struggles, Asian women must navigate them while operating in much smaller living spaces and often under much stricter quarantine, testing, and lockdown standards than have been applied in other geographic areas.
According to the Australian Academy of Science, the impact on women in STEM fields has been extremely detrimental. Compared to other types of knowledge work, not all STEM careers can be easily translated to a laptop in a living room. Women who cannot leave their families are thus forced to leave their offices. Further, with many more women at lower to mid-career stages, they have been cut more frequently than higher status men in STEM who may be protected by tenure or seniority rules, exacerbating the existing industry-wide gender imbalances there while simultaneously narrowing the “feeder pool” for future female leaders.
Business leaders and government are not unaware that this is happening, but responses are mixed. Individual companies are often doing much more than their national governments. For example, in India, Nestle India is choosing to sponsor its own initiatives to train and support male champions of women in the workplace and create advocacy for getting more women back into the workforce, which are elements of female-supporting programming sponsored by the national government in South Korea.
Other initiatives, while well-meant, will take decades to fully bear fruit. It is not an overnight process to eradicate culturally based workload imbalances and structural inequalities. Malaysia is spending more than $227 million USD on an upskilling program, which is admirable and good. Unfortunately, it is not the “near future” help that many Asian women need. So, given that COVID continues to flare up throughout the region, what can be done?
First, governments and employers must strive to meet women where they are now. The ADB’s Covid Pandemic Response Option (CPRO), adopted by 16 countries, is a good example. Focused mainly on women and children, it offers emergency transfers of funds and other assistance to mitigate the real-time stresses of unemployment and school closure.
NEXT, FIRMS MUST LOOK AT HOW THEY CAN ENABLE WOMEN TO RETURN.
Rehiring biases and a lack of flexible on ramps for women who’ve needed to take a COVID-related break need to be addressed. What Nestle India and IBM are doing around sabbaticals for women with caregiving responsibilities and dedicated “returnship” opportunities to ease women back are excellent examples of the possibilities.
Finally, everyone must come together to realize that women have been through – and in many areas, continue to struggle through – some extraordinarily difficult circumstances. It is not about “restarting” as much as it is about rebuilding, in many cases from scorched earth as whole sections of the economy and past business practice have been swept away. More programming and support systems will be needed than ever before to make women confident about returning to work or reopening MSME operations.
This means that to reclaim the gender equity that’s been lost – and make progress – the issue will need to be a constant and central topic of conversation and concern for managers, executives, and boards. The setback that has happened cannot be reversed overnight. Funding, strategic talent planning, and continual attention to turnover, retention, and development of women will be essential to making sure that rather than lingering as an angry scar on the Asian business community, COVID can eventually fade away to simply a bad memory.