The challenges to gender equality heralded by the COVID-19 pandemic could have lasting impacts, senior industry figures told an Asia House roundtable this week.
“Women have been affected across a range of areas during the COVID-19 pandemic,” Anu Madgavkar, Partner at McKinsey Global Institute (MGI), said during the discussion on 18 November. “The repercussions of what we do or don’t do [on gender parity] will be visible not just in the near future but for years to come.”
Discussing the findings of a new MGI report, Madgavkar noted that women’s jobs are 1.8 times more vulnerable to this crisis than men’s jobs. In addition, the report states that while women make up 39 per cent of global employment, they account for 54 per cent of overall job losses in the pandemic. The report found that, without intervention, we could lose US$1 trillion in global GDP growth.
Hosted in partnership with MGI, the discussion convened business and policy leaders to assess the regressive impact that the COVID-19 pandemic has had on gender equality around the world. In addition to the briefing on MGI’s report by Madgavkar and fellow Partner at MGI, Deepa Mahajan, the audience heard insights from Barbara Rambousek, Director for Gender and Economic Inclusion at the EBRD, and David Isaac, Former Chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission.
Panelists discussed how to ensure that the role of women in the workplace and in society remain central to efforts in rebuilding economies in a post COVID-19 era, while questions were raised about what is causing jobs to be disproportionately lost by women over men, and what needs to be done to ensure this doesn’t have a long term impact.
The disproportionate impact on women
“Gender equality is not only a pressing moral and social issue, but it is critical to the economic challenges that we face today,” said Babita Sharma, Presenter at BBC World News, who was moderating the roundtable discussion.
This was backed up by statistics from MGI’s report, which found that women are bearing the brunt of the economic fallout of the COVID-19 crisis. Presenting some of the report’s findings, Mahajan noted that different industries have been hit in different ways during the pandemic. However, if men and women were laid off at the same rate, we should have only seen 43 per cent of jobs lost being held by women (as opposed to the 54 per cent that was seen). This is a trend that has been the same across countries.
Reasons for this come down to the additional burden of care placed on women during the pandemic, as schools were shut and the elderly became more vulnerable, given that women were already three times more likely than men to take on unpaid care work in the house before the pandemic hit. Furthermore, MGI’s report found that women have been dropping out of the workforce at a greater rate than men.
“This underscores the difficulty that we are going to have just maintaining equality at the labour force participation levels we have achieved in the last five years,” said Mahajan. “In fact, we have now taken a step back. This is a multi, multi year step back.”
A new work culture
However, there are some opportunities that the COVID-19 crisis has presented, particularly when it comes to adopting a more flexible culture of working. Madgavkar noted that remote working is now a “proven operating model” and that we can begin normalising the practice.
Agreeing with her, Mahajan added: “[We have an] opportunity to really rethink what work might look like in a way that allows for us to build more collaborative work structures, more equally balance our care load, more equal work life balance… This crisis has proven that we can do a lot more than we thought we could do.”
Meanwhile, Isaacs urged leaders to take a step back and reflect on what the workplace could look like. He noted that we have made more progress with technology and remote working in the last six months than we have in the last six years, urging a normalisation of flexible working practices.
There was also an emphasis placed on the importance of data in the fight for gender equality. Rambousek, from the EBRD, said that while there was an awareness that women are disproportionately impacted by crises, it’s not until you have data that you can understand what needs to be done.
“Data is important,” Rambousek said. “With data, we increase our understanding of what is actually happening and how women are impacted across the different sectors, as entrepreneurs, as employees, but also in their daily lives.”
She added that with this information we could start shaping our responses to the situation. Isaac, formerly with the EHRC, agreed with Rambousek on the importance of data, referring to it as being “absolutely key” and urging businesses to gather, report and share data, as well as “use it as an effective tool to drive change”.
“It’s really important that employers play their role,” said Isaacs. “Businesses need to come up with credible information about what the direct impact of COVID has been, and together we need to work out credible action plans that address not just the long-term issues, but the immediate challenges that COVID has presented.”
Looking ahead, the speakers stressed the need for a coordinated response across the public and private sector.
“There’s no quick fix to this,” said Rambousesk. “This really does require painstaking work at every level in terms of how we invest, how we support the economy, and the policies we put in place.”
Madgavkar identified a “glimmer of hope” in the way many governments have scaled up support during the pandemic. While she acknowledged that this wasn’t specifically on the gender front, she hoped that the bold responses from governments will continue going forward when it comes to providing support.
Meanwhile, Isaacs urged men to take on more responsibility – particularly when it comes to the unpaid care work.
“These are big cultural shifts which don’t happen quickly. We need to really work with governments, employers, but also leaders across civil and public society to ensure that people know what good looks like, that it is affordable, and that it will benefit everybody.”
The roundtable was held in partnership with McKinsey Global Institute.
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