Gender Pay Gap: How the Covid-19 Pandemic Set Gender Parity Back a Generation

Carola López
Protests for equal pay in the ’70s. Source: The Conversation

Once a year, The World Economic Forum (WEF) publishes a report on the current state of gender parity. The 2021 publication revealed that we are still 257.2 years away from closing the gender gap in “economic participation” and “opportunity”.

Since gender inequality is an ongoing issue at a global level, it is usually tracked in four key dimensions: Economic Participation and Opportunity, Educational Attainment, Health and Survival, and Political Empowerment. The WEF findings show that Political Empowerment remains the largest of the four gaps tracked. Across the 156 countries covered by the index, women represent only 26.1% of 35,500 parliament seats and just 22.6% of over 3,400 ministers.

On a positive note, the gaps in Educational Attainment and Health and Survival are nearly closed. The latter has been reduced by 96%, yet the time for it to reach 100% remains undefined. In Educational Attainment, “95% has been closed globally, with 37 countries already at parity”. The index estimates that, on its current trajectory, it will take another 14.2 years to completely settle this breach. The Economic Participation and Opportunity gap remains the second-largest of the four. According to the report, 58% have been closed so far, and it is the dimension with the lowest progress out of the four. This scenario can be explained by two opposing trends: 

  • The proportion of women among skilled professionals continues to increase;
  • Yet, overall income disparities are still only part-way towards being bridged and there is a persistent lack of women in leadership positions, with women representing just 27% of all manager roles.

Since the outbreak of the pandemic, gender gaps in labor force participation have increased. The pandemic thus set progress back by a generation, increasing the time needed to achieve overall parity between the genders from 99.5 years to 135.6 years.

How Has Covid-19 Impacted Economic Disparities?

Source: BBC

Covid-19 had an undeniable effect on the global economy. Whilst the global pandemic showcased and aggravated disparity between genders, nevertheless, the structural inequality was standing strong before the virus struck. Job losses hit women disproportionately hard.

According to Oxfam, women ─overrepresented in low-paid, precarious sectors like retail, tourism, and food services─ lost more than 64 million jobs last year, a 5% total loss, compared to a 3.9% loss for men. By the end of 2021, men’s jobs are forecasted to have recovered, but there will still be 13 million fewer women employed. LinkedIn data further shows a marked decline of women’s hiring into leadership roles, creating a reversal of 1 to 2 years of progress across multiple industries. In addition, the pandemic cost women $800 billion in loss of income worldwide. As a consequence, globally, 47 million women are expected to fall into extreme poverty, living on less than $1.90 a day.

Recovery in Terms of Gender Equality

Income gap. Source: World Economic Forum

Moving forward after the pandemic, economic recovery must be thought of in terms of equality. In fact, recovery could serve as an opportunity to rethink equal insertion inside the work environment, as well as outside. One step forward is to tackle the “care crisis”. Women and girls put in 12.5 billion hours of daily unpaid care work ─housework, childcare, and caring for sick relatives─ a contribution to the global economy of at least $10.8 trillion a year (see also Feminist Economics: A Deeper Look into Gender and Economics). As an example, on average across the globe, women spend 4 hours and 22 minutes per day in unpaid labor, compared to 2 hours and 15 minutes for men. Covid-19 has widened this gap even further. Women are now spending 15 hours more in unpaid labor each week than men.

Family-support policies are crucial to even this bias in “care work”. For instance, in developed and emerging economies, women who have a spouse are less likely to be employed in a paid job or be actively looking for one. This can often arise from the economic stability of a partner’s income that can reinforce the “male breadwinner” archetype in some relationships. Furthermore, in many cases, women’s economic freedom remains vital to get out of abusive relationships and domestic violence. Another issue is the gap in senior-level positions. Very few women are CEOs of the world’s largest corporations. As of the August 2020 Fortune Global List, only 13 women (2.6%) were CEOs of Fortune Global 500 companies ─ and all of them were white. Implementing quotas to increase women in corporate boards can be a useful tool to ensure steps for a more equal representation. 

Equality does not operate in isolation. Striving to end the gender gap is not only a matter of social justice but of economic advancement as well. Diversity has long since been proven to foster innovation, and innovation is the central point around which our economy currently moves. Pushing an inclusive narrative forward can ensure a more stable context, not only for women but for the whole workforce. 

  • Should national governments push for quotas on private companies and employers?
  • For how long the female/male binomium will be representative of work disparities?
  • What role could unions play in reducing the gender gap in the workplace?

Suggested Readings

Beyond Covid-19: A feminist plan for susteintability and social justice – UN Women

The gender gap in employment: What’s holding women back? – ILO

Unpaid Care Work: The missing link in the analysis of gender gaps in labour outcomes – OECD Development Centre

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