Expert's take: The gendered impact of COVID-19 requires transformative changes in economic policies

Date: Wednesday, September 9, 2020

About the author

Blerta Cela, UN Women Deputy Regional Director for Europe and Central Asia. Photo: Personal archive

Blerta Cela is the Deputy Regional Director of UN Women, Regional Office in Istanbul, Turkey. A native of Albania, she has 20 years of experience in programme management, design and implementation. Prior to UN Women, she was the UNDP Deputy Resident Representative in Ukraine. She also has experience working with several civil society and human rights organizations to promote socioeconomic development, gender equality and human rights. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed and exacerbated gender inequalities and biases, and deepened pre-existing inequalities in the labour market. Women have traditionally received lower incomes and held less secure jobs than men; they are also more likely to be employed in the informal sector or in service jobs – roles that offer less access to social protection, insurance, sick pay and paid parental leave and sectors heavily impacted by the pandemic. In addition, women are responsible for a disproportionate amount of unpaid domestic and care work. The impact COVID-19 has had on women’s economic security has been severe and will have long-term effects, causing dips in women’s income and labour force participation while also contributing to a deeper contraction in global GDP.

To contain and reverse the pandemic’s socioeconomic burden on women, we need to start with a shared understanding of how the pandemic deepens existing inequalities and exposes vulnerabilities in the economy. A regional Rapid Gender Assessment (RGA) survey, conducted by the UN Women Regional Office for Europe and Central Asia (the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women) on the gendered impacts of COVID-19 reveals the troubling reality of how the pandemic is impacting women’s participation in the economic domain across Europe and Central Asia (ECA).

The typically feminised sectors – such as retail, hospitality and tourism – have seen more layoffs and job losses than other sectors due to the pandemic and subsequent lockdown measures. The RGA survey showed that over 12 per cent of women lost their jobs and 43 per cent faced reduced paid working hours. Women are also impacted because they tend to work in informal sectors or in micro, small and medium-sized enterprises (MSMEs), either as own-account workers or as contributing family workers, where they are unlikely to receive sick pay or other social protections. The RGA survey shows that among all groups of employed women, self-employed women suffered the worst consequences, with around 70 per cent facing reductions in paid working hours or job losses.

Women also carry a disproportionate share of unpaid care responsibilities and these have been exacerbated by lockdown measures, school closures, shielding of the elderly and taking care of those who are ill. The RGA survey indicated an increase of at least 10 percentage points – up to a high of 20 points in countries such as Turkey – when it came to women’s burden of unpaid domestic and care work.

Some of the emergency responses taken by national governments across ECA have been encouraging and include gender-specific measures in relation to social assistance (such as conditional and unconditional cash transfers) and in-kind support (through food and medical supplies). Turkey and Serbia both created cash payments schemes focused on women, for example, while Albania and Georgia provided programmes of food distribution as well as medical products and other services specifically focusing on women-headed households, single parents, ethnic minorities, Roma settlements and other vulnerable and underserved groups. These responses are a crucial feature of the gendered response to COVID-19 and offer positive guidance for other governments.

As we move from response to recovery, the appropriate steps to reverse the gendered impact of COVID-19 in the medium to long term include a coordinated, inclusive, multi-stakeholder, people-centred and holistic approach as well as transformative changes in economic policies. This will enable greater gender equality, an increase in women’s empowerment and a more resilient and sustainable economy. In terms of curbing the impact in the short term it is essential that a focus be placed on social assistance – cash transfers to women, removal of tax burdens on women-owned enterprises, using existing social protection programs to target retail, hospitality and tourism, etc. – and social protection should be extended to the informal economy. Social financing assistance should also include supporting women-led innovations and start-ups.

Women have been innovating for centuries, and this is especially true in times of crisis. It is therefore essential to invest in, and support, the development of female-generated ideas and skills, as this will benefit local communities and beyond. An example of this is the women-founded e-commerce platform, Soplidan.ge, in Georgia which, during the pandemic, enabled producers of agricultural products to connect directly with their customers. With lockdown implemented and markets closed, farmers needed this alternative way to distribute and sell their produce. UN Women supported six female producers of agricultural products, ensuring they were added to Soplidan.ge. Without the platform, producers and their families would have suffered even more. However, platforms like this cannot exist without access to finance – lack of funding is a major obstacle to scaling or even running a start-up.

In the medium term, it is imperative that gender equality is embedded in national fiscal stimulus packages as well as in the design of national policy responses, as economic strategies are heavily weighted towards male-dominated industries. Lessons from previous crises show that in general, countries with larger fiscal stimulus packages experience a stronger recovery, both in terms of income and employment. For these reasons, it is critical that available liquidity is used to mitigate socioeconomic burdens placed on women and enable a gender-equitable economic recovery. Given the sectoral/occupational concentration of women in labour-intensive manufacturing (e.g. garments, textiles) and the SMEs hardest hit by the pandemic, fiscal stimulus packages need to adopt specific measures that address women’s employment. For example, in designing support schemes for struggling businesses, a proportion should be allocated by size of business with the aim of keeping small businesses/low-income self-employed people (mainly women) afloat as well as introducing specific measures to support women entrepreneurs or women-owned/run enterprises.

Responses need to move beyond safety nets – from fragmented approaches to sustainable, inclusive economies. A lack of access to social care and childcare support are the most immediate barriers to women being able to work, study and train, and therefore critical infrastructure. Designating care as an essential part of the socioeconomic recovery would reorientate the strategic focus on women’s positions in the economy, as workers and as carers. Moreover, investment in care infrastructure will stimulate job creation and community development. Ultimately the state will benefit from this type of investment, through more labour market participation, an increased tax base and relieved pressure on social security.

The private sector also has a critical role to play. Gender-sensitive private sector responses will accelerate inclusive economic recovery and ensure more female participation in the economy – extending job flexibility and investing more in women’s education and skills training will result in business longevity and resilience, increasing productivity and retention of female employees.

Gender equality is a precondition of inclusive, sustainable and resilient development. A gender-based policy response to COVID-19 that secures women’s economic security and addresses the unfair burden of care is essential if the intention to “build back better” has any hope of being achieved.