While most people’s lives and work have been negatively affected by the COVID-19 crisis, overall, women’s jobs and livelihoods have been more vulnerable to the COVID-19 pandemic.
According to a McKinsey research, in India women made up 20 percent of the workforce before COVID-19 and their share of job losses resulting from the industry mix alone is estimated at 17 percent. However, unemployment surveys suggest that they actually account for 23 percent of overall job losses. The analysis finds that the gendered nature of work across industries explains one-fourth of the difference between job-loss rates for men and women. The lack of systemic progress to resolve other societal barriers for women explains the rest.
According to the Center for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE), the economic shock and the pandemic have shrunk the already low labour participation rate for women even further: it’s now 11% for women compared to 71% for men in India. The recovery, like the pandemic, has also been unequal. By November 2020, men had regained most of the jobs they’d lost during the spring lockdowns. Women accounted for nearly half of the remaining job losses.
Let’s look at the two factors that are responsible for higher pandemic related unemployment in greater detail.
1. Gendered Nature of Work
The nature of work remains significantly gender specific: women and men tend to cluster in different occupations in both mature and emerging economies. This, in turn, shapes the gender implications of the pandemic
According to the International Labour Organization (ILO), 41 per cent of total female employment globally work in the four hardest-hit sectors – accommodation and food services; real estate, business and administrative activities; manufacturing; and wholesale/retail trade.
There is a risk that many manufacturing jobs, especially in the garment industry, which absorb large numbers of women, particularly in the lower rungs, will disappear, while the absence of stronger systems of social protection endangers the health and incomes of these workers as well as the viability of businesses.
Many women in high-risk sectors are self-employed or owners of micro or small-sized enterprises. Available evidence shows that women operate businesses with lower levels of capitalization and are more reliant on self-financing. This is especially true for women in the informal economy, who cannot easily get access to credit and are therefore more likely to have to close their businesses for extended periods with substantially reduced or no revenues. Government support packages need to look at the specific challenges of women entrepreneurs and support them in a way that can help them pull through.
2. Societal Barriers
During the pandemic, many women and men have seen the hours they devote to unpaid care work increase as a consequence of school and day-care closures, reductions in public services for people with disabilities and the elderly, the non-availability of domestic workers and the need to look after family members with COVID-19.
However, COVID-19 has disproportionately increased the time women spend on family responsibilities—by an estimated 30 percent in India, according to one survey. It is therefore not surprising that women have dropped out of the workforce at a higher rate than explained by labour-market dynamics alone.
The key reason why these responsibilities have gone up so significantly is due to the role of women in unpaid care – the demands of which have grown substantially during the pandemic. Women are on the front lines here; they do an average of 75 percent of the world’s total unpaid-care work, including childcare, caring for the elderly, cooking, and cleaning. In some regions, such as South Asia and the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), women’s share of unpaid-care work is as high as 80 to 90 percent.
Disturbingly, reports from many countries suggest that, with the lockdown, the incidence of domestic violence has also escalated since the COVID-19 outbreak. Working from home, job loss, financial pressure, anxiety about the future and disconnection from support networks have the potential to exacerbate any underlying factors.
All these are likely to have far-reaching and term impact on the employment and economic empowerment of women, even after there is an economic recovery.
Need of the Hour
The fight against COVID-19 has shown the need for strong leadership and continued dialogue with all parties concerned, to ensure that decisions are effective and inclusive. It has also, however, cast light once again on the little space given to women with limited representation in national political and scientific COVID-19 task-forces. Women account for barely 25 per cent of the experts in the best-case scenarios. No wonder the perspective of women and their unique challenges do not get the necessary attention or consideration.
Many unresolved issues such as persistent gender gaps in employment, stubborn discrimination, the heavy burden of unpaid care work, and violence and harassment at home, work and in society, explain why they continue to be missing in positions of decision-making and at the top.
Women’s economic empowerment is central to realizing women’s rights and gender equality. Women’s economic empowerment includes women’s ability to participate equally in existing markets; their access to and control over productive resources, access to decent work, control over their own time, lives and bodies; and increased voice, agency and meaningful participation in economic decision-making at all levels from the household to international institutions. It’s time for political and business establishments to recognize this and make decision making inclusive.
Sonali Sinha, PCC
Founder – SoaringEagles Coaching, Executive Coach, Board Director, ex-investment banker, ex-CEO of a non-profit, Rotarian, podcaster, life-long learner