The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has been profound. Economies around the world are in a state of extreme distress, and businesses in all sectors and of all sizes, are to reimagine if not transform their traditional work practices. Many are struggling with changing regulations or reduced demand, whereas others are wrestling with remote-work and digital tools.
But the pandemic is also having an increasingly localised impact on specific population demographics, such as women in the workplace. According to the World Trade Organization (WTO), early evidence suggests that women will be hit harder than in previous economic downturns. Already struggling with under-representation in senior management roles, and the disparity in pay between genders, the COVID-19 crisis has provided added challenges in many sectors where women play a leading role.
For example, take the global value chain for apparel, where women account for 60 to 80 percent of the workforce. This has been severely affected by the pandemic, with the mass cancellation of orders and the closure of shops worldwide. Other corners of manufacturing, such as textiles, footwear and telecoms products, tell a similar story.
The WTO points out that a larger share of women – than men – work in services that have been directly affected by regional and international travel restrictions, such as tourism and business travel, as well as in parts of the economy where remote-work simply isn’t possible. But the impact of COVID-19 is potentially even greater, adversely affecting women across the business spectrum, whether working in vulnerable sectors, running their own businesses, or exposed to the stress and uncertainty of life as a female migrant worker. This points to a responsibility on the part of governments and businesses to double down in their focus on diversity and inclusion (D&I) as they look to recover from the pandemic. As such, public and private sectors must work together to actively build more diverse and gender-inclusive organisations and improve the opportunities for women.
Below we examine the impact of the pandemic on the working lives of women in three key areas: the workplace, trade, and immigration. For each, we highlight concrete and pragmatic measures to prevent a slide toward less-progressive times, and to build on the broad positive steps that have already been taken toward gender equality.
There has been much discussion of the radical change the COVID-19 crisis has brought to the workplace. The most eye-catching is the sudden mainstream adoption of remote-work, cited by many as the one ‘silver lining’ of the otherwise devastating pandemic. While remote-work – to some extent – looks to remain post-pandemic, a large proportion of women risk being excluded from the new working reality.
For a snapshot of the employment picture for women immediately prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s worth looking at the UK as a developed country case-study. At the time, women held 79% of jobs in the health and social work sector, 70% of jobs in education, and constituted a predominant portion of the retail workforce. Many women are also in childcare and home school roles. These are areas that may not lend themselves easily to remote-work.
While the rate of employment among women was at a record high, 40% were working part-time compared to 13% of men. Meanwhile, median weekly pay for women working full-time was £528, whereas for men it was £628. By contrast, those in developing nations are at further risk. Many lack the opportunities and IT training to be able to work remotely, which means they’re also at greater risk of contracting the virus while working.
From here, a picture begins to emerge of women around the world locked out of opportunity, locked into a lower pay, and being at greater risk to exposure to the virus as the world adjusts itself to a post-pandemic reality.
Organisations must reimagine how they ensure all groups, including women, are supported and recognised during the pandemic, now, next and beyond. As organisations formulate their phased return to physical workplaces, are they integrating considerations around which employees may be unable to return? What will be the impact on different groups?
Prior to the pandemic, studies showed that businesses which trade internationally are more productive than their domestically focused competitors. However, women-owned businesses are less likely to operate across borders than those owned by men.
Women-owned businesses are typically classed as micro, small, and medium-sized enterprises (MSMEs). As a result, they often face higher costs to overcome trade barriers and access international markets. These businesses also suffer a limited access to education, trade finance and contractual support. Prior to the COVID-19 crisis, women were already on an unequal playing field with international trade.
Digital trade and e-commerce have helped mitigate some of the systemic barriers to trade and the subsequent negative impact of the crisis, but the collapse of many trade links leaves women in danger of losing a sizeable share of the economic gains they have made.
Sectors such as tourism and hospitality – in which women are particularly active as employers or employees – have also been decimated by international travel and trade restrictions imposed by countries to contain the pandemic. These sectors are also expected to experience a relatively slow recovery due to lower consumer confidence and ongoing restrictions on people’s movement.
The broader impact of international trade restrictions and supply chain shifts is particularly acute in developing economies. The International Labour Organization shows that female employees represent up to 80% of the workforce in garment production in Bangladesh. In the first quarter of 2020, industry orders declined by 45.8%, and by 81% in April alone.
Given the added risks to women from the impact of COVID-19 compounding existing inequities on trade, it is arguable that it is even more important to maintain open markets during the pandemic recovery period, in order to build growth that’s not only faster, but more sustainable and inclusive too. The good news is that governments around the world are taking steps to protect the position of women. For example, we already saw pre-pandemic the use of gender impact assessments when preparing for trade negotiations, to determine whether any laws, policies and programs are likely to have an impact on the state of equality between women and men.
One country setting progressive standards is Canada. Having already begun prioritising gender equality and the avoidance of discrimination in its trade negotiations, the Canadian government broke new ground in 2017 with its Free Trade Agreement with Chile, which featured a whole chapter dedicated to trade and gender, the first of its kind by a G20 country. Its goal is to improve the ability of female workers, businesswomen and entrepreneurs to access and benefit from opportunities created by trade and investment. In the past month, the UK-Japan Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA) has followed suit and includes commitments on promoting women and gender empowerment in international trade and which is aimed at enhancing cooperation between Japan and the UK .
Other agencies are taking strong steps too. The International Trade Centre has set up the SheTrade initiative, designed to connect three million female entrepreneurs to markets by 2021. It provides online training and mentoring for female entrepreneurs, gives women a platform to share ideas and conduct business around the world. It also acts as a channel through which companies can include more female-owned businesses in their supply chains. SheTrade currently has projects and hubs in 25 countries.
There is, of course, more that can be done. Gender equality requires greater investment in education, health systems and other infrastructure. For women to fully benefit from trade from developing countries across the board, they need better access to education, financial resources and digital technology. But this is not purely a government responsibility. The problem demands the private sector gets involved, too. Some retailers, brands and suppliers have adopted voluntary gender-related initiatives to promote women’s access to training for skills development, health services, maternity benefits, leadership and financial management.
The solution here lies in a cohesive, all-hands-on-deck commitment to tackling the issues driving gender inequality, and to ensuring the broadest range of opportunities remain open to all women.
According to UN Women, COVID-19 may have a particularly harmful impact on one specific group of women: female migrant workers. There were around 66.6 million around the world in 2018, who UN Women describes ashaving to “grapple with multiple and intersecting forms of discrimination and inequalities, gender-specific restrictions in migration policies, insecure forms of labour, racism, and xenophobia”. And that was before the pandemic hit. To that list, they can now add being at high-risk of exposure to the virus. Many female migrants work in low-paid but vulnerable roles, including healthcare and facilities management. UN Women states that COVID-19 could cause 25 million jobs to be lost globally, with women migrant workers among the most heavily affected.
Those who remain in work often find their employment to be informalised, short-term if not part-time, placing them in the most vulnerable corner of an increasingly fraught and insecure job market. All the while, they have no safety net, limited access to healthcare, and travel restrictions limiting their opportunities to explore other avenues for work. They may face a similar struggle trying to return home as local lockdowns continue and costs of travel rise.
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Considering migrant women also tend to work in the informal economy (where activities carried out by workers aren’t covered in any practical sense by the law), there is also a risk of pay cuts, potential exploitative practices, or the sudden loss of work. And this doesn’t merely affect the individual. Millions of migrant women send remittances home to their families and communities every year. In 2016, they sent around US $300bn. Loss of income due to COVID-19 can therefore impact dependent vulnerability and affect future generations of women.
There is a challenging balance to be struck between ensuring both flexibility in an immigration system and adequate levels of protection against misuse and bad practice, but there are measures that could be taken to minimise risk.
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Job security could be offered by employing or redeploying migrants in public works programs, such as the production of masks and PPE (Personal Protective Equipment), addressing critical gaps in supply at the same time. Flexibility for sponsoring employers to offer part-time work opportunities in place of termination – where full-time salaries cannot be met – would protect income and productivity.
Such access would help ensure that women migrant workers who lose their jobs would have a basic income and those with caregiving responsibilities would get the benefits they need. Small steps can lead to real change. And the innovation and pragmatism seen in immigration policy during the pandemic show that deliberate, protective measures are very much possible.
How organisations can help women navigate COVID-19
When workplace, trade and immigration challenges are sown together, the COVID-19 pandemic can present a disproportionate impact on women, beyond the immediate health risks of contracting the virus. These risks threaten women in myriad roles: as business leaders, employees or migrant workers. While these dangers were prevalent – and acknowledged – before COVID-19 struck, the pandemic has amplified the potential impact. And the world needs to make a concerted effort to make sure that women’s rights – and their opportunities – continue to blossom, not only for the generation of women in the workplace now, but for the generations of working women that will follow.