COVID-19 and Women’s Economic Participation

Investing in Women, an initiative of the Australian Government, provides an analysis around the impacts of COVID-19, previous pandemics and recessions, on the economic position of women through a rapid review of academic and grey literature on gender, COVID-19, and women’s formal employment. It also presents risks and opportunities looking ahead. Here is a summary of some of the key report findings. You can access the full report here 

What Previous Recessions and Pandemics Tell Us 

There are unequivocal findings showing consistent common themes that women’s economic security, formal employment participation, political representation, health outcomes, and educational achievement are negatively affected by economic and health crises, more so than men’s. These outcomes have a long-term negative impact on women’s human capital formation and economic security. Further, economic and health crises exacerbate pre-existing inequalities and set gender equality back.  

Women and girls are disproportionately vulnerable to economic shocks compared to men. Pre-existing gender inequalities mean that women have less access to productive resources, which translates to lower earnings and bargaining power; thus, women’s limited ability to develop their capabilities, make strategic choices, and participate on equal terms with men in the economy.  

The negative consequences of economic and health crises on women are compounded by the systematic lack of women’s participation and leadership in crisis response and recovery strategies and the failure to include gender-specific analyses in these strategies. The recovery period following recessions is estimated to be 3–7 years and previous crises demonstrate that a lack of attention to gender equality in national and business response recovery strategies will set gender equality back decades.  

Women and COVID-19 

The COVID-19 crisis is more significant than previous economic or health crises in both depth and scope. Women have been affected immediately and are likely to be more adversely affected in the longer term unless gender progressive interventions are made.  

The worst affected sectors include retail trade, accommodation, food services, tourism, and manufacturing – all of which are highly feminized, making women exposed to the heaviest burden of job loss and a prolonged decline in income and labor force participation.1 

Women are also disproportionately employed in the health sector and associated industries operating at the frontlines. The World Health Organization estimates that 70% of the global healthcare workforce are women. While health workers represent a relatively small proportion of the total workforce in Southeast Asian countries where Investing in Women works – the Philippines, Indonesia, Vietnam, and Myanmar -they are exposed to the direct health risks of COVID-19, often without adequate personal protective equipment and for very long hours, vulnerable to infection and worried about passing infection to their families.  

COVID-19 has also intensified pre-existing gender division of labor and the double burden of paid and unpaid work. Social norms mean that many women have found themselves responsible for home schooling their children, caring for elderly family members, and doing household chores even while working. Where working from home has been implemented, there have been some reports it has driven a more equitable division of work and care2 while others have reported this has contributed to an elevated risk of domestic violence.3 

Post-COVID-19: Risks and Opportunities  

In a crisis context, there is a risk women may face a ‘new normal’ or a return to the ‘old normal’ of reduced employment opportunities as employers prioritize male employees in the allocation of work and in the rehiring and promotion process. Women may also face work conditions being degraded due to financial pressures, reflecting the prioritization of economic efficiency over labor rights. 

The COVID-19 crisis is an opportunity to revalue economic and care work. If gender-sensitive policies, including work from home arrangements, are carefully implemented, this could improve pay and conditions for the female workforce. Men’s exposure to the full domestic experience during lockdown could also prompt a positive shift in the gendered division of labor. Sharing the burden of essential unpaid work could have positive normative and economic effects on women’s economic participation. 

There are opportunities post-COVID-19 to embed gender equality at the center of national recovery strategies in line with the global commitment to improving women’s workforce participation (G20, 2017).  

As governments and businesses focus on immediate concerns of health, livelihoods and the economy, gender equality may take a ‘backseat’ in crisis management. However, gender-blind policies could have damaging consequences for workplace equality. Previous recessions have shown that diversity and inclusion strategies also fall in priority. If economic recovery strategies are gender responsive, there is an opportunity to ‘build back better’ with women and girls as a focus in crisis management and recovery (UN, 2020).  

Gender equitable recovery strategies will also boost national productivity, deliver inclusive growth, and underwrite the Sustainable Development Goals 2030. These strategies should include policy measures that support women’s formal employment opportunities, women’s entrepreneurial activity, and unpaid care work.  

Investing in Women, an initiative of the Australian Government, catalyzes inclusive economic growth through women’s economic empowerment in Southeast Asia. Established in 2016, Investing in Women uses innovative approaches to improve women’s economic participation as employees and as entrepreneurs and to influence the enabling environment to promote women’s economic empowerment in the Philippines, Indonesia, Vietnam and Myanmar 

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