Women in the Workforce: How Has the Pandemic Impacted Gender Equality?

In the second in a series of three online discussions Goal 17 Partners hosted in collaboration with Global Perspectives as part, Susan Myers moderated a discussion on gender equality with the following panelists: Yumiko Murakami of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, Aragon St Charles of Hogan Lovells, Mihoko Kashiwakura of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Kaoru Nemoto from the UN Information Centre-Tokyo. 

Against the backdrop of the importance of 2020 for the gender equality agenda, due to the 25th anniversary of the Beijing Conference on Women, the discussion focused on the impact of COVID-19 and as well as the opportunities presented by the pandemic for accelerating action.  

Kaoru Nemoto framed the discussion with headlines from the recently concluded UN High-Level Political Forum, which focused on the overall impact of COVID-19 on the SDGs from a health, economic, environmental, and poverty perspective.  

She highlighted that women make up 70% of healthcare workers and service providers in industries hit hardest by the economic downturn. Related to school closures, she pointed out that girls are first to drop out of school and last to rejoin school. She warned that climate change, unfolding at the same time and set to be an even larger crisis for women. 

She also highlighted the leadership of the UN Secretary-General, a proud feminist leading by example through appointing women leaders – including half of his senior management team – and achieving gender parity across UN country teams. 

Yumiko Murakami focused on the huge gap in men and women’s unpaid work that has been further exacerbated because of COVID-19 and school closures. For example, in Japan women spend 224 minutes and men spend just 41 minutes per day on unpaid work. She also warned that automation is another trend that can exacerbate inequalities if not addressed, given that “middle skilled” workers, who are usually women, are the ones more likely to be replaced. 

To respond, business must train both men and women for the new technological job market since the economic and business case for gender equality is clear. Having women in decision-making roles is another solution; it is not enough to just focus on employment levels which are actually advanced in Japan compared to other countries. 

Mihoko Kashiwakura of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation addressed how COVID-19 has affected the Foundation’s efforts on gender, which has been a growing focus, demonstrated by the fact they have their first president for gender and are now integrating gender equality across all programs.  

On COVID-19, Melinda Gates recently released a report on the impacts on women including more unplanned pregnancies, lost maternity support, disproportionate levels of job loss (1.8 times higher than men) and a rise in domestic violence, speaking to a need for gender-focused policies in the response and recovery. 

Mihoko conveyed two calls to action: 1) gather better gender and age disaggregated data and 2) do a better job listening to voices from places without data available. She also called for integrating women’s healthcare into health services as a whole, including ensuring sexual and reproductive health, PPE to protect women workers and access to vaccines. 

Aragon St Charles said gender equality needs to be a priority for men, not just women, and suggested the following for men who want to be a champion of the issue: 

  • Acknowledge that male privilege exists and how it disadvantages women and other intersectional identities 
  • Be an ally and not a silent one: speak out 
  • Recognize unconscious biases  
  • Model positive behaviors and processes that empower women in the workplace, and share leadership platforms 
  • Address work culture: men need to listen and communicate in ways that empower women and employers need to provide mentoring and policies that support women. 

Despite the somber tone, the panel also focused on some silver linings for women coming out of COVID-19 such as the visible success of women political leaders addressing the pandemic and voices emerging from the private sector  about the SDGs and sustainability as the blueprint to navigate us through COVID-19 and the recovery.