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Gender equality, dealt a blow by COVID-19, still has much ground to cover

At the brink of squandering past gains

Female participation in the labour force picked up after the pandemic’s worst phase in 2020, but remains under threat from risks that, if left unaddressed, could wash away the progress made in gender equality in the past decade.

A major worry about COVID-19’s economic impact is the widening gender disparity in the labour market. According to the International Labor Organization (ILO), female employment around the world declined by 4.2% in 2020 compared to the previous year, which is worse than the corresponding 3% decline in male employment.1 The pace of decline was the highest in the Americas (9.4%), followed by the Arab states (4.1%) and the Asia/Pacific region (3.8%).2 This decline in female employment, along with women’s reduced participation in the labour force,3 is a major setback to efforts over the past two decades at increasing gender equality.4 And it also came at a time when violence against women soared, as many women found themselves restricted inside their homes with abusive partners due to pandemic-induced lockdowns and social distancing measures.5

However, with the pickup in economic activity since the second half of 2020 and a significant increase in the scale and pace of vaccinations around the world in 2021, female employment has recovered some of the lost ground. Yet this recovery isn’t without risks. Any reversal in gains in the fight against COVID-19 due to new variants that can bypass the protection offered by vaccines may dent the recovery in sectors such as hospitality, food services, and personal care where the share of women in total employment is relatively high.6

Moreover, in countries where women have traditionally lagged far behind men, returning to the job market after losing out in 2020 may prove harder for mothers who took up extensive child care responsibilities during the pandemic. And as government aid fizzles out in many parts of the world, single parents will find it even more difficult to keep up with child care and other household expenses.

The pandemic has had a greater impact on women than on men

Female employment fell at a faster pace than male employment in most of the major world economies in the first half of 2020, when the pandemic’s impact on the labour market was the harshest. In the United States, female employment fell by 17.9% between February and April 2020 compared to a 13.9% decline in male employment. Similarly, in Canada, the pace of decline in female employment during this period was 2 percentage points higher than that for men.

A global comparison, however, isn’t easy given the lack of standardised labour market data. Nonetheless, by relying on the ILO7 data for ease of comparison, it is clear that in most countries in the Americas, Africa, and Asia (barring Turkey), women in the labour market suffered more than men during the first phase of the pandemic (figure 1). In India, for example, female employment fell by 23.8% between Q4 2019 and Q2 2020, which is far higher than the 18.5% decline in male employment.

Figure 1 also reveals that the pandemic’s impact on female employment has varied across countries. While this variance may be actual, it is likely that cross-country employment comparisons during the pandemic are made difficult by the vast differences in degree and nature of government intervention in labour markets across economies in 2020. In the Eurozone, for example, it appears that from Q4 2019 to Q2 2020 the fall in female employment (–3.1%) was less than that of male employment (–3.3%). However, the data on employment mars the actual impact on the labour market in the region given far-reaching job-retention schemes that existed before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and the new ones added as a response to it.8 So, if instead of employment numbers we look at the number of hours worked,9 we find that not only did the pandemic hit the labour market harder than employment numbers suggest, but it also impacted women more than men. Total hours worked by people aged 20–64 fell by 18.5% in the Eurozone between Q4 2019 and Q2 2020, with the contraction for women (–19.4%) higher than that for men (–17.9%). As figure 2 shows, the dent to female employment was more severe in the wider European Union as well, but there is a fair bit of variation within countries—women fared worse than men in Spain but were relatively better off in France and Italy. 

The pandemic hit sectors that account for a relatively large share of female employees

There are two key reasons women bore the brunt of the pandemic in 2020 to a greater degree than men. First, some of the hardest-hit sectors due to COVID-19 were those where the share of female employment relative to their total employment is higher than that for men. In most economies, women are more likely to dominate sectors such as hospitality, food services, and personal care. In the Eurozone, for example, the accommodation and food services sector accounted for 6% of total female employment in 2019 compared to 4.6% for men. And the number of female employees in the sector that year was higher than that of men. This difference varies within the Eurozone, with countries such as Greece having a much higher proportion of women in the sector than Germany. In the United States, too, leisure and hospitality accounted for larger numbers and shares of women in the sector’s workforce than men. Unfortunately, these sectors turned out to be some of the most affected ones in the first half of 2020 (figure 3) when strict social distancing measures and consumers’ concerns about health dented sales and employment. 

Second, as people moved indoors to stay safe from the virus and many businesses turned to remote work, women generally took up a greater share of household chores than men. And with child care facilities—a critical enabler of careers of mothers—barely available during that period and schools moving online, child care duties fell predominantly on women. According to a report by the European Commission, women in the European Union spent more hours in child care (62 hours per week) compared to men (36 hours) in 2020; women also logged more hours per week on housework than men.10 For some working women, this has led to a deterioration in work/life balance while many others have dropped out of the labour force to more unpaid care work at home.11

Female participation in the labour force declined in 2020

With female employment falling sharply and many women moving out of the labour force, female labour force participation rates dropped in the first half of 2020. Figure 4 shows the decline in participation rates in countries across the Americas, Europe, Asia, and Africa between Q4 2019 and Q2 2020. In South Africa, for example, the female labour force participation rate declined by 11 percentage points during this period, while in Brazil it dropped by 7.8 percentage points. Figure 4 also reveals that in many countries, the decline in participation rate for women was higher than that for men. For example, in Canada and Brazil, the decline in female labour force participation rates was a percentage point or more higher than for men.

While the decline in female participation rates across the world is worrying, of particular concern is falling participation in certain parts of the world such as the Arab states and Southern Asia where female involvement in the labour market was already very low before the pandemic. For example, in Southern Asia, female labour force participation was a meager 23% in 2019 compared to 77% for men. While labour force participation declined for both men and women in 2020, the decline in the rate for women to 21%, according to estimates by the ILO, is a further setback to the already slow progress in gender equality—compared to Western economies—over the past few decades.

Female participation in the workforce has recovered but there’s still much ground to cover

Thankfully, post the worst phase of the pandemic in 2020, the labour market has started to recover. Female employment has been going up—in fact, in some countries, it has been rising faster than the male employment. In the United States, female employment has gone up by 18.4% since the trough of April 2020, higher than the 14.6% gain in male employment during this period. Similarly, the recovery in female employment has been faster in Canada, Spain, Italy, France, South Korea, and Australia since Q2 2020. In Europe, analysis of total hours worked for people aged 20–64 years also reveals that total hours worked in the Eurozone and the wider European Union has gone up faster for women than men during this period (figure 5).

In fact, female employment in some economies such as France, Spain, and South Korea is now higher than the corresponding number before the pandemic. However, in other countries, female employment is yet to get back to the levels last seen in 2019 (figure 6). According to ILO estimates, global female employment in 2021 will still be about 13 million lower compared to 2019, while male employment will surpass the prepandemic levels.12 Similarly, in some countries, female labour market participation is yet to regain the ground lost during 2020 (figure 7).

The drag on the wider labour market and on female employment in general is expected given that certain sectors of the economy such as tourism, hospitality, food services, and personal care are yet to bounce back to the prepandemic levels of output. With women mostly concentrated in these sectors, it is not surprising that employment gains for women in some countries are still lower than prepandemic levels. Any emergence of new variants of the virus13 that are more infectious and may dodge some of the protection offered by existing vaccines will only push up risks for these sectors. As for popular international travel destinations in Europe and Asia, the return of foreign tourists will be complicated by domestic rules on travel and quarantine, and differing protocols on recognising vaccine certificates.14

The slow pace of vaccination in some countries, including for children,15 coupled with the rise of new variants of the virus may also delay complete reopening of schools and day care facilities. This is likely to weigh on the pace of return to the labour market of mothers who gave up their jobs to take care of their children during the pandemic. Even if schools and day care centers become available, traditional dynamics of the labour market will slow the return of mothers while some of them, especially those with children who are unvaccinated, may not prefer to return to work.16 There are also other factors at play. In India, for example, married men are more likely to return to the labour force after losing jobs during the lockdown than married women due to gender-related roles at home and other socioeconomic factors.17 Factors such as these will serve as setbacks to the efforts at strengthening gender equality across the world, especially in countries where the labuor force has traditionally been the bastion of men.18

There’s much more going on for women than just employment woes 

The disparity of the pandemic’s impact on men and women is evident even outside the labour market. During the pandemic, government support helped bridge the gap for families most affected by the pandemic. But, now with the gradual withdrawal of fiscal support, poorer households are suddenly left worrying about their future. Single mothers, especially those working in sectors still reeling from pandemic-related woes, are most at risk, including risks from heightened income loss and even poverty.19

Even in households where an adult woman has lost her job and her male counterpart hasn’t, the consequences of a dip in income translates to a loss in the bargaining power for women, especially in some developing and emerging markets.20 According to the United Nations’ latest progress report on global sustainable development goals, the pandemic has not only dented progress in key goals on gender equality but also reversed key gains over the years in expanding the rights of women worldwide.21

Moreover, since the start of the pandemic, women appear to have also faced greater violence, including domestic violence. Lockdowns and social distancing restrictions have meant that women have spent more time at home in isolation with abusive partners. Particularly in poorer nations, cramped living conditions have added to the problem.22 This has also, in some cases, led to rising risk of homelessness among women. In England, homelessness due to domestic abuse went up by 12% between April and June 2021 compared to a year before, which is approximately 30% higher than the figure during the same period in 2019.23

A targeted strategy to help women is the need of the hour

The ongoing struggle to ramp up vaccination rates and deal with the emergence of the new variants of the virus may continue to limit female participation in the labour force. So, what can be done? While a government-led support to the economy may be fiscally unsustainable, especially for countries with weak government balances, public policy can step in with targeted measures such as aid for single mothers. Second, to enable greater mobility across sectors, fiscal assistance in coordination with the private sector for skills development programs may be a handy tool, especially to help women who lost their jobs or those in financial distress seeking higher-income jobs in a different sector. Finally, across developed, emerging, and developing worlds, there needs to be an increased effort to monitor and track gender violence at the household level with key strategies to counter it. If all this isn’t done, the gains in gender equality made over the past decade in many parts of the world may just fizzle out.

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  1. International Labour Organization, “ILOSTAT: Employment by sex and age ,” accessed December 2021. ILOSTAT (including estimates) is used across the document and is mentioned accordingly.

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  2. Ibid.

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  3. ILO, “ILOSTAT: Labor force participation by sex and age ,” accessed December 2021.

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  4. United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, “Sustainable development goals ,” accessed December 2021.

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  5. UN Women, “The shadow pandemic ,” accessed December 2021.

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  6. Haver Analytics , accessed December 2021. Unless stated otherwise, all data is sourced from Haver Analytics.

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  7. While monthly data is available for some countries like the United States, Canada, South Korea, and Japan, for others, data is given quarterly. Hence, we have used quarterly data for cross-country comparisons. Q4 2019 is assumed as the prepandemic period, on average, while Q2 2020 is assumed as the period before the nascent recovery in many economies as they came to grips with the pandemic. While some of the data is from country sources (sourced through Haver Analytics), other data is from the International Labour Organization (ILOSTAT). 

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  8. Robert Anderson et al., “The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the euro area labour market ,” European Central Bank, accessed December 2021. 

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  9. Eurostat, “Index of total actual hours worked in the main job by sex and age group (2021 = 100)—quarterly data ,” accessed December 2021.

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  10. European Commission, “International Women’s Day 2021: COVID-19 pandemic is a major challenge for gender equality ,” press release, March 5, 2021. 

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  11. ILO, “Fewer women than men will regain employment during the COVID-19 recovery says ILO ,” July 19, 2021.

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  12. Ibid.

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  13. World Health Organization, “Update on omicron,” news release, November 28, 2021.

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  14. United Nations World Tourism Organization, “Global tourism sees upturn in Q3 but recovery remains fragile ,” November 28, 2021. 

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  15. Our World in Data, “Coronavirus vaccinations ,” accessed December 2021.

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  16. Stephanie Aaronson and Francisca Alba, The relationship between school closures and female labor force participation during the pandemic , Brookings, November 3, 2021.

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  17. Azim Premji University (Center for Sustainable Employment), State of Working India 2021 , May 5, 2021. 

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  18. United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, “COVID-19 threatens four ‘lost decades’ for gender equality ,” October 1, 2021; Sofia Sprechmann, “COVID-19 is the biggest setback to gender equality in a decade ,” World Economic Forum, July 1, 2020.

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  19. Nicole Bateman and Martha Ross, “Why has COVID-19 been especially harmful for working women? ,” Brookings, October 2020; Gingerbread, “Tackling single parent poverty after the Coronavirus ,” December 16, 2020.

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  20. UN Women, “What does gender equality look like today? ,” October 6, 2021. 

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  21. UN Women, “Progress on the sustainable development goals: The gender snapshot 2021 ,” accessed December 2021.

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  22. UN Women, “The shadow pandemic .”

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  23. Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, “Statutory homelessness in England: April to June 2021 ,” October 28, 2021. 

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The authors would like to thank Daniel Bachman and Patricia Buckley, US Economics, and Michael Wolf, DTTL, for their reviews; and Monali Samaddar, US Economics, for her data support. The authors would also like to thank Rumki Majumdar from Deloitte India for her guidance and for providing us with relevant information and data to aid our analysis. 

Cover image by: Jaime Austin

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