COVID-19 Could Set Women Back Decades on Gender Equality

The coronavirus pandemic needs to bring reforms to upend the systems that hold girls and women back.

By Alison Holder, Director, Equal Measures 2030

This article was published on U.S.News — April 2020

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio via Pexels

THE WORLD WILL NEVER BE the same after the COVID-19 crisis. Along with the devastating impact on individuals, families, communities and countries, the pandemic has also exposed gaping cracks in our social, political and economic systems.

The most pervasive of those cracks is discrimination against women, which persists in every country in the world. Not one single country has yet reached gender equality, and even worse, many countries are moving slowly or even backtracking on key gender issues. The social and economic aftershocks from the COVID-19 pandemic could set women back by decades.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Crises on the scale of COVID-19 bring devastation, but they can also provide a platform for radical social change and the chance to “build back better.” COVID-19 could be the watershed we need to upend the systems that hold girls and women back. It brings a chance to make health care and education truly universal, to improve conditions and pay for millions, and to strengthen safety nets.

These reforms would benefit girls and women disproportionately but would also benefit everyone and help countries rebound from COVID-19 faster and in a way that will last.

But this won’t happen automatically. It requires approaching the COVID-19 crisis in a way that not only considers the immediate impact on girls and women, but that also seeks to transform unequal gender relations over the long term.

In the short term, we’re seeing how tenuous progress on gender equality over recent decades has been. Just weeks into this crisis, COVID-19 is having an immediate and direct impact on women.

Women form 67% of the health workforce globally (more than 90% of health care workers in China’s Hubei province alone are women) and are putting their health at risk on the front lines of dealing with the virus. Women across the world already shoulder the burden of unpaid and low-paid care work, but caring responsibilities due to COVID-19 are falling even harder on women who are more likely to earn less, work part-time or be in more insecure work.

Less talked about is the long-term impact COVID-19 could have on gender equality. Even looking at just five key “bellwether” gender equality issues, we can see how the COVID-19 pandemic is likely to take progress even further off course:

  • Women’s access to safe, voluntary family planning services is likely to worsen. COVID-19 has already brought practical concerns of contraceptive supply shortages, and several U.S. states moved quickly to try to declare abortion services as “nonessential” during the coronavirus pandemic (but have since been blocked from doing so by federal courts).
  • Girls’ education is already being set back by the COVID-19 crisis, with over 188 countries implementing nationwide school closures that impact over 89% of the world’s student population. Turning to online solutions will negatively impact access for girls, especially those with disabilities and in poor households. Globally, nearly 25% fewer women have access to the internet than men, and in Africa, women are 50% less likely to use the internet than men.
  • A key indicator of gender equality is whether women are represented in leadership positions in government and other powerful roles. We’ve already seen women less prominently featured as commentators and experts on COVID-19 than men. The White House was criticized this week because its Coronavirus Task Force was initially made up of all men. Research has shown that women tend to make up just 19% of experts featured in news stories.
  • There is a long way to go to ensure laws treat women equally in the workplace. There are already worrying signs that the COVID-19 crisis may lead to the watering down of laws that are already on the books. For instance, in the United Kingdom, companies have been given a “pass” on reporting their gender pay gap data because of the current crisis.
  • One of the hardest issues to track is women’s safety and gender-based violence, because the data is difficult to collect and to compare, especially on a global scale. Anecdotal evidence points to a rise in domestic violence linked to COVID-19 lockdowns: patterns of increasing abuse are already being reported in countries including in Brazil, Germany, China and Greece. Women already facing violence and abuse will also have less access to the services and support and are more likely to be financially tied to abusive relationships.

If the COVID-19 crisis response is gender-blind, we risk setting back already sluggish progress on gender equality by a generation or more.

We need business communities and governments to respond to the crisis in a way that not only considers girls and women but that also helps to transform unequal gender relations. In the immediate term, this means ensuring girls and women have equal voice and power in planning and executing crisis response, improving pay and conditions for key workers and caregivers, expanding access to social protection and benefits including paid leave and immediate cash grants, and applying tough conditions to corporate bailouts to ensure worker benefit.

It also means recognizing that different groups, including girls and women from minority backgrounds and those with disabilities, are more likely to be disadvantaged.

Looking at the global emergency through a gender lens, even now while we’re in the eye of the storm, will make our responses more equitable and effective. We’ve heard a lot about “flattening the curve” of the epidemic, but we need to simultaneously “bend the curve” toward greater gender equality.

With women’s rights at the center of our response to COVID-19 we can catalyze — not compromise — progress toward gender equality and a fairer world for all.

Read more from Equal Measures 2030's new report “Bending the Curve Towards Gender Equality by 2030”.

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