How Women Bear the Brunt of COVID-19 Shutdowns: Female-Dominated Occupations are Easier Targets

Commentary, COVID-19, Economy, Paz Gómez

Women across the world know a silent truth: they are bearing the brunt of the pandemic’s economic fallout. These hectic months have placed an extra burden on their shoulders, and persistent lockdowns threaten to erase decades of gender equality earned in the labour force. 

Although the disease kills slightly more men than women, the labour-market impact is the reverse. Female-dominated jobs are almost twice as vulnerable as male-dominated jobs, according to an estimate by McKinsey & Company. The prevailing reasons include a high concentration of women in the industries most affected by the pandemic, the extra burden of household tasks, and impediments to human-capital formation.

An unfortunate side effect of the lockdown strategy to contain the COVID-19 pandemic is that economic gains for women are slipping. The McKinsey report urges governments and companies to take action. Ignoring this drawback could result in a $1 trillion loss of global GDP by 2030.

Disproportionate Layoffs versus Male Counterparts

Although women make up 49 percent of the global workforce, they account for 54 percent of layoffs during the pandemic. 

McKinsey estimates that predominantly female occupations are 19 percent more at risk of unemployment than male ones. The explanation arises when looking at the industries decimated by lockdowns: more than half of female workers are employed in hospitality, tourism, retail, services, and public administration. 

That is not to say other industries such as manufacturing—where men are a large majority of the workforce—have not suffered from social distancing. In addition, economic activity in education and health care, where women prevail, has remained constant and even increased. 

However, on net the long-run consequence of the pandemic and lockdowns will be a permanent dent in women’s outcomes, especially in economies swiftly replacing and repurposing workers. The scenario looks even gloomier for the developing world. In many Latin American countries, for instance, the informal sector accounts for at least half of the economy. In these nations, women are on the precarious frontlines, with no First World luxuries such as paid maternity leaves nor other safety nets to fall back on.

Double Work at Home

Shutdowns disrupted household routines overnight. Remote jobs and homeschooling, for instance, have increased the time family members are home. 

Many families laid off domestic employees who used to help with housekeeping and childcare, either because they could not afford them or for health reasons. 

Women, who already did around 75 percent of household work around the world before the pandemic, are now devoting even more time to home chores. Those fortunate enough to have remote jobs face the dilemma of working or doing unpaid domestic tasks. There is no time left for networking or engaging in career-advancement opportunities. 

Not all the news is bad. The BBC reports men are helping out, devoting more time to domestic chores. In Canada, for example, more than 40 percent of fathers are cooking more, and around 30 percent have picked up doing the laundry and cleaning. 

Shutdowns Are Economically, Socially Unaffordable

Taking into account past epidemics, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) points out girls are more likely than boys to abandon school. In developing countries, those teen girls who abandon school tend to end up pregnant and unable to study or work. The UN Population Fund estimates that pandemic-related factors will lead to 13 million child marriages over the next decade.

The long-term loss of human capital in women is compounded if we examine the fourth industrial revolution: automation. Even if it equally impacts female and male workers, harsher conditions for women now prevent them from being equipped to face the challenge later. If the pandemic leaves them with less time and fewer resources, they will have fewer opportunities relative to men to learn new skills or change jobs. 

The scarcity or depletion of existing resources can also hinder female entrepreneurship, according to the McKinsey report. For instance, because households are prioritizing computers and tablets for children’s education needs and cutting back on spending, women face additional constraints for doing business.

Building on What Works

The IMF warns that the coronavirus pandemic could set back female workforce accomplishments by 30 years. Since women usually earn and save less, hold more insecure jobs, and make up more than half of single-parent households, they are less capable than men of weathering economic shocks.

All this can be prevented, or at least mitigated. Lockdowns are not the be-all and end-all of pandemic management, as Sweden has shown. Sound policies that allow the economy to reopen gradually while testing broadly to isolate infections are the way to resume our trend to prosperous and equal societies. Consider that before the pandemic, countries with the most economic freedom were the most conducive to prosperity for women. 

Given the drastic effects of unforeseen shutdowns, temporary gender-focused support for specific sectors could help individuals and firms get back on their feet. However, social engineers must acknowledge the limits of top-down approaches. Haphazard quarantines have already generated too much collateral damage, and continuing with this path will only mean entrenching the inequalities we have fought so hard to dismantle.

 

Paz Gomez is a research associate with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy. 

Photo by BBH Singapore on Unsplash.