Op-ed: How COVID-19 can bring gender justice

By Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, Executive Director of UN Women and Helena Dalli, EU Commissioner for Gender

Disasters shape the course of history. In the wake of the Spanish flu of 1918, more women entered the labour market and in roles previously reserved for men. Some were even paid an equal wage to their predecessors and leadership positions in the workforce were taken up by women. A century later, in the midst of another pandemic, we are still fighting hard for gender equality, with the coronavirus crisis amplifying existing inequalities and power imbalances and disproportionately affecting women – including in the devastatingly sharp increases in domestic violence. Yet the pandemic is also an opportunity to ‘build back better’ and transform structural gender inequalities.

The first step is understanding where the major fault lines are – in the beleaguered care economy, for example. Around the world, women do an average of three times as much unpaid care and domestic work as men, including the majority of childcare. According to a recent ILO report, 606 million women of working age said that they were not able to get a paid job because of unpaid care work, compared to 41 million men. Pandemic containment measures, ‘stay-at home’ orders and school closures have pressurised this fault line to breaking point, as women shoulder additional care duties, most often on top of paid employment as essential workers or in new, remote working arrangements.

Women are also on the frontlines of providing health and care services, exposed to the risk of coronavirus infection on a daily basis. Globally, women make up 69 per cent of health professionals and 88 per cent of personal care workers. In the EU, care workers are often migrant women workers from poorer countries who fill care deficits in richer countries – as nurses, long-term care workers and domestic workers – caring for others while having to leave their own families and children behind.

Care work – both paid and unpaid – sustains our societies and our economies but at high cost to women. It must be better supported and more equally shared. We need to do much more to ensure investment in health, childcare and long-term care systems.

Childcare needs focused and increased investment. More quality affordable childcare will lead to more women in paid work and higher subsidies for it will result in higher take-up by parents. The EU helps European countries with targeted, needs-based financial support for these services. Even so, lack of adequate childcare leads to big financial losses – an estimated €350 billion a year in the EU from women’s reduced economic participation.

The coronavirus crisis reveals the urgency of sustained investments in childcare and other services, including essential services for survivors of violence and sexual and reproductive health services. And the growing reports globally of a “shadow pandemic” of domestic and other forms of violence against women underline the importance of continued action to prevent and respond to it, such as through the EU/UN Spotlight Initiative.

We must also transform how public health decisions are taken. While women deliver the bulk of healthcare services, in 2019, around 72 per cent of executive leaders in global health were men. UN Women’s report on Rights in Review clearly highlights this pattern of structural inequality: Men are 75 per cent of parliamentarians, hold 73 per cent of managerial positions, are 70 per cent of climate negotiators and almost all peace negotiators. If we are serious about equality, this has to change. Building back better means bringing women right into decision-making – and making the structural changes, including in the care system, that intentionally enable this.

This is why in its Gender Equality Strategy 2020-2025, the European Commission included the area of women’s leadership prominently, along with a campaign to fight gender stereotypes. We need to ensure that gender equality is fully mainstreamed in education to enable a gender equal future. In this regard, the International Day of Women and Girls in Science, celebrated on 11 February, is an excellent example of concrete action by the United Nations and its Member States to challenge gender segregation in the educational process.

As the world seeks how best to recover from the coronavirus pandemic and build resilience, we call on all countries to make long overdue investments in the care economy. That means prioritising budget allocations to expand access and improve the quality of care services and ensure decent work and social protection. Such investments will be critical for sustainable recovery that yields multiple returns: women with care responsibilities who may have lost their jobs will more easily (re)enter the workforce; resources will be directed to the care economy with the potential to create jobs at a time when unemployment rates are soaring and governments are keen to get people back to work; and we will be supporting green jobs that provide care for people while avoiding further environmental degradation, keeping gender justice and climate justice as firm priorities.

Let us turn this crisis into an opportunity for positive change and a more equal future for all.