Pandemic must not halt progress on women’s economic inclusion

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| The European | 5 January 2021

Christina Bache of LSE IDEAS examines the role businesses can play in safeguarding women’s rights and gender equality during the Covid-19 crisis 

The gendered impacts of Covid-19 are mounting across the world, threatening to erase advances made in gender equality and women’s and girls’ rights over the past three decades. Numerous international organisations, including the UN, the International Labour Organisation, and the EU, have warned that a “shadow pandemic” is emerging amid the global health crisis. It is paramount stakeholders, including business, adopt gender-sensitive and gender-responsive measures to understand how gender inequality impacts women, mitigate any unintended negative consequences of their activities, and provide the tools and opportunities for women’s economic inclusion and empowerment. 

Factors that influence women’s economic inclusion 

Women’s economic inclusion is an essential factor in realising women’s rights and gender equality. Still, structural inequalities remain deeply entrenched globally, diminishing women’s voice, agency, and meaningful participation in decision-making at all levels of society, from the household to financial institutions. Globally women earn less, hold less secure jobs, and are more likely to be employed in the informal sector, which means they have less access to decent and dignified work, social protection, resources, savings, and capital. Women also make up the majority of single-parent households and perform the majority of unpaid work. In a statement for International Women’s Day, Make Mothers Matter argued that “Unpaid care work is an indispensable support to the world economy. Yet, it is not recognised, not valued, and generates poverty and discrimination.” Entrenched cultural biases, archaic civil registration systems, and discrepancies between national laws protecting women, including sexual and reproductive health and rights and the enforcement of those laws profoundly impact women’s agency and economic security. 

Gendered-impacts of Covid-19 

In the absence of gender-sensitive and gender-responsive measures, government policies to contain the Covid-19 pandemic and the subsequent economic downturn are exacerbating inequalities. The disruption of global, regional, and local markets has severely compromised women’s livelihoods and economic security. Women’s unemployment rates have risen, unpaid and underpaid work by women has expanded exponentially, and violence against women and girls has increased since the outbreak. These trends are not only worrying about how they impact women’s agency. Furthermore, economic systems sustained by women and girls who are not compensated and valued for their contributions severely compromise prospects for inclusive development. 

Value of women’s economic inclusion 

Bolstering women’s participation in the economy as employees, customers, entrepreneurs, suppliers, distributors, retailers, investors, and shareholders is good for business and yields valuable financial and social benefits. Women are more likely than men to invest a large proportion of their household income in poverty-reducing factors such as health and education, increasing community resiliency. Furthermore, women’s greater labour market participation is associated with significant macroeconomic gains in advanced and emerging economies. According to numerous datasets, if women participated in labour markets equally to that of men, up to $28tn, or 26%, could be added to the global annual GDP by the year 2025. 

Businesses can strengthen women’s economic inclusion, specifically by easing access to the labour market and improving job retention. While employment generation alone does not automatically translate into greater economic security and prosperity for women due to the above-noted barriers, access to good quality paid work is an essential avenue for women to gain greater financial independence and livelihood security. 

Measures to secure and enhance female participation in the labour market

It is essential companies adopt gender-sensitive and gender-responsive measures to understand how gender inequality impacts women, mitigate any unintended negative consequences of their operations, and provide the tools and opportunities for women’s economic inclusion and empowerment. Multinational corporations should not be the only entities expected to pursue responsible business practices. Small and medium-sized enterprises, including informal ones, can also implement measures that enhance women’s economic inclusion. While the size, sector, and composition of a company are important dynamics to consider when formulating an inclusive business model, they should not hinder a company’s ability to promote gender equality in the workplace, marketplace, and community. 

At the onset, a company’s leadership should understand the situation and possibilities for women in the economy. Are there structural and cultural barriers to women entering and remaining in the labour market? What factors impede women’s economic security even after a job has been secured? Are there policies in place that aim to enhance female labour-force participation and gender equality? Are there laws that prohibit gender-based discrimination in the hiring process? How can businesses overcome these barriers and transcend antiquated government regulations to recruit and retain women in their operations? These are only some of the crucial questions company management needs to contemplate as the operational environment, size, sector, and composition of a company will likely influence the composition of an inclusive business model. 

There are an array of practices that responsible businesses can implement to ease the transition to and retention of women in the labour market, including fair and transparent hiring processes; adoption of fair and equal wage standards; fair division of labour; a safe and inclusive working environment that considers women’s needs; zero-tolerance policies against harassment; and a work environment that provides opportunities for job mobility, mentorship, continuing education, and training. Businesses should adopt work-life balance schemes, offer on-site childcare facilities, and enact wellbeing and parenting schemes, including adequate parental leave and on-site health and wellness services to assist women staying in the labour market. Since the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic, many companies have had to transform the way they operate. If pursued in an inclusive nature, business should consider incorporating flexible work hours, job-sharing options, and remote work options as the disease is likely to pose a severe threat to our communities for some time.

The gendered-impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic have exposed and raised questions about the long-term consequences of gender inequality. While companies can pursue gender-sensitive policies, business cannot substitute for strong institutions, fundamental reforms of governance structures, and unfair commercial practices. Gender-sensitive collective action requires government leadership in partnership with all stakeholders, including business and communities. 

Without adequate legislation, protections, and funding of gender-sensitive policies and social services, the hard-fought advances in gender equality and women’s rights will inevitably slip through our fingers.

Further information 

www.lse.ac.uk/ideas

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