Gender equality dealt blow by pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic has set back progress towards gender equality in work by at least two years according to a new study.

PwC’s Women in Work Index found higher female unemployment and a greater proportion of women leaving the labour market due to the COVID-19 pandemic which has put the brakes on the drive towards equality.

After a decade of slow but consistent gains from women in work across the OECD, the Index fell for the first time in its history.

The two main contributing factors to the decline were higher female unemployment and lower female participation rates during the worst of the pandemic. The Index estimated a “COVID-19 gap”, which compares job losses to the employment growth projected prior to the pandemic, finding there were 5.1 million more women unemployed and 5.2 million fewer women participating in the labour market than would be the case had the pandemic not occurred.

“Childcare and domestic work responsibilities played a significant role in causing women to leave the workforce,” stated the index. “An OECD report on gender inequalities in caregiving and labour market outcomes during COVID-19 shows women took on more unpaid childcare responsibilities during the pandemic, causing them to leave the workforce at higher rates than men. Mothers were three times more likely than fathers to report taking on either the majority, or all, of the additional unpaid care work created by school or childcare facility closures.”

Larice Stielow, senior economist, PwC UK said: “The COVID-19 pandemic has made the goal of gender equality for women in work even more of a challenge. To reverse the setback to women’s employment outcomes, we need governments and businesses to lead the way by rebuilding our economies with effective policies which explicitly consider the needs of women and other disadvantaged groups. This is essential if we are to improve equality and achieve a fairer future for everyone in both work and society.”

PwC’s Women in Work Index is based on five indicators that reflect women’s participation in the global labour market and equality in the workplace.

“Given the slow progress made over the past 10 years against each of the five indicators, and lost ground due to the pandemic, we estimate it will take years – in some cases decades – to close the gaps and achieve gender parity between women and men in the global workplace,” it added.

If nothing is done to improve women’s representation in these sectors, PwC estimated that the employment gap between men and women across the OECD, which measures the additional number of men in employment, expressed as a percentage of the number of employed women, will widen by 1.7 percentage points by 2030 (rising from 20.8% in 2020 to 22.5% in 2030).3

Emma Cox, global climate leader, partner, PwC UK said: “Business and governments can do more to provide targeted support for women to help them take advantage of new green jobs.  This includes identifying barriers to entry for women in green growth sectors, upskilling and reskilling and improving access to finance for women entrepreneurs who will play a key role in the transition to net zero.”

The index said the rewards from accelerating progress towards gender equality could be significant.  PwC’s analysis finds that increasing women’s employment across the OECD could boost OECD gross domestic product (GDP) by $6 trillion per annum. Meanwhile, closing the gender pay gap could boost women’s earnings across the OECD by $2 trillion per annum.

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