The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

International Women’s Day reminds us that the pandemic hurt gender equality. A lot.

But around the globe, activists and policymakers have laid out plans for economic recovery that would help reverse the losses — and help eliminate the reasons that women face inequality

Aymara embroiderer and costume designer Yolanda Chambi, 45, shows potatoes she grows on her field in Puno, Peru, in February. (Carlos Mamani/AFP/Getty Images)
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The United Nations launched the Decade for Women in 1975, designating March 8 as International Women’s Day. This month, IWD turns 47 while what we once called the “novel coronavirus” heads into its third year.

By now, it’s well-known that lockdowns, home schooling and domestic responsibilities drove more women than men from the workforce around the world. Women worldwide lost $800 billion in earnings in 2020, and 13 million did not return to work in 2021.

Last International Women’s Day, world leaders from Europe to East Africa called for a covid-19 recovery effort that prioritizes women and gender equality. Yet my research for international organizations like UN Women shows that few governments have transformed such aspirations into action.

Gender equality setbacks

The World Economic Forum estimates that the pandemic has set gender equality back 36 years.

Globally, lockdowns and economic downturns especially hurt jobs in sectors where women are disproportionately employed, like manufacturing and service industries. Closures of schools and the need for child care and eldercare also pushed women out of the workforce as they, more than men, assumed responsibility for home schooling and domestic chores.

Violence against women has also soared, leading some experts to describe higher-than-ever levels of gender-based violence as the “shadow pandemic.” And across the globe, the pandemic has exacerbated women’s vulnerability to food insecurity and homelessness. Not surprisingly, global data shows that the pandemic increased anxiety and major depressive disorders among women more than among men.

A global push for a feminist recovery

All these trends are reversible, and there are no shortages of plans, tool kits or blueprints.

Activists and policymakers in Hawaii wrote the world’s first feminist economic recovery plan in April 2020, just weeks after the coronavirus paralyzed the globe. Similar feminist plans were written by women’s organizations and activists in Africa, the Philippines, Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales, British Columbia and Ottawa.

For advocates, a feminist pandemic recovery does more than help women catch up. After all, the pre-pandemic normal was not that great for women, who even then performed more household chores than men and earned less money when working the same jobs.

Instead, a feminist economic recovery aims to eliminate the reasons women are unequal in the first place. That means breaking the association between unpaid labor and domestic chores by paying those who undertake care work, even when in the home. In addition to public funding for dependent care, feminist plans share other goals, like investing in jobs that pay living wages and ensuring environmental sustainability.

Nearly every international governance organization promotes these policies even if they do not frame them as “feminist.” The United Nations, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the European Union and the International Monetary Fund all have recommend recovery plans that prioritize social spending on things like child care, early schooling and eldercare.

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Lots of talk, little action

Yet all this talk and all these road maps have not changed much.

The failure of President Biden’s “Build Back Better” plan offers a textbook case. Biden promised a social infrastructure bill that would provide child care, free preschool and eldercare. He settled instead for funding to rebuild physical infrastructure — which will primarily benefit sectors where 82 percent of the jobs are held by men.

Globally, only 8 percent of countries’ economic recovery plans have addressed unpaid care work. As a result, economies are rebounding, but the gains are concentrated among men. The International Labor Organization projected that, by the end of 2021, men’s employment would return 2019 levels while women’s employment would remain far behind. Indeed, the United States added 467,0000 jobs in January 2022 — but just 188,000 of them went to women.

I worked directly with UN Women to track whether and where feminist plans influenced policy. We identified just two notable cases where national governments made changes aligned with these goals: Canada and Argentina.

Canada created a $100 million Feminist Response and Recovery Fund and allocated $21.5 billion for early learning and child care. Argentina launched a new pension scheme that pays benefits to women who care for children and other dependents in the home.

Elsewhere I found innovations at the local level, like Bogotá’s new District System of Care. The SiDiCu (its Spanish acronym) will provide 30 care-related services at the neighborhood level, such as laundry, child care and food banks. SiDiCu will also build respite centers for caregivers that create space for rest, recreation and access to other city programs. By transferring caring tasks from households to the municipality, Bogotá is aiming to make a care a public — rather than private — good.

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Emergency responses are not long-lasting

True, national and local governments across the globe did protect vulnerable populations — including women — in the pandemic’s first months and years. Programs included prepaid debit cards, baskets with food and medical supplies, moratoriums on rent hikes and evictions, mortgage relief, temporary pay increases for front-line workers, and small-business grants and loans. Since women comprise significant or even disproportionate numbers of single parents, the elderly, the food insecure, the unhoused and the poor, these measures contributed to gender equality.

Yet these programs are largely discontinued, and long-term economic recovery measures are not filling the gap.

Biden’s failure to pass social infrastructure is again illustrative. The bill died in part because Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) insisted on a work requirement for beneficiaries of the child-care tax credit. Other Democratic senators countered that raising children was work, but for Manchin, paying for it constituted a handout.

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Women are still absent as decision-makers

Manchin is hardly the only political leader to dismiss “women’s work.” Most politicians are men, the group that traditionally has not borne the responsibility of domestic work.

Even today, women remain vastly underrepresented in policymaking. Women make up 26 percent of members of national parliaments and 36 percent of the world’s local deliberative assemblies. They comprise 24 percent of the national task forces that countries convened to address covid-19 response and recovery.

Not all female political leaders are feminists, but without women’s perspectives, economic and social policies will remain gender-blind — thus leaving women’s experiences out of any solution.

As the world commemorates International Women’s Day, it’s worth reiterating a few facts. Governments have the data on how the pandemic has disproportionately affected women. They know what policy tools will solve the problem. What’s missing is action.

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Jennifer M. Piscopo (@Jennpiscopo) is associate professor of politics and director of the Center for Research and Scholarship at Occidental College. Her research on gender and covid-19 response and recovery has appeared in academic journals and in policy papers for UN Women and United Cities and Local Government.