The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The pandemic may set women back by a whole generation

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At the onset of the pandemic, analysts feared it would mark a disaster for women. The strain of coronavirus lockdowns would exact a disproportionate toll on the sexes — forcing more women out of the workforce, deepening their load of uncompensated labor, leaving them more vulnerable to domestic violence.

All those concerns proved to be true. But the social damage wrought by what’s been dubbed the “shadow pandemic” may be felt for decades to come. That’s the grim conclusion of an annual report on the global gender gap released this week by the World Economic Forum, which keeps an index on “gender parity” in 156 countries.

Based on its graded evaluations in each country on four broad benchmarks — ranging from women’s participation in politics and the economy to access to health and education — the organization had previously forecast that gender parity was a century away. But the effect of the pandemic has now added roughly 36 years to its calculation, effectively the span of another generation.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has raised new barriers to building inclusive and prosperous economies and societies,” wrote Saadia Zahidi, WEF managing director, in the report’s preface. “Pre-existing gender gaps have amplified the crisis asymmetrically between men and women, even as women have been at the frontlines of managing the crisis as essential workers.”

Zahidi added that she hoped “that this report will serve as a call to action to leaders to embed gender parity as a central goal of our policies and practices to manage the post-pandemic recovery, to the benefit of our economies and our societies.” Some of the solutions in developed countries are familiar, including significant government and private-sector investment in care, as well as efforts to equalize access to care leave for both men and women in the workforce.

The pain is all too real. Data suggests that some of the sectors hardest hit by pandemic lockdowns were fields where women are more likely to be employed — including tourism and retail, as well as jobs in the informal sectors of developing countries. “Combined with the additional pressures of providing care in the home,” wrote Zahidi, “the crisis has halted progress toward gender parity in several economies and industries.”

Just in the United States, more than 2 million women left the workforce over the past year. And, according to research by professional networking social media site LinkedIn, rates of hiring women, especially in leadership roles, have dipped after gains in recent years. Broader inequities persevere: The WEF report predicts that men and women in the United States would, per current trends, receive equal pay only six decades from now.

Women also remain significantly underrepresented in sectors that comprise leading industries of the future in the developed world: According to the WEF, in data and artificial intelligence, women make up 32 percent of the workforce; in engineering, 20 percent; in cloud computing, 14 percent.

Elsewhere, the picture is all the more concerning. South Asia is, per the report, some two centuries away from reaching gender parity, and East Asian countries are more than 165 years away. According to separate surveys conducted by the World Bank, women in Latin America were 44 percent more likely to lose their jobs at the onset of the crisis. Moreover, 21 percent of women who were employed before the pandemic are apparently out of work now. The persistent gender gap in the workforce, concluded the World Bank, could cost countries in Latin America and the Caribbean some 14 percent of the region’s collective GDP per capita over the next three decades.

The pandemic’s impact extends well beyond economic concerns. New research by the Lancet, a British health journal, found that maternal health outcomes slumped around the world over the course of the pandemic, including “an increase in maternal deaths, stillbirth, ruptured ectopic pregnancies, and maternal depression.”

“Data from a dozen studies showed that the chances of a stillbirth increased by 28 percent. And the risk of women dying while pregnant or during childbirth increased by more than a third in two countries: Mexico and India,” noted the New York Times.

While health concerns mount, the largest gender gap, as measured by the World Economic Forum, is in the realm of “political empowerment.” Women represent only about 26 percent of some 35,500 parliament seats and just 22.6 percent of more than 3,400 ministers recognized in the organization’s data.

More the shame, argue prominent female leaders. “Countries led by women are dealing with the pandemic more effectively than many others. Peace processes and peace agreements mediated with the active participation of women are more durable and comprehensive,” noted a recent op-ed signed by dozens of female ambassadors posted to the United Nations. “When women have equal opportunities in the labor force, economies can unlock trillions of dollars.”

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