Sunday, April 11, 2021
Health And Welfare

COVID-19 is impacting on gender equality and eroding the hard-won progress

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COVID-19 is eroding the hard-won progress made towards many aspects of parity over recent decades. As the Institute for Fiscal Studies noted that the nature of the economic shock associated with the pandemic has touched many old and deep inequalities, gender inequality is no exception.

A number of studies have indicated the devastating macro-level impact of COVID-19 on women, affirming that women are more likely to work in harder hit and higher risk sectors – such as healthcare, social and domestic work. This year alone, about 47 million women are expected to be living on less than US$1.90 a day as a result of the pandemic. Additionally, around 740 million women globally work in the informal economy, which was detrimentally affected by the lockdowns. Furthermore, women remain underrepresented in formal employment – particularly at more senior levels.

The decline in women’s economic empowerment could have significant long-term impact. Experience of pandemics like Ebola and Zika suggest that women take longer than men to recover from the impact of a financial crisis. Women are less likely to have significant savings or have put money away for retirement, leaving them at higher risk following periods of unemployment or restricted income. The drive for more physical distancing in the workplace could also accelerate automation trends. This is a concern given that 11% of the female workforce is at a high risk of automation, compared with 9% of their male peers.

The erosion of female empowerment and poverty reduction programmes also threatens not only progress made towards implementing the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), but also the development agenda in countries across the world. According to Ntombi Mhangwani, Experience Architect & Lead Women’s Forum at Accenture Interactive Africa, “the impact of COVID-19 will continue to allow societies to be less equal, more divided and poorer if they are left unattended. It is therefore important to recognise women as equal partners and key actors in the economy, and in the process increase the possibilities for a quicker socio-economic recovery.”

The uneven impact of the pandemic on women has not gone unnoticed. Important debates on issues ranging from the burden of household responsibilities and increased domestic violence to equal pay have become mainstream concerns. But while recognition and energetic public discourse are crucial first steps towards a more gender equal world, this is not sufficient to drive significant change.

“We need to act now. It is important that we adopt gender-responsive budgeting informed by gender impact assessments to ensure that pandemic recovery measures foster a gender-inclusive workforce. We need to ensure equal representation of women at all levels of decision-making platforms, and develop as well as fund action plans to stimulate women’s participation in entrepreneurship and innovation ecosystems by supporting the start-up, scale-up and sustainability of women-owned businesses, particularly in ecommerce and the digital economy,” says Mhangwani.

“At Accenture, we are continuously striving to become a more inclusive and diverse company across all levels. Recently, we also set a new goal for increasing gender, race and ethnicity representation within our organisation by 2025. This will result in a representation of women managing directors in South Africa from 28% to 50%. At present about 52% of staff complement in the country are women.”

Gender equality is a strategic business goal at Accenture. The company is currently reporting a global female workforce of 45% and 25% holding managing director roles. “About 100% of Accenture’s women are mentored and supported at every stage of their careers. The Accenture Women’s Network – an employee group across more than 150 locations globally – serves as an in-person and online resource for our women to network, learn and grow. We take inclusion and diversity very serious,” concludes Mhangwani.

The challenge COVID-19 poses to gender equality is extensive. It is therefore important that leaders turn this test into an opportunity – an opportunity to reset the economy by planning a recovery based on the principle of inclusiveness, and acknowledging that the full and equitable participation of women in economic activity is critical to a faster socio-economic recovery.

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