It is well-documented that COVID-19 has had an undesirable bearing on most people – but women have consistently suffered harder across the globe. Studies show that the proportion of women with easy access to healthcare has dropped by more than half, with sharply declined earnings by almost two thirds compared to men. Half of the women have also seen levels of tension and stress in their household rise during the difficult time.
These tough experiences translate into a significant concern. Studies further indicate that women believe that leaders have failed to account for the impact of the crisis on them, and are convinced that they will continue to suffer more than men from the economic fallout. There is no doubt that the pandemic has widened existing gender inequalities – these beliefs attest to that. Consider the following areas critical to female empowerment and economic development, as well as the impact of the pandemic on women’s lives and livelihoods:Health and economy: Health and economic growth have an important, mutually beneficial relationship. While richer economies are able to invest more in healthcare, good health contributes to growth. Research from Chatham House shows that it is not an exaggeration to say that no society has seen sustained economic progress when it has neglected investment in its people’s health.
Around the world, women tend to live longer than men. However, this gender gap falls where women struggle to access healthcare services. By contrast, improved access has been linked to increases in women’s life expectancy, lower maternal mortality and lower child mortality. Ensuring women’s health can also boost economic stability and performance as a result of its direct impact on household income, labour market and working conditions.
Globally, studies show that women account for approximately 47% of global COVID-19 cases across all age groups—rising to 63% of those aged 85 or over. But one of the critical lessons from previous global pandemics is that the greatest threat to women’s lives is not the virus, itself, but rather reduced access to healthcare services.
Ntombi Mhangwani, Experience Architect & Lead Women’s Forum at Accenture Interactive Africa, shares valuable views on the current state and reversing the impact of COVID-19 on women.
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Education and economy: Education plays a critical role in boosting economic and human potential. Investment in education has been linked to increasing productivity, wages and economic growth. As one of the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals, quality education has been identified as crucial to enabling upwards mobility, reducing poverty, reducing inequalities and building more tolerant and peaceful societies.
The benefits of investing in women’s education spread out from the individual, to their families and wider society. For women themselves, education boosts their potential earnings, financial independence and ability to make decisions that reduce their exposure to violence or abuse. Women with secondary education earn twice as much as those with no educational achievement, on average—and the likelihood of them being married as a child or of having children at an early age is also reduced significantly.
UNESCO estimates that an additional 11.2 million girls are at risk of not returning to education following school closures during the pandemic. Experience from previous pandemics also suggests that many may have taken on additional care responsibilities at home or started working to financially support their families. The risk is highest in regions such as sub-Saharan Africa and South and West Asia, but also exists in higher income economies.
Advancement and leadership: Inclusive and diverse decision-making has proven benefits. These include the avoidance of groupthink bias—which can lead to groups excessively seeking agreement, and so increasing the odds of poor decisions being made —and an increase in the breadth and depth of information a group has in order to make decisions. Studies have shown that diverse groups perform better and make more accurate decisions.
Global gender imbalances in key decision-making positions are however large. For example, less than a quarter of most national parliamentarians are women. At government ministerial level globally, the proportion of women falls to just 21%. In the business world, just 18% of organisations are led by women.
The World Health Organisation Executive Board has recognised the need to include women in decision making for outbreak preparedness and response. However, during the Ebola and Zika outbreaks women were “conspicuously invisible at every point in the international response.
Entrepreneurship: Entrepreneurs contribute to economic growth in myriad ways, from providing employment opportunities to bringing new products and services to market. Millions of women worldwide run their own businesses, but entrepreneurial activity rates still lag those of men. This offers huge unexploited potential to increase female empowerment, create jobs, increase incomes, reduce poverty and boost health, as well as educational outcomes for children.
Women also face steeper barriers than men in a broader range of demands on their time, including a disproportionate share of household management activities including childcare. Consequently, they are 25% more likely than men to be drawn to entrepreneurial activity through necessity, as opposed to opportunity. This underscores the significant opportunity entrepreneurship offers both for women’s economic empowerment and for economic growth more broadly.
The financial situation of women looking to start new businesses has also deteriorated faster than average during the pandemic. Studies show that 54% of women aspiring to run a business say COVID-19 has had a negative impact on their personal earnings.
The difficulties associated with gender inequality – made worse by the pandemic – are deep-rooted and will require a collective call to action as well as sustainable efforts that are deliberately and consciously implemented over time. Well-designed policies to stimulate recovery can lessen the undesirable effects on women and prevent additional hindrances for gender equality.
It is therefore important that leaders turn this test into an opportunity – an opportunity to reset the economy based on the principle of inclusivity, and acknowledging that the full and equitable participation of women in economic activity is critical to a faster socio-economic recovery. This inclusive post-pandemic world will allow us to be better equipped for future challenges and is far better than the one we have left behind.