The COVID 19 crisis has laid bare the entrenched gender inequalities that, compounded with other inequalities, plague labour markets. As the latest ILO Monitor has shown, the employment of women is relatively at greater risk than that of men, due to their overrepresentation in the service sectors severely impacted by the crisis.
Women who work as domestic workers, in tourism, and in some labour-intensive manufacturing sectors, such as the garment sector are particularly hard hit. This is reflected in emerging employment data which shows women are losing their jobs at greater speed than men. Employment figures are more worrying for young women, as their employment rates have contracted far more than average and even more than those of young men.
In addition, women make up the vast majority of health workers, being more at risk of contagion, and continue to work in trying circumstances, like in education and in retail. What is more, school closures and caring for those who become sick, have increased care demands within households at an unprecedented scale. New evidence shows these greater care obligations are forcing women who remain in employment to cut down on paid working hours or to extend total working hours (paid and unpaid) to unsustainable levels.
Even if less severe, previous crises offer some cautionary lessons for the current one. They illustrate that when jobs are scarce, women are denied economic opportunity and security relative to men. They also highlight that crises usually imply the erosion of labour protections and the long-lasting worsening of working conditions, and that women are not only hit by the loss of jobs but also by expenditure cuts that contract public service provision, in particular care services.
This time around, employment policies, including macroeconomic, sectoral and labour market policies must put gender equality at the core of the emergency and recovery efforts to avoid long-term damages to women’s job prospects and to build back fairer. The impact of the current crisis and lessons learned from previous crises indicate four policy priorities for a gender-responsive emergency and recovery effort:
Prevent women from losing their jobs: Higher informality amongst women and persistent sectoral segregation, combined with entrenched gender discriminatory norms in institutions and policies can inadvertently leave women behind. It is therefore crucial to do “whatever it takes” to prevent women from losing their jobs, maintain women’s attachment to the labour force, and establish mechanisms for women to re-enter employment as early as possible. In the meantime, supporting women’s livelihoods is essential to avoid further impoverishing them.
Avoid premature fiscal consolidation: Expenditure cuts in public services have a disproportionate effect on women and children, and worsen the working conditions of care workers. As the crisis deepens, developing countries are experiencing worsening economic conditions in the form of higher indebtedness and highly constrained monetary options. This will put increased pressure on the withdrawal of fiscal relief measures, and will heighten competition amongst different priorities. Prioritizing expenditures that support gender-egalitarian outcomes and avoiding premature fiscal consolidation are preconditions to sustain recovery and avoid inflicting further damage to women’s employment prospects.
Invest in care: Investments in care services have the potential to generate decent jobs, particularly for women (and indirectly for men as well). Public opinion has been awakened to the often difficult and undervalued work of care workers, whose contribution has been, and remains, essential to overcoming the pandemic. Given the degree of feminization of the care workforce (including domestic workers in it), improving their working conditions also means improving women workers’ overall working conditions. It also contributes to breaking sectoral segregation by attracting more men to care jobs.
Focus on gender-responsive employment policies: Measures governments will put in place to support a job-rich recovery need to explicitly counterbalance the gender-specific effects of the COVID-19 crisis and create the conditions to support women’s decent employment creation. Macroeconomic stimulus packages must continue boosting aggregate demand in ways that support employment retention and creation, with a specific focus on hard-hit sectors that also have a disproportionate share of women employed. This will support women’s employment and incomes. It is also crucial to identify where decent employment opportunities for women will come from in new and growing sectors, accompanied by policies to close women’s skill gaps and that contribute to removing statutory and practical barriers to entry. Active labour market policies can continue to play their role in supporting women’s reintegration to productive employment. Last but not least, extending the coverage of labour market institutions, including minimum wages, employment protection and social protection, and respecting fundamental principles and rights at work and social dialogue are at the core of building resilience and paving the way for a speedy recovery. Supporting women and men workers in the informal economy in their transitions to formality is also as pressing as ever.
by Valeria Esquivel, Senior Employment Policies and Gender Officer at the Employment Labour Markets and Youth Branch of the International Labour Organization
This article is part of the Decent Jobs for Youth Blog Series: Youth Rights & Voices. The Blog Series highlights the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on young women and men in the world of work and discusses action-oriented policy responses and solutions. If you would like to comment or contribute, please contact email@example.com.
Policy Brief: A gender-responsive employment recovery: Building back fairer