The writer is CEO and executive director of the UN Global Compact
“The road to economic recovery should not be across women’s backs,” say three counties in the state of Hawaii that have approved a feminist economic recovery plan for Covid-19 — a first for America and the world.
The Hawaiian plan promises to redress what most governments have chosen to ignore: that this pandemic has been much harder on women than on men. The virus has exposed gender faultlines in myriad ways. Women are 1.8 times more likely than men to have lost their jobs or livelihoods during the crisis. Their unpaid work, including caring for children and elderly family members, increased dramatically during lockdowns. Reports of domestic violence are on the rise. And women are at higher risk of exposure to the virus: they comprise 70 per cent of the world’s healthcare workers, as well as the majority of teachers, cleaners, store attendants, garment workers and market vendors.
The philanthropist Melinda Gates puts the cost of gender inequality in the trillions of dollars and urges governments to address this impact. “As policymakers work to protect and rebuild economies, their response must account for the disproportionate impact of Covid-19 on women,” she argues.
Some countries have introduced gender-specific policies to alleviate the effects of the pandemic. In West Africa, many governments waived utility bills during the first months of the crisis, when strict lockdowns prevented families, but especially female heads of households, from working. Canada last month set up a C$100m ($80m) Feminist Response and Recovery Fund to finance projects that address domestic violence, promote economic security for women and prepare them for leadership roles. Argentina plans to spend 3.4 per cent of its gross domestic product in its first ever “gender-responsive” public spending programme.
Such policies should become the norm, rather than the exception. A feminist recovery plan directs public spending and policies to support women and families. In Hawaii, this means adopting a universal basic income, free universal childcare and long-term care for the elderly, with fair wages for those in the sector. The state will prioritise the needs of women in allocating federal grants to invest in new childcare, education and health facilities.
Even before the pandemic, progress toward gender equality was unacceptably slow. According to the World Economic Forum’s 2020 Gender Gap Report, it will take 257 years to achieve economic gender parity. The real concern now is that the global gender gap is widening. Gender discrimination often hides in the fine print. For example, women-owned businesses tend to be smaller than those of men, making them ineligible for government procurement schemes. This could be addressed by ensuring that female business owners get at least 30 per cent of all the recovery and bailout funds.
Businesses must also play a more active role in ending gender discrimination. In the decade since UN Women and the UN Global Compact launched the Women’s Empowerment Principles, more than 4,000 CEOs have pledged to promote gender equality. But meaningful progress will not come without measurable targets to close the gender gap at work.
The UN Global Compact’s Target Gender Equality initiative has helped more than 300 companies in 19 countries set and meet ambitious targets for women’s representation and leadership. This year, we are extending the initiative to 45 countries and a live event on March 16 will explore how the private sector can be mobilised to support women’s equal representation and leadership.
Companies can also help by promoting shared domestic and care responsibilities through equal parental leave, workplace crèches and flexible work. Many have already acknowledged the extra care burden on working women during the pandemic and have taken measures to adjust the workload. Perhaps the experience of remote working will lead to more flexible arrangements for all employees.
Companies claiming to empower women and girls should explain how this is connected to their broader business strategy. They should also explain their targets and how they will track accountability. Finally, their leadership and board of directors should reflect this commitment.
That’s important because gender equality is everybody’s business. We all benefit when women have equal access to education, work, credit, promotion and government funding. To build back better, we must do so in a way that is more gender inclusive and try to create a world in which the worth of men and women counts equally.