Op-ed: World leaders must put women at centre of COVID-19 recovery

By UN Women Executive Director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka


Originally published on weforum.org

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, women and girls around the world confronted a gender gap that left them less able to step into leadership roles, earn a fair wage, or access quality health care or education.

The economic and health impacts of the pandemic have turned that gap into a chasm, and risk undoing much of the even modest progress achieved in reducing pre-pandemic gender inequalities.

Not a single country in the world can boast of being gender equal – a fact that is straining health systems, widening socio-economic gaps and undermining social protection.

It is also stalling economic growth. Economic modeling from the McKinsey Global Institute suggests that advancing women’s equality could add trillions of dollars to global growth, boosting prospects for even the least-resourced countries in the world to improve the quality of life for their entire populations.

As G7 countries meet this week, and as all countries look to rebuild greener, more resilient and gender-equal economies in the wake of the pandemic, they must elevate the richness of the diversity of women’s talents, ideas and innovations in decision-making spaces.

Yet women hold just 26.1 per cent of 35,500 parliamentary seats across 156 countries. They represent just 29 per cent of those in senior management – and are even more absent from executive roles.

Despite these almost ubiquitous challenges, with bold policies to boost women’s economic empowerment, now is a critical moment to shift course and accelerate constructive change.

The Generation Equality Forum in Paris (30 June - 2 July), offers another pivotal moment to create that much-needed change. At this landmark conference, we are calling for governments, companies and organizations to join us to make bold commitments to advance gender equality.

We are mobilizing around a Global Acceleration Plan centred around six Action Coalitions, including one focused squarely on economic justice and rights. The Action Coalitions bring together the broad range of actors needed to drive progress forward now and post COVID-19 – setting civil-society activists shoulder-to-shoulder with trade unions, parliamentary representatives, business leaders and government agencies.

By the time of the Paris Forum, we hope that these multilateral, inter-generational and vibrant partnerships will have catalyzed well-financed and transformational commitments for the six Action Coalitions and for the Compact for Women, Peace, Security and Humanitarian Action.

How to create more equal economies

What could transformative commitments look like in the arena of economic justice and rights? And how could they create more resilient and equal economies as the world re-builds?

One way is by committing to supporting and resourcing care work. The care sector in too many economies, both industrialized and developing, remains poorly understood and inadequately resourced. During COVID-19, it has come under particularly acute pressure, with women and girls shouldering the majority of the burden.

Underinvestment in care – for children, for aging parents, for those requiring additional support – reflects a dangerous misconception that care is "free" (read: women’s work) with little bearing on social and economic development. Any government seeking a strong return on their fiscal recovery package must invest in the care sector, providing well paid, safe care options that recognize, reduce and redistribute the current unpaid care work in homes.

They must also reward care workers and guarantee their labor rights, including through universal safety nets that extend beyond the formal sector. Only when care is at the center of social and economic policies will a better future of work be possible for women and men with family responsibilities.

Another way is by creating more decent and equally paid work for women. Commitments in this arena might focus on reskilling and redeployment to get women back to work as well as into professions that have traditionally been male-dominated. Commitments to advance this goal might include access to technology and targeted job training programmes.

In addition, setting targets for women in leadership and management through potential-based hiring will power new leaps in women’s representation and leadership across existing and emerging professions. Such investments will also offer businesses a competitive advantage.

Another essential component of a gender-equal post-COVID economy is a commitment to close the gender wage gap. This will require reinvestment strategies that improve work quality and pay standards across currently low-paid essential work, much of which remains "female". Addressing wage inequality will offer broader social protection and do much to address extreme poverty and the shadow pandemic of men’s violence against women and girls, at home, in public spaces and at work, which has added a further dimension to the far-reaching damage caused by the current crisis.

We cannot build back better after COVID-19 without gender equality. Specifically, we must place women at the center of our economic recovery. Now is the moment for leaders to publicly commit to that work – by supporting the care economy, and equal wages and access to opportunities.

Committing to the Generation Equality Global Acceleration Plan will set us on the path towards a more sustainable and just future, to ensure prosperity for all, and the realization of the 2030 Agenda. I invite all countries, businesses, civil society and youth organizations to join us by making a commitment.