Women disproportionately impacted by COVID-19 pandemic

2021-07-26, 10:09am Woman


Coronavirus cases were first reported in China in December last year and it was declared a pandemic in March. File photo. AP

Geneva, 25 Jul (Kanaga Raja) – Women’s employment worldwide declined by 4.2 per cent between 2019 and 2020, representing a drop of 54 million jobs, while men’s employment declined by 3 per cent, or 60 million jobs, according to the International Labour Organization (ILO).

In its latest policy brief, the ILO said over a year and a half into the COVID-19 pandemic, gender equality in the world of work has worsened.

“Women have suffered disproportionate job and income losses, including because of their over-representation in the hardest-hit sectors, and many continue to work on the front-line, sustaining care systems, economies and societies, while often also doing the majority of unpaid care work,” it added.

The ILO said that the decrease in employment between 2019 and 2020 was more pronounced than during the Great Recession for both women and men.

“This is largely due to the impact of lockdowns that affected sectors, including manufacturing and services where women are over-represented and where they are often working with informal working arrangements.”

Enduring gender gaps in time spent in unpaid care work, limited access to social protection and an upsurge in violence and harassment have also made it difficult for women to keep their jobs, compared to men, said the ILO.

According to the ILO policy brief, in 2021, there will still be 13 million fewer women in employment compared to 2019, while men’s employment will have recovered to 2019 levels.

The ILO has forecast that, globally, in 2021, women’s employment is expected to rise by 3.3 per cent compared to 2020 levels, or 41 million, while men’s employment is expected to grow by 3 per cent, or 59 million.

Even though the projected employment growth rate in 2021 for women exceeds that of men, it will, nonetheless, be insufficient to bring women back to pre-pandemic employment levels, because of deeper employment losses experienced by women in 2020 (-4.2 per cent), it said.

Globally, in 2021, the number of employed women is projected to be 13 million less than in 2019, while the number of men in employment is projected to be about the same as in 2019.

Women’s employment in 2021 is projected to be 1,270 million, while men’s is forecasted to reach 2,019 million, said the ILO.

“Only 43.2 per cent of the world’s working-age women will be employed in 2021, compared to 68.6 per cent of working-age men.”

In other words, in 2021, women will still be 25.4 percentage points less likely to be in employment than men, said the ILO.


According to the ILO policy brief, the Americas was the region that experienced the greatest reduction in women’s employment as a result of the pandemic.

Between 2019 and 2020, women’s employment declined by 9.4 per cent compared to a 7.0 per cent decline for men, it said.

“The drop in women’s employment disrupted the progress observed over the past 15 years, which was the result of better educational opportunities for women, greater availability of formal jobs in the services sector, migration from rural to urban areas, and lower fertility rates.”

The ILO estimates that the regional employment-to-population ratio for women will stand at only 46.8 per cent in 2021, while men’s will reach 66.2 per cent.

“These figures portray bleak prospects for women in the region, highlighting that employment growth lacks the intensity needed to recover to pre-pandemic levels,” said the ILO.

The second highest drop in the number of employed women was observed in the Arab States. Between 2019 and 2020, women’s employment declined by 4.1 per cent and men’s by 1.8 per cent.

However, recovery prospects appear to be more favourable for women than for men, as women’s employment in 2021 is expected to increase by 5.6 per cent and men’s employment by 3.7 per cent, reflecting more targeted policy actions to promote women’s participation in employment, said the ILO.

Nonetheless, there remain substantial gender inequalities at work in the region, it added.

According to ILO projections, in 2021, the employment-to-population ratio for women will stand at only 14.3 per cent compared to 70.8 per cent for men.

The ILO said over the past 15 years, the region’s employment-to-population ratio has hardly fluctuated.

This low female employment rate is the result of the limited quantity and quality of jobs generated, traditional expectations of women’s role in society and recurrent political instability, it added.

In Asia and the Pacific, the shock of the pandemic led women’s employment to decrease by 3.8 per cent compared to a decline of 2.9 per cent for men, it said.

The number of men in employment is expected to rise by 3 per cent by the end of 2021, which would more than offset the job losses that occurred in 2020.

On the other hand, women’s employment losses would not be compensated by the forecasted 3.2 per cent rise in 2021.

This would further accelerate the decrease in women’s employment rates observed in the region over the past 15 years, leading to only 41.2 per cent of women being in employment in 2021, compared to 71.4 per cent of men.

The main factors behind the longstanding decline in women’s employment rates include the rapid transition from agriculture to manufacturing with lower than expected job formalization rates, and the lack of care services and infrastructure that enable women to combine work with family responsibilities, said the ILO.

In Europe and Central Asia, it is the second time over the past 15 years that employment has been severely hit by a crisis, it added.

It said the Great Recession, between 2008 and 2009, dramatically reduced men’s employment (-2.3 per cent), while women’s jobs were affected to a much lesser extent (-0.5 per cent).

In contrast, the COVID-19 crisis has curtailed women’s employment considerably more than men’s, leading to a 2.5 per cent and a 1.9 per cent decrease, respectively.

The ILO said its forecast for 2021 is not encouraging, as the number of women in employment is expected to rise by a dim 0.6 per cent and that of men by 0.4 per cent.

It said in Europe and Central Asia, the COVID-19 pandemic has halted the positive trend of increasing women’s employment rates of the past years, triggered by higher female educational achievement, rising social protection coverage coupled with investments in the care economy and the increase in part-time employment opportunities.

In 2021, the employment rate for women is projected to stand at 46.0 per cent, compared to 60.8 per cent for men.

Despite substantial decent work deficits, in Africa, men’s employment experienced the smallest decline across all geographic regions with just a 0.1 per cent drop between 2019 and 2020, while women’s employment decreased by 1.9 per cent, said the ILO.

Recovery prospects are particularly positive for women, whose employment is expected to rise by 4.7 per cent between 2020 and 2021, more than offsetting pandemic-related job losses, it added.

As a result, in 2021, the employment rate for women in Africa is projected to reach 48.7 per cent, which would be the highest across regions, and men’s employment rate is projected to stand at 66.2 per cent.

However, a North-South divide in sub-regional dynamics persists, said the ILO, noting that in northern Africa, only 16.0 per cent of working-age women are projected to be employed in 2021.

The combination of ascribed gender roles, limited expansion of the services and manufacturing sectors, and lack of care services have contributed to women leaving paid work around the age of 25, which coincides with marriage, it said.

Conversely, in sub-Saharan Africa, the employment-to-population ratio for women is projected to remain among the highest in the world in 2021, at 57.1 per cent.

The gender gap in employment rates, at 10.4 percentage points, is low when compared to many other regions.

However, women’s higher employment in the region often comes at the expense of the quality of their work, given their disproportionately high participation in the informal economy, especially in agriculture, a sector where paid work is often combined with unpaid care responsibilities, said the policy brief.

“In Africa, the pandemic has exacerbated the poor working conditions of informal economy workers, who have continued to work during the COVID-19 outbreak, putting themselves and their families at risk.”

The ILO cautioned that when gender intersects with other personal characteristics, such as ethnicity, nationality, age, disability or HIV status, there is a risk that gender disparities will widen further.


According to the policy brief, the COVID-19 pandemic has shed light on the large gender gaps in the quality of employment, especially for the many women working in feminized sectors and occupations, and in the informal economy.

It said even before the pandemic, jobs with a high concentration of women were characterized by low wages, long working hours, limited opportunities for career advancement and exposure to occupational health and safety risks as well as violence and harassment.

“When the pandemic hit, these trends put women workers at greater risk of being laid off, seeing a significant contraction of their working hours and/or experiencing a further deterioration in their working conditions.”

Migrant workers, ethnic and racial minorities, older persons and those with disabilities and living with HIV and AIDS have also seen the quality of their jobs dampened.

During the pandemic, women have continued to provide essential work in the health and social work sector as well as in other essential occupations, often putting their own lives at risk and facing a double burden: longer shifts at work and additional care work at home, said the ILO.

The ILO noted that for the majority of women and men, COVID-19 has increased care demands within households on an unprecedented scale.

However, new evidence shows that women continue to bear the brunt of unpaid care work. This has led women who remained in employment to cut down on paid working hours or to extend their total working hours (paid and unpaid) to unsustainable levels, it said.

“Across the world, women continue to earn 20 per cent less than men and women experience further pay penalties when they belong to ethnic minorities, are migrants or persons with disabilities.”

The ILO said the COVID-19 pandemic has hit those at the bottom of the wage scale harder than those at the top and, particularly, women who are disproportionately represented in low-paid jobs.

According to the policy brief, estimates based on a sample of 28 European countries found that, without wage subsidies, women would have lost 8.1 per cent of their wages in the second quarter of 2020, compared to 5.4 per cent for men.

COVID-19 has disrupted the livelihoods of women working in the informal economy, as many informal businesses were forced to close temporarily or permanently, leading to severe loss of income and an increased risk of falling into poverty, it said.

“As a result, many children have faced a higher risk of child labour and lower rates of school enrolment, especially young girls.”

Domestic workers, many of whom work informally, are exposed to significant decent work deficits in respect of working time, wages, social security, occupational safety and health, including violence and harassment.

Globally, they earn 56.4 per cent of the average monthly wages of other employees, said the ILO.

“Live-in domestic workers and migrant domestic workers are particularly vulnerable to poor working conditions.”

During the pandemic, many domestic workers have lost their jobs or seen a dramatic reduction in working hours and correspondingly lower wages, said the policy brief.

With the pandemic, it has also become clear that while many higher wage jobs could shift to full-time tele-work, this has not been the case for the many women in low-wage jobs, such as retail, sales and hospitality that require physical interaction with clients, customers or patients, said the ILO.

The ILO estimates that during the pandemic, the number of workers who could work from home was 557 million, accounting for only 17.4 per cent of the world’s employment.

According to the ILO policy brief, while sex-disaggregated data on the number of persons working from home is not yet available, some evidence suggests that women’s working conditions have worsened, as the combination of COVID-19-related anxiety, unchanged expectations from employers and an increase in care responsibilities can have severe repercussions on women’s physical and mental health.

In some instances, tele-work has also led to increased work intensity, with potential risks of exhaustion, higher levels of stress and, at times, a sense of loneliness, it said.

However, the ILO added, studies conducted prior to the pandemic already showed that tele-work can offer workers greater autonomy in the organization of work and time, and that when well-designed, tele-working arrangements can be instrumental in promoting women’s participation in managerial and leadership positions, which remains low.

Globally, in 2020, only 28.3 per cent of managers and leaders are women, a figure that has changed very little over the past 27 years, it said.

The ILO said the pandemic has also cast light once again on the little space given to women in decision-making.

“Globally, women made up just 24 per cent of COVID-19 task force members, confirming that the glass ceiling remains firmly in place in economies and in politics.”

A gender-responsive, inclusive, and job-rich recovery needs to explicitly counterbalance the gender-specific effects of the COVID-19 crisis and create conditions that support the creation of decent work for women, said the ILO.

It noted that unprecedented macroeconomic policies, both fiscal and monetary, have been put in place to cushion the impacts of the pandemic and ensure a speedy recovery, particularly in 2020.

Fiscal stimulus packages have been greater than in the 2008-2009 crisis, but relatively few of these resources have been channelled to gender-responsive measures, said the ILO.

According to the policy brief, out of the 580 fiscal and economic measures to help businesses weather the crisis in 132 countries and territories, only 12 per cent of the measures (70) aim to strengthen women’s economic security by channelling resources to female-dominated sectors.

“As a greater proportion of women’s employment has been lost due to the COVID-19 pandemic, extraordinary policy efforts are needed to ensure that women return to the labour market with decent work opportunities,” said the ILO.

If priority is not given to this goal, there is a risk that women will be left behind in the recovery efforts, further exacerbating existing gender inequalities in terms of access to and quality of employment, it added.

Gender equality considerations need to be an intrinsic component of the design, development, implementation and results of all programmes and strategies, policies, laws and regulations implemented as a response to and recovery from COVID-19, the ILO concluded.

Published in SUNS #9394 dated 26 July 2021

- Third World Network