As COVID-19 threatens gender equality, what can businesses do to help?

Christina Bache, Visiting Fellow, LSE IDEAS

gender equalityThe United Nations, the International Labour Organisation, and the European Union are among the many international organisations that have warned of the emergence of a “shadow pandemic” amid the global COVID-19 health crisis.

In the absence of gender-sensitive and gender-responsive measures, the ramifications of government policies to contain the virus and the subsequent economic downturn threaten to hinder the hardwon advances in gender equality and women’s and girls’ rights from the past few decades.

Women’s livelihoods and economic security, both fundamental to securing women’s rights and gender equality, have been severely compromised by the disruption to global, regional, and local markets. Yet, women’s capacity to absorb economic shocks was already less than that of men before the pandemic due to structural inequalities. Women earn less, hold less secure jobs, and are more likely to be employed in the informal sector, meaning less access to social protections, resources, savings, and capital. Women also make up the majority of single-parent households and perform the majority of unpaid work. Entrenched cultural biases, archaic civil registration systems, and discrepancies between national laws protecting women, including sexual and reproductive health and rights and the enforcement of those laws profoundly impact women’s agency and economic security. While traditional economists would be hard-pressed to acknowledge, the way we measure the economic well-being of our societies is inherently sexist with dangerous societal consequences.

The “shadow pandemic” that an increasing number of practitioners and scholars are referring to will, without a doubt, negatively shape gender equality and impede women’s rights unless monumental change happens now. Data indicates that women’s unemployment rates have risen, unpaid and underpaid work by women has expanded exponentially, and violence against women and girls has increased since the outbreak. These trends are not only worrying about how they impact women’s agency, but economic systems sustained by women and girls who are not compensated and valued for their contributions and capabilities severely compromise prospects for sustainable development and peace.

It shouldn’t surprise many that the COVID-19 has worsened pre-existing gender inequalities. Research demonstrates that health emergencies, economic crises, natural disasters, and war consistently disproportionately impact women, so why should we expect a different scenario to emerge with the current global health crisis? The exception with this crisis is that it is unfolding during a time of growing frustration about inequality and mistrust in institutions. Many, including consumers, investors, and policymakers, are increasingly looking to business to address society’s most pressing challenges, including gender inequality.

Arguably, business is in a unique position to disrupt gender-based constraints and patriarchial cultures that impede women’s agency. Regardless of their size, sector, and composition, companies can strengthen gender equality and safeguard women’s rights by easing access to the labour market and improving job retention. Business practices, such as creating a safe working environment; offering fair wage standards; supporting salary transparency; initiating pay parity; providing flexible working hours; offering paid parental leave for parents and offering transportation services (among MANY other initiatives) can enable companies to interact with employees, investors, consumers, communities, and government in an attempt to contribute to society positively.

COVID-19, and its gendered impacts, has undoubtedly raised questions about the long-term societal ramifications of gender inequality. Businesses can pursue the policies and initiatives outlined above, but government leadership, in partnership with all stakeholders, including companies and communities, is desperately needed for effective gender-sensitive collective action. Without legislation and funding of gender-sensitive policies, the long- and hard-fought progress made for women’s rights and gender equality will undoubtedly slip through the cracks.

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