Challenging the policy dial for equity

It has been said before but is certainly not said enough – the COVID-19 pandemic has aggravated economic distress for women. 

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Be it in Australia, India or the ASEAN region, the pandemic has had a disproportionate impact on women. In Latin America, women were 50 per cent more likely than men to lose a job in the pandemic’s first months. The list of disruptions and its consequent impact is endless.

"In India, the ratio of female unpaid work time compared to males is almost sevenfold.”

Outsized impact on women

Several factors explain this but one of the main reasons is the vast scale of the unpaid care economy. Based on a study of 33 economies, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) estimates that on average, for every hour of unpaid work a man does, a woman will do nearly two hours.

However, this statistic does not capture the extent of the disparity that exists in individual countries. For example, in India, the ratio of female unpaid work time compared with males is almost seven.

In Asia Pacific, unpaid care is the main reason for women to withdraw from the labour force with almost half (49.5 per cent) of respondents citing it. In contrast, only 7.1 per cent of men dropped out of the labour force due to unpaid care responsibilities.

For men, personal reasons (defined as education, sickness or disability) are the main causes for leaving the labour force, cited by 44.8 per cent of respondents.

Women are also overrepresented in many of the industries hardest hit by COVID-19, such as food service, retail and entertainment. Projections from the International Labour Organisation suggest the equivalent of 140 million full-time jobs may be lost due to the pandemic; and women’s employment is 19 per cent more at risk than men.

Straitjacketed policies can be a disservice

Policymakers the world over are engaged in supporting economies, be it via an ultra-low interest rate environment (even negative rates, in some cases) or by doling out assistance for the most impacted. This is somewhat reminiscent of the policymaking after the 2008 recession. But little thought, then or now, has been given to viewing the problem through the lens of gender.

The focus of the massive stimulus was on indicators such as inflation, labour market strength and economic growth – ignoring the key public policy concern of gender equity.

It is easy to underestimate the gravity of the current crisis as economic indicators would have us believe growth is fast catching up (even surpassing the pre-pandemic level) and recovery in the labour market is outpacing even the most optimistic estimates. But this masks the disparity of growth. The progress on convergence of gender divergence is painfully slow and COVID-19 threatens to reverse hard-won gains on gender equality.

An inclusive recovery

That being said, there are some steps being taken. The UN’s Global Gender Response tracker is one such initiative that aims to monitor the policy responses and highlight the ones that have an integrated gender lens.  Some 80 per cent of the 206 countries or territories tracked had at least one gender sensitive measure in place. It needs to be caveated the measures were concentrated in countries with high income status, while fragile and least developed countries were woefully behind. 

Author Caroline Criado Perez writes in Invisible Women that closing the gender data gap will not magically fix all the problems but it is a start. The focus on, and availability of, gender-disaggregated data is the first step in creating the right policy push.

Adopting a policy agenda that embraces inclusive strategies is paramount to emerge stronger from the pandemic.

Growth estimates suggest 2021 is going to be the year of recovery. We should challenge that narrative and ask ourselves whether it is inclusive growth.

Bansi Madhavani is an Economist at ANZ

The views and opinions expressed in this communication are those of the author and may not necessarily state or reflect those of ANZ.

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