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The COVID-19 response: Getting gender equality right for a better future for women at work

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This policy brief provides information on how the COVID-19 pandemic affects women and men differently in the world of work and highlights the specific challenges facing women. It provides an overview of the various measures that countries have taken to address the immediate needs of different categories of women workers, and suggests short- and long-term actions that governments can take to advance gender equality for more resilient, inclusive and sustainable economies and societies.

COVID-19 economic downturn likely to hit women hardest

Higher-risk sectors for enterprises and women’s employment

Before the COVID-19 crisis, 1.3 billion, or 44.3 per cent, of women worldwide were in employment, compared to 2 billion, or 70 per cent, of men. Economic downturns usually affect men more than women because men tend to work in industries that are closely tied to economic cycles (e.g. construction and manufacturing) while women dominate in industries less susceptible to such cycles (e.g. health care and education), especially in high-income countries.

After the Great Recession of 2008–2009, however, significant cuts were made in public funding for health care and education, curtailing women’s employment and working conditions, including wages, in those sectors. The COVID-19 economic downturn is different from previous crises as sectors overexposed to the collapse in economic activity absorb a sizeable share of female employment.

The ILO has rated four sectors as being at high risk of severe COVID-19 impact in terms of job losses and a decline in working hours: accommodation and food services; real estate, business and administrative activities; manufacturing; and the wholesale/retail trade.

In 2020, 527 million women, representing 41 per cent of total female employment, are employed in these sectors, compared to 35 per cent of total male employment. This suggests that women’s employment is likely to be hit more severely than men’s by the current crisis. However, when comparing countries based on national income level, the picture is more nuanced (Figure 1). The highest share of women employed in high-risk sectors is found in high-income and uppermiddle-income countries, with almost 50 per cent and 40 per cent of women, respectively, concentrated in such sectors. In low-income countries and lowermiddle-income countries, there is a risk that many manufacturing jobs, especially in the garment industry, which absorb large numbers of women, particularly in the lower rungs, will disappear, while the absence of stronger systems of social protection jeopardizes the health and incomes of these workers as well as the viability of businesses.