2020, coronavirus and gender equality: The year women weakened

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December 27, 2020 12:15 AM

Covid-19 resulted in unprecedented loss of employment. The hardest hit perhaps were women who either lost jobs or had to juggle work & home. We look back at how the year was for women in the workforce

People stand in queue as they wait for taxis from Navi Mumbai to Mumbai during an indefinite strike by BEST employees, in Mumbai on Tuesday. Express Photo by Nirmal Harindran. 08.01.2019. Mumbai.

The September employment report by the US Bureau of Labor Statistics painted a grim picture of the number of women in the workforce. The report showed that women had been dropping out of jobs at an alarming rate. The US is not an anomaly. Zoom out a bit and one would find a similar trend emerging from most job markets in the world. Unlike previous economic downturns, the one caused by the outbreak of coronavirus earlier this year has resulted in greater loss of employment among women across the world. The situation has worsened because of the closure of schools and daycare centres, as the responsibility of caregiving has fallen disproportionately on women.

When Indian-American business executive and former chairman and CEO of PepsiCo, Indra Nooyi, put up a LinkedIn post, asking how working parents were navigating the crisis, juggling work and home, the responses were on the lines of “definitely super challenging, but multitasking roles like never before”, “juggling between who of the two has a more important meeting next and the other then plays a dual role for that period. We have learnt to be grateful for everything and this teaches us to create our desired reality…”

Encouraging and progressive as it may sound, the ground reality is that the pandemic has impacted more women than men, especially in the workforce. Forced to juggle work, home and caregiving responsibilities, they are being pushed to their limits and it has taken a toll. In 2020, more women than men quit, were laid off or furloughed, which has put their independence and financial security in jeopardy.

Turning point

Women were hit hard very early in the pandemic, as service sector jobs evaporated and childcare responsibilities kept them at home. According to the latest jobs report in November in The New York Times, the US Labour Department showed that some of the damage was reversed in October, as the service industry revived, nudging down the jobless rate for women to 6.5%, slightly below men’s. But there were still 4.5 million fewer women employed in October than there were a year ago, compared with 4.1 million men. As per an October Reuters report, the labour force participation rate (LFPR), or the proportion of working-age Americans who have a job or are looking for one, fell to 61.4% from 61.7% in August. The participation rate for women dropped to 55.6% from 56.1%.

The pandemic has become a serious threat to the progress made by women in the last economic expansion, when they accounted for a large share of employment growth. “The latest edition of Women in Workplace 2020, a study undertaken by McKinsey and LeanIn.Org, finds that the crisis has exacerbated gender disparities and their implications for working women, especially mothers and senior women leaders in the US. The study reveals that as many as two million women could either downshift their careers or leave the workforce permanently. These are staggering numbers,” says Mumbai-based Ashu Suyash, MD and CEO of ratings agency CRISIL, a subsidiary of S&P Global. CRISIL has emphasised on equality in workforce participation. The women representation stands at 37%, higher than the 30% mark for corporate India. Some policies include maternity support programme for expectant mothers, adoption leave policy for female colleagues, programmes at mid-career stages to provide leadership and upskilling opportunities, child daycare support and crèche facilities, etc. “If we look at India, far more men than women are in the paid workforce. In fact, women’s participation in the paid labour force has been declining steadily. As per the World Bank (modelled estimates of International Labour Organization, or ILO), India’s female LFPR was at 23.4% as of 2019, which is the lowest among its neighbouring countries. The pandemic has only worsened this situation. The Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy data, released in June, said that over 100 million men lost jobs as against 17 million women. But in percentage terms, the number of men reporting themselves as employed dropped 29% between March 2019 and April 2020 as against 39% for women during the same period,” she adds.

Jayashubha K, chief people officer at non-banking financial company TVS Credit, concurs: “The gender bias is more pronounced in India. According to a 2020 LinkedIn report, employees across both genders experienced stress… it has taken a massive toll on 47% of Indian women as compared to 38% of male employees. Studies tell us that four out of 10 women lost their jobs due to Covid-19, whereas only 29% men lost theirs during March-April 2020,” she says.

Further, over 50% of women entrepreneurs in urban India have had to change their business models to cope with the short-term impact of the pandemic, according to an October report by Bain & Company (a global consultancy), Google and AWE Foundation titled Can Covid-19 be the Turning Point for Women Entrepreneurs in India? The nature of the businesses—service-oriented, smaller in scale and less capital-intensive—helped these women entrepreneurs adapt faster. “The pandemic has been devastating for women entrepreneurs not only due to business coming to a grinding halt, but also because of an unforgiving increase in the domestic care burden. Yet, post the initial few months, there has been rapid responsiveness and adaptation. This agility, widespread adoption of remote interactions across the ecosystem and the need for an all-hands approach to economic recovery are all reinforcements of the massive opportunity in women’s entrepreneurship,” says Megha Chawla, a partner at Bain & Company, and the study’s lead author.

The survey took into account the perspectives of 350 women solopreneurs in urban India to understand the impact, challenges and opportunities that Covid-19 has triggered for women. It found that women-owned businesses experienced a massive decline in revenue—73% witnessed a negative impact, while almost 20% have seen their revenues wiped out completely. Almost 45% of respondents blamed muted demand, while about 30% cited personal reasons, including significantly increased at-home care responsibilities, as a major obstacle in running their business. With movement restricted across the country, 28% of respondents cited disruptions to supply, while 22% said lack of financial resources affected them severely.

Woman wear masks to protect coronavirus in New Delhi on Sunday. Express Photo by Prem Nath Pandey. 08.03.2020.

“Covid-19 has underlined the systemic gender biases and inequities in workplaces that existed even pre-pandemic,” says Poonam Khetrapal Singh, regional director, south-east Asia, WHO, who finds that the health crises has adversely affected women. “To quote an example, a report analysing the global health and social workforce, which the WHO supported in 2019, estimated that workplace equality was more than 200 years away. The impact of the pandemic on women may just make that timeline longer,” she adds.

An employee wears a headset while working at the Avise Techno Solutions LLP call center in Kolkata, India, on Sunday, Dec. 24, 2017. India’s political stability and reform push — including a nationwide consumption tax — prompted a first upgrade of its sovereign rating in 14 years from Moody’s Investors Service in November. Photograph: Taylor Weidman/Bloomberg

The impact on women employed in the informal sector has been worse. “Slashing of informal sector jobs, combined with the existing problem of lower female LFPR has hit women the hardest. Many women-led businesses are microenterprises or self-financed. These enterprises are in sectors like tourism, education and beauty, which have been ravaged by the pandemic-led lockdown. The loss of economic independence for women also triggers many other social challenges like the alarming rise in cases of domestic violence. As per the National Commission for Women, 1,477 complaints of domestic violence were made by women between March 25 and May 31, 2020. This 68-day period recorded more complaints than those received between March and May in the previous 10 years,” says Suyash of CRISIL. “Given that the pandemic has caused massive job losses, dented smaller enterprises and eroded female LFPR further, the government needs to reimagine its strategy for reviving the economy and build back women participation in formal and informal sectors,” adds Suyash. “Women work more in India than in the West and continue to shoulder the bulk of caregiving responsibility, though most fathers are now at home full-time. Women still perform 76.2% of total hours of unpaid care work—more than three times as much as men—according to the ILO,” she says.

Ashu Suyash

The pandemic has impacted women and girls in accessing medical care too. “WHO’s pulse survey shows up to 68% disruption in essential health services like family planning and contraception, 56% disruption in antenatal care services and 34% disruption in facility-based births during Covid-19. In parts of the world, women still don’t have equitable access to testing, treatment and other services right now,” says Singh of WHO.

The cost of love

Dr Poonam Khetrapal

The situation could become more complicated going forward: women may have more trouble getting back into jobs as they are likely to be primary caregivers. Historically, too, women have had to pay a bigger cost for this reason. Workplaces tend to penalise women who choose to work fewer hours or need more flexibility. This has only become worse during the pandemic.

“Gaps in wages, unprotected livelihoods and the work-home balance that women have to juggle have left them at a disadvantage. Up to 49% of women globally have reported an increase in domestic workload since the beginning of the pandemic. In contrast, only up to 33% of men report such increases,” said Singh of WHO.

Work from home has come as a double whammy, feels Jayashubha K. “Not only were they expected to continue working, but they had to manage their children, domestic help and work. So, women had to do double the amount of work they did earlier combining household chores along with their official duties.”

Every bit matters

A concerted effort is needed to make the workplace more inclusive for women, ensuring equality without compromising quality by creating an environment of individual freedom and institutional trust. For instance, the department of science and technology (DST) within the ministry of science and technology in India is working on a policy that would bring the promotion of women employees under consideration while ranking a scientific institution.

Jayasubha TVS

Science and technology institutes will be rated based on the support they give to female staff under the new Science Technology and Innovation Policy (STIP), 2020, which aims to make the arena more inclusive and diverse. Besides stressing on the need to support to female staff, the focus of ranking parameters will be language and geographical locations. “There will be a separate chapter on equity, inclusion and diversity in the new science policy,” DST secretary Ashutosh Sharma said. “There will be different parameters like how many women are recruited every year, what is the total number (of women in an institute), how well they have progressed in their career, what support they get, are there committees to address their grievances and a whole lot of things that can ensure them a level-playing field,” he added.

Sharma said the percentage of women in the area of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) is low. For instance, the representation of women in engineering courses in top institutes is just 10-12%. To ensure that the percentage increases, the DST is implementing the ‘Knowledge Involvement in Research Advancement through Nurturing (KIRAN) Scheme’ to provide various career opportunities to women scientists and technologists, primarily aimed to bring gender parity in the sector.


A few structural changes could rectify the inequalities like inclusion of a certain number of women in the workforce, ensuring their safety and mandatory affordable creche facilities at workplaces. “Have a gender-balanced workplace, implement policies that acknowledge a need for work-life balance, have zero tolerance for sexual harassment, eliminate gender bias at the workplace and give women equal opportunities to have a seat at the leadership table. Women need to be placed at the centre of all policies,” says Singh of WHO.

It’s high time that we busted the myth of women bringing only soft skills to the table. Mahua Moitra, the fierce and outspoken parliamentarian from the Trinamool Congress, pointed in October at The Economic Times Women’s Forum that countries like Norway, Denmark, Finland, Germany, New Zealand and Iceland, where participation of women in politics is above 40% compared with the global average of 25%, are in the top-tier of social progress index. “The number in the Lok Sabha is about 14% and in the Rajya Sabha 10.7%,” she said. “Women’s leadership during the crisis and their ability to deal with black swan events have shown that hard skills are an integral part as well,” she said.

Maybe, a more diverse workplace for women in all sectors can help them juggle responsibilities at work and home better, and stop them from slipping through the cracks.


The gender gap

4 out of 10 women lost their jobs due to Covid-19 during March-April, as per reports

Over 50% of India’s urban women entrepreneurs changed their biz models to resist the short-term impact of the pandemic, as per a report by Bain & Company

Stress took a toll on 47% of Indian women in the workforce as compared to 38% of male employees, as per a 2020 LinkedIn report

73% of female entrepreneurs were negatively impacted by the crisis, as per the Bain & Co report

According to the National Commission for Women, 1,477 complaints of domestic violence were made by women between March 25 and May 31

20% of them witnessed revenues of their businesses being nearly wiped out, as per the Bain & Co report

Women perform 76.2% of total hours of unpaid care work—over three times as much as men—according to the International Labour Organization

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