Free Food Pandemic

Mitigating the Impact of COVID-19 Pandemic on Women’s Economic Opportunity

A woman leaves after receiving free food in Washington, DC during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. (Yuri Gripas/Abaca/Sipa USA)

This month is the twentieth anniversary of United Nations Security Council resolution 1325 that marked the beginning of the women, peace, and security (WPS) agenda. Reflections on the progress made in that time have centered on efforts to ensure women’s security and the need to continue these efforts into the future. Less discussed is the important connection between the economic empowerment of women and security, and the need to pay more attention to financial security for women. This is of particular concern in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, which is proving to have disproportionate economic effects for women.

In the past twenty years, the labor force in many parts of the world has changed significantly to include women and promote their empowerment despite the continued existence of gender inequalities. The impact of the pandemic on women, however, is forcing women to make difficult decisions on whether to stay in the workforce or leave because of the increasing demands of unpaid labor and the potential health risks. This will exacerbate gendered pay gaps and disrupt the normative belief that women belong in the workplace. If mitigation measures are not taken, these and other impacts threaten to roll back gains and create long-term economic insecurities for women.

Reasons Women are Leaving the Workforce

On average, women do three-quarters of all unpaid work globally. A study shows that in the United States, 80 percent of the adults who are not working in order to care for their children because of pandemic related school and daycare closures were women. It has become more difficult for women to meet the demands of paid and unpaid labor and many are having to leave the workforce in order to maintain at-home responsibilities.

Increasingly, working mothers are facing the dilemma that if they can’t reduce their hours or if they don’t resign from their positions then they may be fired for upholding the demands of childcare or prioritizing the needs of themselves and their families. Discrimination against pregnant women and women with caregiving responsibilities may become even more widespread during this time, strengthening a dangerous belief that women in these positions are incapable of working. Women who are requesting accommodations for their health and the health of their families are being denied such accommodations and are subsequently being terminated.

Women who are considered essential or frontline workers are put in even more precarious situations as the demands of childcare and unpaid labor have increased, but they don’t have the choice to work from home and meet those additional needs. Women who are considered frontline or essential workers are put in the position of having to decide between the possibility of putting the health of their household at risk, isolating from their households, or leaving their jobs.

Many of these jobs are also considered working-class positions or are in women-dominated industries such as retail, healthcare, or education. Many are also already considered overworked and underpaid, leaving women who may have already been financially insecure at even greater risk. Women who work in informal sectors will also face additional risks of discrimination, economic insecurity, and difficulty returning to work since their work is unregistered and is often exempt from legal protections and social safety nets.

Post-COVID Implications

When women do leave the workforce for pandemic related reasons, they may find it more difficult to return. Women who do reenter the workforce after taking a break from their careers may find they have a harder time getting hired, getting equal pay, and having upward career mobility. This will exacerbate existing discrimination against women in hiring practices, such as the “motherhood penalty” or the idea that working mothers and pregnant women are less competent at their jobs because they are more committed to their children than their jobs.

With less women in the workforce, normative frameworks about gender could change to become more inequitable, creating further discrimination against women in hiring processes and in work evaluations. Raises and promotions will become harder to obtain after reentering the workforce, creating long-term impacts on women’s careers. In the US, women who do reenter the workforce after taking time off are offered salaries, on average, that are seven percent lower than other candidates for the same position.

Gender gaps in the workforce will also be exacerbated by school closures and the restricted mobility girls and young women face as a result. Many girls are also experiencing increasing responsibilities of unpaid labor that are consuming their time and possibly redirecting their priorities. Economic hardship and the lack of access to sexual and reproductive healthcare will increase forced-marriages, sexual and gender-based violence, and unexpected pregnancies, all of which create barriers for girls to continue their education after the pandemic and will have lasting impacts on their careers.

Educational and professional development programs are also being canceled during the pandemic, some of which are specifically geared toward empowering young women and girls. This can limit potential training, networking, and mentorship opportunities. Having access to education and training is essential as many jobs move towards being automated. Without it, many women may not have the ability to obtain skilled positions in the future.

Mitigation Measures

Efforts on the international, national, and local levels have been made in order to respond to these needs. Some of them come too little too late, highlighting broken systems that left many women without needed protection in the first place. Although the pandemic has already begun to impact gender dynamics in the workplace, mitigation measures can prevent more discrimination and inequality. Understanding how inequalities in the workplace will be exacerbated can help create systems that implement long-overdue protections for women and girls that will ensure their ability to obtain gainful employment in the future.

Universal childcare is key to promoting women’s participation in the workforce as economies begin to reopen in some parts of the world. Emergency legislation has been implemented in some cases to address the current need of childcare. However, to ensure that children are safe in childcare centers, extra precautions using the guidance of healthcare experts must be implemented. This means childcare providers will likely incur additional costs to keep children safe, requiring investments by national and local governments to offset these costs.

Funding in this regard should be flexible and considerate of the needs of families and communities. For example, during World War II, the US government passed the Lanham Act to provide flexible funding for municipal and county governments to implement subsidized childcare in order to promote women’s participation in the industrial workforce. This funding came with several requirements including meetings with local officials, civil society actors, and mothers to discuss female participation in the workforce and its impact on childcare, and assessment surveys to best understand how to meet childcare needs on a local level.

Unfortunately, the childcare infrastructure that was established with the Lanham Act was dissolved due to the lack of political will and prioritization. Currently, this trend is continuing where COVID-related emergency childcare subsidies and programs are some of the first to be discontinued as countries reopen. Creating and sustaining strong childcare infrastructure must be a priority in recovery efforts.

Much like childcare, education infrastructures will require investment and careful monitoring. Closing the gendered gaps in education will require that governments equitable access to education where it was not already available. This includes addressing the gendered technology gap that is preventing many girls from participating in remote learning by investing in technology access or supporting educators in developing low-tech and accessible remote learning options. Systems should be created to collect sex-disaggregated data on reenrollment so that trends can be monitored. Girls who may be less likely to return to school should be incentivized to reenroll and the effectiveness of these attempts should be assessed.

These recommendations do not account for a full gendered analysis of the ways COVID-19 is changing the workforce. For example, these recommendations are much more easily implemented in two-parent households, and addressing the gaps created by COVID-19 will be more complicated for LGBT women and single mothers. More research is needed to understand how economic disparities may grow across the spectrum of gender identities, and how these disparities are influenced by other parts of one’s identity, such as sexuality, race, ethnicity, and age. Likewise, affluent women, women with consistent and reliable employment, and women who work typical hours are at an advantage. Understanding the challenges of employment, childcare, and education in different contexts in relation to family structures, cultural backgrounds, and socioeconomic status will also be critical. Programmatic responses must consider these factors in order to implement more inclusive measures according to local and individual needs.

Gendered gaps in the workforce are detrimental to economies, communities, and the well-being of individuals. The twentieth anniversary of Security Council resolution 1325 comes at an agonizing time for the world and as rebuilding efforts begin, gendered analyses cannot be ignored. Economic rebuilding efforts must anticipate the devastating impacts on gender equality in the workforce and respond accordingly to overcome the barriers to women’s participation.

Jasmine Jaghab is currently in the Women, Peace, and Security Program at the International Peace Institute (IPI).

This article is part of a series reflecting on the future of the women, peace, and security agenda.