The COVID-19 outbreak has brought several disruptions to global business, most of which are yet to be seen and most of which are expected to hit women disproportionately hard, for several reasons that we explore below. So what is the business’ role in supporting women amid an unprecedented crisis for the global economy?
Why may the COVID-19 crisis affect women more?
- Firstly, women are more likely than men to work in low-paying and informal jobs. A recent UN report found that 740 million women globally work in the informal economy. Meanwhile, the global gender pay gapremains at 16%, touching even 35% in some countries.
- Secondly, women make up the majority of health professionals and essential workers in the COVID-19 response. ILOSTAT data reveals that women make up 70% of those employed in the health sector and, based on data available for close to 100 countries, 72% of skilled health occupations. In short, women are disproportionately on the front lines in the world’s struggle to treat infected patients.
- As health resources have diverted to address the pandemic, women also face additional challenges to accessing sexual and reproductive health services, especially in the least developed countries.
- As schools and childcare facilities close in response to COVID-19, women face additional burden with increased childcare responsibilities, adding to an already uneven load. To put some numbers into perspective, in the EU in 2016, 92% of women aged 25-49 (with children under 18) took care of their children on a daily basis, compared with 68% of men.
- With 90 countries in lockdown and over four billion people sheltering at home, the risk of domestic violence against women and children increases, while support services for victims decrease. UN data reveals that domestic violence has increased by upwards of 25% in some countries because of quarantine. Acknowledging the issue, the UN Secretary-General called for all governments to make the prevention and redress of violence against women a key part of their national response plans for COVID-19.
How could the private sector help?
In regard to the above, governments’ work is of vital importance in global and national level, but the private sector has also much to offer in this fight. A special UN Global Compact Academy webinar last week covered steps business can take to respect and support the rights and lives of women and girls during the COVID-19 pandemic.
For the private sector to be part of the solution, it must place women and girls at the center of their efforts both during and after this crisis.
For instance, a year ago, the UN Global Compact and UN Women presented the Women’s Empowerment Principles, helping business to advance gender equality in the workplace, marketplace and community. Over 2,000 business leaders have joined the principles so far, which can guide companies in responding also to the gender-specific impacts of COVID-19.
- Establish high-level corporate leadership for gender equality
- Treat all women and men fairly at work – respect and support human rights and nondiscrimination
- Ensure the health, safety and well-being of all women and men workers
- Promote education, training and professional development for women
- Implement enterprise development, supply chain and marketing practices that empower women
- Promote equality through community initiatives and advocacy
- Measure and publicly report on progress to achieve gender equality.
Speakers of the webinar, including H.E. Margaret Kobia, Kenyan Cabinet Secretary for the Public Service, Youth and Gender Affairs, Ann Cairns, Vice Chairman, Mastercard, and Lise Kingo, CEO & Executive Director, United Nations Global Compact, highlighted specific actions companies can take, including:
- Ensuring women’s representation and inclusion in all planning and decision-making: Research shows that more diverse teams take better, more sustainable decisions.
In a COVID-19 era, companies should apply this guidance to crisis task forces and response teams, and ensure that both women and men are represented in COVID-related processes.
For example, Target Gender Equality programme supports companies in setting and reaching ambitious corporate targets for women’s representation and leadership – in times of crisis and beyond. Expected for launch within April, the UN Global Compact invites companies to join Target Gender Equality. In order to take part, companies are required to be participants of the UN Global Compact and to meet the following criteria:
-Currently engaged with a Global Compact Local Network in your region or willing to join
-Committed to strengthening corporate target setting and action to increase women’s representation and leadership in business
-Willing to appoint two representatives to participate in programme activities and events and an executive-level “Ambassador” to follow programme developments, provide support and participate in high-level events.
- Supporting working parents and keeping in mind that the majority of unpaid care work falls to women: Among other things, companies should offer flexible work arrangements, support safe and appropriate childcare options, as well as paid sick, family and emergency leave, and offer equal maternity and paternity leave.
The current situation provides a chance to disrupt gender stereotypes, change traditional narratives, and show that leadership and decision-making, household chores, and caring for and teaching children can and should be shared responsibilities.
- Helping to address the unintended consequences of stay at home measures, including the alarming increase in domestic violence: Companies can play an important role in helping to direct employees to needed services, including domestic violence hotlines and supporting the health and well-being of employees including pre- and post-natal healthcare.
- Supporting women across the value chain and in the communities where your business operates: This may mean:
-ensuring that suppliers that rely heavily on female labour receive payment for existing orders and additional support to keep afloat and paying workers, where possible.
-providing leniency to women entrepreneurs,
-offering financial products and services to save them from bankruptcy, and
-deliberately looking to build relationships with women-owned businesses as part of recovery efforts.
- Partnering with Government and other sectors to tackle COVID-19 and support recovery efforts: The WEPs emphasize that a company’s responsibility to respect and support women’s rights does not end at the company’s walls. H.E Margaret Kobia emphasized the importance of multi-stakeholder partnerships and Ann Cairns outlined Mastercard’s efforts investing in vaccination and called on companies to maximize positive impacts – including beyond past focus areas.
How could the pandemic help shaping a new future?
The UN webinar emphasized as a silver lining of the pandemic the possibility of seeing more companies adopt gender-inclusive workplace policies and practices, including flexible work arrangements and family-friendly workplaces that can in turn, encourage more balanced share of care and family responsibilities between women and men globally.
To use this experience to accelerate progress towards a gender-equitable future, it will be key to collect data disaggregated by gender, age and other factors to track the impact of all response efforts.
Mrs. Cairns emphasized the importance of equal maternity and paternity leave, as a way forward:
I think the idea of having have both parents taking time off for actually being with their children, this creates a different and completely level-playing field in the workplace. You are not looking at a woman and say ‘Oh, she is going off to have a baby’, but you’re looking at a young person of whatever gender and you are saying ‘They are going off to become parents’. This will actually change the way you address the career growth of women.