This post started life as an idea to examine how the pandemic has affected gender equality initiatives. We hoped our research would show up ways that Covid-19, so far, had both helped and hindered the broader commercial industry address its gender equality issues.
As we progressed in our research, it became clear that the picture is not anywhere near that balanced. The virus, ensuing lockdowns and ongoing restrictions have had an incredibly regressive impact on gender equality efforts.
This state of affairs has a serious and negative impact globally.
Gender equality and the link to wider society
While gender equality has come to be seen somewhat as a feminist issue, the truth is that it is not just about women. Men benefit too from a more equal society.
We’re all familiar with the gender pay gap that highlights the discrepancy in earnings between men and women. In March 2020, PWC released its Women In Work Index, which found that the pay gap in Ireland is widening. In 2017, the figure was 5.9%. In 2018, that figure had risen to 7.5%.
These numbers tell a stark story.
However, just looking at these numbers on the surface doesn't tell how this gap affects everyone in society.
One example which illustrates how men are affected too by unequal societies, is a recent study in the UK which looked at the “gender commute gap”.
The gap explores the impacts in commuting time on men and women. On average, in this study, women had a 15 minute commute and men had a commute of more than an hour.
There is no doubt that these commute times are tied to gendered roles and expectations too. It’s possible that women take jobs closer to home to accommodate childcare responsibilities, for example.
However, there is a serious implication for men too within this gender commuting gap.
Travel times and mental well-being are interlinked. In 2014, a report by the Office for National Statistics found that for each “extra minute of travel, the mental well-being of the commuter decreases”.
In the UK, journalist Matt Rudd writes extensively about the mental and physical health challenges middle aged men face.
His findings are multi-layered, but he sums them up as “the system set up by men for men doesn’t work for men either”.
The cost of gender inequality and Covid-19
Focusing the lens on women, we can quantify the cost the pandemic and ensuing crisis is having on equality in the workplace.
According to a McKinsey & Company report, “Covid-19 and gender equality: Countering the regressive effects”, women’s jobs are 1.8 more likely to be lost than men’s jobs. Globally, women account for 39% of employment, but the data available so far shows that 54% of job losses have affected women.
The entire world’s gross domestic product (GDP) figures are also impacted by the disproportionate effect the virus is having on women. These figures can be quantified too, and showcase our earlier point of how an inequitable society affects everyone.
Taking into account the drastic outcomes we have already seen Covid-19 have in 2020, the estimated loss to global GDP growth by 2030 could be $1 trillion lower than it might have been if no actions are taken to stem the gender-regressive impact happening.
While $1 trillion is a shockingly high figure in itself, the report points out that this figure would be even higher if factors such as childcare, attitudinal bias and a slower recovery than expected/hoped for were included in the mathematical model.
A further note of caution is highlighted with regards to public and private budgets for education and childcare services. If spending in these areas are reduced for an extended period of time, women who leave the workplace might not be able to reenter without considerable struggle.
If action is taken to place gender equality programmes back on the table as a priority, $13 trillion could be added to global GDP figures by 2030.
The value at stake is numbers clearly delineated by both scenarios; either prioritising gender equality initiatives or ignoring them.
Gender equality is linked to growth
The coverage around the pandemic, lockdown and follow-up restrictions that countries around the world have implemented has focused on two things.
These two elements include the loss of human life and the severe impact the virus has had on the world’s economy.
In no uncertain terms, the numbers of fatalities have left the world reeling as a collective. Individually, people have sustained enormous grief as loved ones have died from a virus that no one knew about just 12 months ago. (Psychologists have also spoken on the grief and mourning people are feeling as normalcy is upended and our usual routines are disrupted.)
From an economic point of view, the news is also sobering. Massive job losses, the decimation of some industries, and the closure of many beloved (and, at times, long serving) businesses are experiences just about every country has had to grapple with in 2020.
Behind these stories are real human impacts. The economy and people’s well-being are intimately connected.
Herein lies the truth for gender equality too.
Policy makers, politicians and business leaders are in a position right now to push for greater priority status for gender equality. Implementing gender equality initiatives, even while Covid-19 is still with us, is one of the strongest ways to limit the negative impact the virus is having on the global economy, and therefore, people.
By the same token, globally there is risk of even more loss of economic output if authorities take no action on gender equality plans and programs.
In particular, failing to invest in the following areas (listed below) could result in a deficit of $1.5 trillion to $2 trillion in annual spending by 2025. That equates to up to 1.7% of annual global GDP:
● Unpaid care work
● Digital inclusion
● Family planning
● Maternal mortality
Without a focus on these areas, women stand to lose the gains they have made towards parity in recent years as well as lose economically.
However, it’s not just women who win if gender equality is prioritised. Nor countries as a whole.
Data points to how companies can also enhance their growth and sustainability by investing in gender equality policies. Another McKinsey & Company report identified the diversity dividend companies earn by focusing on gender equality initiatives within their workplaces.
The business case is clear: “... those in the top quartile for gender diversity on gender diversity on executive teams were 25 percent more likely to have above average profitability than companies in the fourth quartile.”
Furthermore, companies that pause their focus on diversity programs now are placing themselves at a disadvantage as the recovery kicks in. A lack of focus on gender equality amounts to less access to diverse talent and uniform leadership styles (along with lower profitability levels).
In a year that’s delivered big blows, one of the lessons to take from all of this is that workplace gender equality is far from a “nice to have”.
It’s essential to functioning societies and a healthy global economy.