With the economic recovery failing women, now is the time to act on gender equality

Source: Melinda Gates, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, 30 June 2021.

Last year, the word “shecession” was coined to describe what was happening to the global economy. Women were nearly twice as likely as men to lose their jobs. Now, new data from the International Labor Organization (ILO) show that, based on current trends, the recovery is sexist, too. Men as a group have already regained all the jobs they lost, but women are still losing theirs. In fact, 2 million more women are expected to leave the workforce this year, adding to the 13 million in 2020.

Our foundation has been working with data partners to understand how the pandemic has affected women specifically. The upshot is this: gender equality is an economic necessity. One of the main reasons economies were so fragile in the first place was that women were marginalized. And those economies will never bounce back if their leaders continue to marginalize women.

In 1995, at the Beijing Conference on Women, thousands of activists who’d been working tirelessly for equality came together to declare unequivocally that “women’s rights are human rights.” At that conference, world leaders pledged to “take all necessary measures to eliminate all forms of discrimination against women.” But they didn’t follow up with nearly enough money or new policies, so progress has been incremental at best, and here we are again, 26 years later.

From June 30 to July 2, leaders from all walks of life are meeting in Paris as part of the Generation Equality Forum to focus on fixing this problem and delivering on the promises made in Beijing. The goal is to get experts, grassroots activists, government officials, and business leaders to work together and move from words about gender equality to concrete actions that will make it a reality.

Implementing cash transfer programs could lift 100 million women out of poverty. Providing access to childcare for women who don’t have it could mean a $3 trillion increase in global GDP.

The recession and the early trends of the recovery make the case for action perfectly clear: women face structural barriers that have made them more vulnerable to the pandemic’s impacts – and eliminating these barriers will jumpstart the recovery.

For example, jobs that women tend to do more than men—restaurant server, flight attendant, hotel worker—were squeezed particularly hard by social distancing. Women already did about three quarters of the cleaning, cooking, child-rearing—the unpaid work that, according to economists, makes all paid work possible—and with schools closed and everyone staying closer to home, there’s more demand for caregiving than ever. At the same time, disruptions to health systems put important services like family planning and prenatal care out of reach for millions of women. Add it all up, and you see how various effects of the pandemic have conspired to rob women and girls of opportunity.

If the recovery is to give that opportunity back—and, just as important, create new opportunities—then we must put gender at the center. This means passing policies that specifically address key barriers: increasing women’s employment, opportunities for entrepreneurship, child and family care, and women’s health services. The impact of these policies would be massive. Implementing cash transfer programs that deliver directly to women could lift 100 million out of poverty. Providing access to childcare for women who don’t have it could mean a $3 trillion increase in global GDP. Overall, according to McKinsey, centering women in recovery efforts would grow global GDP by an estimated $13 trillion, or 16%, by 2030 – because when women thrive, so do their families and communities.

To help accelerate progress toward gender equality, our foundation will donate 2.1 billion dollars over the next five years to promote women’s economic empowerment, strengthen women and girls’ health and family planning, and support women’s leadership.

We think about economic empowerment in terms of three priorities: cash, care, and data. Cash means making sure that recovery, stimulus, and social protection money gets directly into women’s hands. Care means helping families raise children and care for sick relatives—for example, by subsidizing child care centers or offering paid family and medical leave—instead of just expecting women to do it all, unpaid. And data means making the invisible visible so that leaders and policymakers can pinpoint the needs of women and girls, develop evidence-based reforms, and monitor progress.

We are also reaffirming our 20-year commitment to family planning by supporting our partners to develop new and improved contraceptive technologies and meet the needs of women and girls for high-quality care. We know that when women control their bodies and their futures, they unlock a cycle of empowerment that reverberates for generations to come.

Finally, we are entering a new area for the foundation in gender equality to support women’s leadership in the fields of health, economics, and law. We see powerful examples of women’s leadership every single day, and yet women are still elbowed out of positions of power around the world. There are 225 COVID-19 task forces in 137 countries, but only 24% of the people serving on them are women. The only way to choose a different future is to guarantee that women are in the rooms where pivotal decisions get made.

When I think of what the Generation Equality Forum can accomplish, I try to think about the impact it can have on women’s lives. After all, that’s what every single data point represents: a woman who is fighting for a better future. As long as I’ve been doing this work, meeting women and hearing from them about their aspirations has kept me motivated. We are featuring some stories here that inspired me. I hope they inspire you too.

Adelle Onyango, a media personality in Kenya, Hauwa Liman, a fashion designer in Nigeria, and Naadiya Moosajee, a restaurateur in South Africa, all have fascinating stories to tell about everything they had to overcome to succeed as entrepreneurs during the pandemic. As you listen, just imagine how much more energy and creativity will be unleashed when we finally remove the obstacles that have kept women from being full participants in the global economy and give everybody the same opportunities to flourish.


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