What are the economic consequences of not taking a gender-sensitive approach to this crisis? What would such an approach even entail? How can we integrate advanced technologies and the future of work into our response efforts?
Those are a few of the questions that popped into my head after reading the B20, L20, and W20’s bold statement on the COVID-19 pandemic.
The statement urged G20 leaders “to do whatever it takes and to use all available policy tools to minimize the economic and social damage from the pandemic, restore global growth, maintain market stability, and strengthen resilience.” The call to action went further by requesting a coordinated, gender-sensitive response to the pandemic—one that sets the foundation for the future of work.
Women, the future of work, and COVID-19
To understand the rationale and data behind this forward-thinking statement, I sat down (virtually, over a conference call) with Ilham Mansour Al-Dakheel, PhD. A professional with more than 25 years of experience leading acquisitions, operational restructurings, and international joint venture arrangements, Mansour Al-Dakheel currently serves as chair of the B20 Future of Work & Education Taskforce.
Here’s what she has to say about reconciling COVID-19 with gender equality and the adoption of advanced technologies. Mansour Al-Dakheel also provides an illuminating roadmap of short-term, medium-term, and long-term policy recommendations.
On women’s role in the labor market prior to COVID-19
According to Mansour Al-Dakheel, women held very weak positions in the labor market prior to COVID-19. They were—and still are—concentrated in both lower-paid and informal jobs. These jobs don’t provide adequate social protections such as access to affordable healthcare, paid sick leave, or caregiver leave. Women are also overrepresented in roles that are highly susceptible to automation: secretaries, bookkeepers, retail, food.
On the flip side, women are underrepresented in rapidly growing tech occupations. They represent 50% of the world’s population but only 3% of the world’s information and communication technology (ICT) students. At tech giants Apple and Facebook, only 23% of tech roles belong to women. Moreover, women represent a mere 9% of executive leaders in STEM.
Before COVID-19, Mansour Al-Dakheel’s B20 task force had been sounding the alarm on these concerning trends. With the pandemic accentuating these gender gaps in the labor force, Mansour Al-Dakheel and her B20 task force are urging leaders to take corrective action to close the gaps now.
On how COVID-19 impacts women
Women hold a disproportionate share, approximately 70%, of the pandemic’s frontline jobs, such as jobs in the health and social sectors. That puts them at a greater risk of exposure to the disease. Women also hold a disproportionate share of service sector jobs (nearly 59% ) as well as part-time and informal jobs.
That means women are more likely to face wage loss, unemployment, and, as mentioned above, have limited access to social protections. Meanwhile, on the home front, women continue to bear the brunt of caregiving responsibilities and other unpaid labor. Before COVID-19, we knew that the average woman did three times more unpaid labor than the average man. School closures, childcare closures, and social-distancing measures appear to be intensifying women’s burden of household duties.
On the economic costs of not taking a gender-sensitive response to COVID-19
Mansour Al-Dakheel reminds us that government leaders have historically created policies with the assumption that men and women are equal. But they aren’t, and as we’re currently witnessing, women and men have vastly different experiences with COVID-19. Neglecting these differences in response efforts dilutes their effectiveness. She says we cannot accept ineffective, inefficient policies at a time when billions of lives and livelihoods are on the line. If anything, Mansour Al-Dakheel believes now is the time to craft the most efficient, most effective policies to date.
The IMF estimates that the virus will cost the world economy $9 trillion in lost GDP over the next two years. That’s why the B20 urged leaders to adopt a gender-sensitive approach to the pandemic—so that fiscal stimulus is allocated equitably and measures are taken to protect the most vulnerable.
Mansour Al-Dakheel also observes that to catalyze action, it helps to underscore policy recommendations with economic data. So if we want policymakers to adopt a gender-sensitive approach to COVID-19, then we need to present the economic case for doing so. Specifically, we need gender-sensitive policies that support women’s formal participation in the economy (and the future of work) at a time when their jobs are quickly disappearing. Ensuring women’s equal participation in the global economy could incrementally increase GDP by up to $28 trillion. In other words, gender-sensitive budgeting is an economic imperative, not a battle of the sexes. It benefits everyone, not only women.
On how to build an inclusive, “smart” recovery
Mansour Al-Dakheel’s task force uses three strategies to deliver initiatives.
- Prioritize: How do we prioritize jobs and the well-being of workers?
- Protect: How do we protect the most vulnerable people?
- Plan: How do we plan for a better future?
She believes that we must apply the gender lens to this framework by disaggregating data by gender, then allocating resources in proportion to the need. This ensures that nobody gets left behind from forthcoming aid packages. Mansour Al-Dakheel goes further by saying that these strategies must be placed in the context of the Fourth Industrial Revolution.
For years we have been anticipating both the ubiquitous integration of advanced technology along with an impending rise in digital skills gaps. Now is our opportunity to audaciously welcome the Fourth Industrial Revolution in recovery efforts. Similar to taking a gender-sensitive response, planning for the future of work is an economic issue. Failure to prepare for the Fourth Industrial Revolution could cost G20 economies as much as $11.5 trillion in cumulative GDP growth over the next decade.
On recommendations for policy leaders
In the short-term, Mansour Al-Dakheel and her task force are calling for crisis management interventions to target the most vulnerable workers and the most vulnerable sectors of the economy. The goal in the short-term is to ensure business continuity, maintain supply chains, and facilitate access to social protections.
To meet these goals, governments can provide companies with tax concessions and access to loans or grants (especially for small and women-led businesses). Resources should be allocated to provide healthcare, income support, and paid sick leave for vulnerable and newly laid-off workers (many of whom are women).
Medium-term, she suggests stimulating economic growth by offering flexible financing that adapts to companies’ liquidity needs. We must guarantee income to the unemployed, underemployed, and self-employed during this period. Mansour Al-Dakheel urges organizations to use this time to identify digital skills gaps and invest in the future of work by providing workers with online skills training.
Partnerships—which could be considered the bonus “P” in the three Ps framework considering the massive scale of COVID-19—can enhance data sharing and re-skilling initiatives.
When planning for the long-term, Mansour Al-Dakheel advises focusing on fortifying digital resiliency by investing in digital infrastructure. Investments need to be equitable to ensure that women, small businesses, and schoolchildren are not left behind. Mansour Al-Dakheel points out that less than 60% of the global population has access to tools that allow them to work or study online. Further, she recommends we reduce administrative, bureaucratic, and financial barriers to create an environment where lifelong learning allows us to continually adapt to future challenges.
Mansour Al-Dakheel ended our interview on an inspirational note by recalling the maxim: “Never let a good crisis go to waste.” We can choose to learn from this crisis and use our learnings to build a better future.
Katica Roy is the founder and CEO of Pipeline Equity.