SDG Counting
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SDG Counting

Gender Equality in the COVID-19 Era: Women on the Front Lines

By Brady Press

Our team has been researching the consequences of COVID-19 on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) for the past few months. As the pandemic continues to dismantle health systems and economies across the world, progress toward reaching the Global Agenda — which exists to ensure the well-being of people (especially marginalized and vulnerable groups) and the planet — is increasingly threatened. In this article, we dive deeper into SDG 5, Gender Equality, and illustrate how women are disproportionately affected by COVID-19.

Source: UN Women Data

The Global Health Sector

The World Health Organization (WHO) released a report in March 2019 analyzing gender equity in the health workforce for 104 countries, which shows that, globally, women make up 70% of the health and social sectors. Despite an existing pay gap of 11%, in a combination of paid and unpaid care work, women add $3 trillion to global health each year. In the most countries, the majority of female workers hold crucial roles as nurses and midwives. But women’s representation in higher-wage health occupations — physicians, dentists and pharmacists — is growing (0.58% annually in OECD countries).

In a COVID-19 context, when all healthcare workers are risking their lives daily to treat infected patients or those most vulnerable to contracting the virus, the majority of the healthcare workforce on the front lines is women, all of whom are deemed essential workers who do not have the ability to work from home and often work in environments with the highest risks of contracting the virus.

Tassana Boontong, President of the Thailand Nursing and Midwifery Council, noted that “nurse-midwives are needed now more than ever with the increase in the number of elderly and chronically ill patients, those with non-communicable diseases and with mental health issues and disabilities.”

Albanian physician Entela Kolovani also recognized the importance of nurses during COVID-19 response, calling them the “real heroes” and acknowledging their critical and “never-ending work, from making up the beds of patients, to performing therapies, taking tests and filling in documents, etc.”

Women’s Employment

Earlier this week, gender experts across sectors gathered for a High Level Round-table to address the “serious threat to women’s employment and livelihoods” and the exacerbation of pre-existing inequalities in our social, political and economic systems that is being posed by COVID-19. Of those not in the healthcare workforce, 60% of women globally work in the informal economy, which causes an inability to work remotely and puts them at higher risk of falling into poverty. In the service industry, which has been heavily impacted by COVID-19 closures, nearly 56% of employees are women, and that number rises to 88% in G7 countries — Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the UK and the US. Many of these jobs do not have paid sick leave, either, causing employees to lose wages if they get sick, or come to work when they are sick, increasing public health risks.

In addition, COVID-19 has illuminated the reliance of our economy on childcare services, which are provided primarily by women (92% in the US). With school and daycare closures, women are bearing the majority of their childcare responsibilities at home. According to a report sponsored by the German Science Foundation and National Science Foundation, even in marriages where both parents work full-time, women perform 60% of the childcare (70% during typical work hours — 8 AM to 6 PM).

That said, single mothers — which make up 23% of American households, are hardest hit by the growing childcare needs. Many have limited options as daycare centers and schools are closed, and informal arrangements have become complex. For instance, many grandparents typically help out with childcare (37% in some European countries) but are now unable to because of COVID-19 risk.

In an interview with Forbes, long-time gender equality advocate Melinda Gates sheds light on the reality women in the US are facing amid the pandemic:

“Even though most women now work full time outside the home, they still spend 2X more hours on caregiving, are 10X more likely to stay home with sick children, and are 3X more likely than men to quit their jobs to take care of a family member. Since the pandemic began and schools closed, 43% of employed mothers have said they are primarily responsible for providing childcare, while only 7% of employed fathers say the same. Our economy is built on the back of women’s caregiving, and we never address that as a nation. We don’t put the right policies in place such as paid family medical leave — we’re the only industrialized nation that doesn’t have that policy — and that is holding women back.”

Gates offers strong policy suggestions for the US government as well as companies, and emphasizes the need to recognize the role women play as essential workers in our society and the subsequent need to protect them.

Featured Women On the Front Lines

UN Women has been sharing some of the impactful ways women are working on the front lines globally to provide critical services during COVID-19. Examples include women working in a COVID-19 testing lab; UN Women field staff providing 24-hour counseling, psychological support and COVID-19 information over the phone to vulnerable Jordanian women and Syrian refugees; and a female pig farmer serving as a checkpoint volunteer to take people’s temperature and record their vehicle information to help stop the spread of the virus. Another woman is providing free legal support to women survivors of domestic violence — which has increased amid shelter in place restrictions.

Moving Forward

Each of these sources referenced above provides key information showing how existing gender inequality has further harmed women during the COVID-19 pandemic. However, many also incorporate a positive perspective on SDG 5 in a post-COVID-19 era.

The value of women to drive society forward can no longer be ignored, and people are talking about the importance of putting gender equality at the forefront of recovery. Women and girls are a focus of the Global Humanitarian Response Plan, and as women with essential jobs continue to work, responsibilities around home care will likely become more evenly distributed for married couples. While the challenges are significant, there is hope that gender equality will advance if the correct policies are put in place.

Brady Press is an Associate Director at Changing Our World, where she specializes in building strategic corporate citizenship programs. She is a consultant to SDGCounting and StartingUpGood, and is currently researching how COVID-19 is affecting the Sustainable Development Goals.




Keeping track of progress on trying to count and measure the success of the Sustainable Development Goals

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