4 key trends on how COVID has impacted women in business

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This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Philippe Le Houérou, Chief Executive Officer, International Finance Corporation


  • Recent surveys highlight the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on businesses owned by women.
  • One of the surveys identified four key trends among female-owned businesses in Asia, Africa and the Middle East.
  • Here are four steps private companies can take to help close this gender gap.

Much has been written about the disproportionate health and economic impact on women and men due to COVID-19 but few have studied how those variations affect businesses or how private sector leaders can rebuild their business with a focus on gender equality.

Even before the pandemic hit, developing countries were losing nearly $48 trillion in wealth because of differences in lifetime earnings between women and men. The pervasive inequality could further widen due to the impact of the current crisis.

Women now struggle even more than before to retain an equal footing in the economy. Their COVID-19 experience is shaped by rising domestic and workplace violence, higher care responsibilities, precariousness of jobs and a disproportionate lack of access to working capital and digital tools such as mobile phones.

When it comes to the private sector, the evidence – although less comprehensive – points to similar imbalances.

In a study carried out by the International Trade Center, 64% of women-led firms declared their business operations as strongly affected, compared with 52% of men-led companies. More than 90% of women entrepreneurs reported a decrease in sales during the pandemic and have less than three months of cash flow to survive, according to another survey from WEConnect International.

To better understand the impact of COVID-19 on the business operations of companies from a gender perspective, IFC and its partners recently surveyed companies in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. The survey – of more than 600 female-led micro, small, and medium sized businesses (MSMEs) – revealed the following four key trends among private sector companies:

1. One third of female entrepreneurs feel that increased care demands have reduced their ability to focus their attention on their businesses, hurting their ability to generate income. In a recent client survey in Egypt, companies said that women employees, especially during required home-based work, were more inclined to resign due to increasing childcare needs.

2. The survey of 600 companies also found many firms are struggling to make the shift to adapt quickly to digital operations. The pandemic has revealed digital connectivity is a critical element for business continuity but many companies—including their employees, suppliers, and consumers—were not prepared for the digital shift.

For women, this shift is even more challenging, across low- and middle-income countries, 300 million fewer women than men use mobile internet, representing a gender gap of 23%. These barriers are reducing women’s ability to work remotely or access digital markets.

Women-owned businesses around the world have been hit hard by the pandemic
Women-owned businesses around the world have been hit hard by the pandemic
Image: WEConnect International

3. In addition, companies do not know how to address the mental health and well-being of employees during the pandemic. More than one third of women-owned MSMEs have expressed increased anxiety due to the uncertainty of COVID 19 and concerns on how to support the health and wellbeing of employees.

4. Additionally, our clients pointed out that restrictions in movement have led to more incidences of intimate partner and family violence, hurting the productivity of firms as they struggle to deal with its mental and economic impact on their employees.

Together, these factors could affect women’s opportunities to cope with the crisis and widen differences in education, health, and capital when the pandemic fades. These differences will also slow down the economic recovery. Deepening economic gaps between men and women will jeopardize a fast return from a recession through huge gaps in productivity.

What’s the World Economic Forum doing about the gender gap?

The World Economic Forum has been measuring gender gaps since 2006 in the annual Global Gender Gap Report.

The Global Gender Gap Report tracks progress towards closing gender gaps on a national level. To turn these insights into concrete action and national progress, we have developed the Closing the Gender Gap Accelerators model for public private collaboration.

These accelerators have been convened in Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, Panama and Peru in partnership with the InterAmerican Development Bank.

In 2019 Egypt became the first country in the Middle East and Africa to launch a Closing the Gender Gap Accelerator. While more women than men are now enrolled in university, women represent only a little over a third of professional and technical workers in Egypt. Women who are in the workforce are also less likely to be paid the same as their male colleagues for equivalent work or to reach senior management roles.

France has become the second G20 country to launch a Gender Gap Accelerator, signalling that developed economies are also playing an important role in spearheading this approach to closing the gender gap.

In these countries CEOs and ministers are working together in a three-year time frame on policies that help to further close the economic gender gaps in their countries. This includes extended parental leave, subsidized childcare and removing unconscious bias in recruitment, retention and promotion practices.

If you are a business in one of the Closing the Gender Gap Accelerator countries you can join the local membership base.

If you are a business or government in a country where we currently do not have a Closing the Gender Gap Accelerator you can reach out to us to explore opportunities for setting one up.

Experts believe the COVID-19 pandemic could set back gender equality efforts by decades unless the global community takes steps to stem the slide. A meaningful recovery from the crisis must consider the needs of half of the world’s population. Here’s what the private sector can do:

1. Support home-based work, care options, and flexible work schedules. Recruit, retain and promote women during and after the crisis to prevent loss of talent.

2. Enable women entrepreneurs – including across the supply chain – access to working capital and insurance products to help stabilize their businesses.

3. Invest in digital infrastructure to boost home-based work opportunities and mobile internet access, where women significantly lag behind men. IFC clients have been deploying innovative and simple digital solutions to adapt their business models to be more inclusive during the pandemic.

4. Ensure the safety of employees and suppliers by addressing violence and harassment at the company level.

Business leaders will need to emerge from this crisis demonstrating how they responsibly navigated the pandemic. To accelerate progress in rebuilding sustainable companies, we will need to ensure that both women and men can return to economic activities by participating equally as employees, as investors, and as borrowers.

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