Gender gap: This is how we can build an equal economic recovery

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

Author: Kate Whiting, Senior Writer, Formative Content


  • The latest Agenda Dialogues brought together global leaders to look at how we can mitigate the impact of the pandemic on women.
  • Women have been disproportionately affected by the recession caused by the COVID-19 crisis, due to the sectors they work in and taking on unpaid childcare.
  • Here are some of the key quotes from the session on building a more inclusive and prosperous global economy.

Progress on reaching gender parity has stalled and even gone backwards in the COVID-19 pandemic.

Women have borne the brunt of the recession, widely dubbed the ‘shecession’, largely because they work in sectors that were most impacted, such as retail and hospitality.

It will now take more than 135 years to close the gender gap worldwide, up from 99 years in 2020, according to the World Economic Forum’s latest Global Gender Gap Report.

So how can business, government and civil society come together to mitigate these impacts on women and build a more inclusive economy?

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.

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.

The Agenda Dialogue speakers were: Amina Mohammed, Deputy Secretary-General, United Nations; Anne Richards, Chief Executive Officer, Fidelity International; Alan Jope, Chief Executive Officer, Unilever; Busi Mabuza, Chairperson, Industrial Development Corporation of South Africa (IDC), South Africa.

The session was chaired by Børge Brende, President, World Economic Forum and moderated by Adrian Monck, Managing Director, World Economic Forum.

Below are some of the key quotes.

Gender poverty gaps will worsen by 2030.
The COVID-19 crisis has set back progress towards gender equality. Image: UN Women

Women leaders can make a difference

Women like the IMF’s managing director Kristalina Georgieva have already taken leadership in the COVID-19 response, to bring in fiscal measures that can ensure the transitions that need to happen to help women, said Mohammed.

Issues like climate, energy and connectivity all matter to women and there is women’s leadership in all of this.

“Women can rule the world”, we now have a broader perspective on what needs to happen in areas like human rights and services, to ensure better inclusion and equality all round.

Ensuring women’s equal leadership and participation, getting more women into decision making, leads to better social outcomes. Young women leaders have a can-do attitude and bring hope.

She added that more needs to happen at a local level, with a better use of domestic resources to “do things differently and see the co-benefits of working across sectors”.

In some places, we could probably leapfrog, she added, for example the greater investment in connectivity when education began to shut down.

Policy changes and harnessing purchasing power

The pandemic recession has hit women harder than the 2009 financial crisis impacted male workers, said Richards.

“If you lose your job in a recession, it’s harder to regain your earning power. The pandemic will affect women many years into the future, so we need to think carefully how to mitigate these effects so it doesn’t go down the generations.”

Greater diversity in the workforce makes good economic sense, said Jope. Women have great purchasing power, accounting for 75% of the purchases made of Unilever products.

The company has expanded its diversity and inclusion efforts throughout its value chain. He outlined four things that have worked:

1. Leadership from the top, making diversity a strategic priority.

2. Setting targets and holding leaders accountable.

3. Policies, which factor in that there are “many different ways of working and you don’t have to adhere to a 100-year-old stereotype.”

4. Shining a spotlight on unconscious bias in appointments over a 10-year period.

“Grand declarations from top don’t work. We need to stop admiring the problem and get to policy and managerial changes.”

Supporting women-owned SMEs

Unemployment figures for the last quarter in South Africa show unemployment among women at almost 50%, for the expanded definition (those available for work but not looking for a job), said Mabuza.

“It’s unacceptable and unsustainable.” Many women own SMEs and she has seen women entrepreneurs who have had to take a step back, now shy to get back into the market.

Financial packages will help, but progress has been slowed by unrest in South Africa.

There was a step-change in the vaccine roll-out after business started holding hands with government, and this can work with equality too.

“Targets work because they are measurable.” Now 40% of government procurement must go to women-owned businesses, which will galvanize new energy in the markets.

Unilever spends a percentage of its budget with women-owned businesses, said Jope.

“We can impact hundreds of thousands of women through our value chain, such as the Shakti programme helping women in rural India.”

Climate emergency and food systems

COP26 and action on the climate emergency has taught us the power of collaboration at a business level, said Richards.

The power of different task forces bringing together common frameworks and pooling collaboratively has shown we can make real change. The power of what we can do through our ecosystem shows we can come together on closing the gender gap.

Looking ahead to the UN General Assembly and the Food Systems Summit in September, Mohammed said we need a COVID response that’s more equitable and doesn’t put the burden on women.

Women play a central role in our food systems, and the investment opportunities for business are huge. As we reinstall supply and value chains, let’s think how to make them more resilient, because there will be another pandemic.

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