The first session of the Generation Equality Forum, held in Mexico City this past March, marks the anniversary of the Fourth World Conference on Women and the adoption of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action (Beijing+25). Through the forum, governments, UN agencies, civil society organizations and others are working to advance global gender equality, including by pushing for an inclusive recovery from the COVID-19 crisis. The Generation Equality Action Coalitions’ Blueprints identify intersectionality as a core principle, alongside feminist leadership and transformation. But translating this principle into action will require that intersectionality is fully integrated within the advancement of each theme as well as in the definition of the Generation Equality Forum outcomes. Viewing the barriers and solutions through an intersectional lens will ensure that all women can equally benefit from this collective action. Without this, we risk leaving the most vulnerable individuals behind.
It is clear that COVID-19 has not been an equal opportunity virus—and that beyond the pandemic’s exacerbation of existing gender inequalities, impacts have not been felt equally by all women. During the pandemic, low-income women and women of color have lost twice as many jobs and/or hours as men, and have recovered those jobs and hours much more slowly. Recent data has also shown that women of color still face higher unemployment rates than white women, as they predominantly work in sectors hardest hit by the pandemic, such as retail and service sectors. Globally, women’s employment in low-income countries is overwhelmingly informal, where 92 percent of women work in the informal economy in roles such as cleaners and street venders, compared to 87 percent of men, and, during the pandemic, an estimated 1.6 billion of the 2 billion informal workers worldwide were at risk of losing their jobs or businesses. At the height of lockdown measures, informal workers reported severe losses in income, and, in some cities, over 90 percent of informal workers reported zero earnings.
The health sector provides a prime example of the pervasive and insidious impacts of gender and racial inequalities in labor markets that pre-dated, and have been further exacerbated by, the COVID-19 pandemic. Women make up most of the health workforce, accounting for 70 percent of health care workers globally, and women’s economic contributions to health sector account for between 60-80 percent of its value. But there remain significant barriers to advancement to leadership positions, reflected by the fact that only 25 percent of leadership roles in global health agencies occupied by women. The numbers are staggering when accounting for women from low- and middle-income countries, dropping to only occupying 5 percent of these leadership positions.
Furthermore, despite their significant contributions to health and health work, women still face discrimination and disparities in wages and in opportunities across the sector. Women, but mostly women of color, are over-represented in low-skilled jobs. Recent surveys of long-term care workers in Canada showed more than 94 percent of personal support workers and nurses and 80 percent of aides are racialized women. The United States is no different, as women of color account for 60 percent of cleaners, 50 percent percent of nursing assistants, and 46 percent of personal care aides. Migrant women are overrepresented in lower-skilled healthcare positions, accounting for more than one third of these roles in the US and Canada, which are often low-paid, precarious, and offer poor working conditions.
Women also make outsized contributions to health and social systems through unpaid and underpaid care work. 70-80 percent of unpaid work is done by women and they spend 2-3 times more hours per week doing unpaid health work compared to men. This work provides significant subsidies to health care, social systems, and global health. However, care work performed by women is overwhelmingly unrecognized and undervalued. Importantly, women from marginalized and low-income backgrounds spend more time on unpaid care work because they have less access to social supports.
Paid, underpaid, and unpaid health work is providing a critical foundation for the essential care that has been required to weather the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic across health systems; yet, these workers have had least access to social protection, income support programs and health protections—including timely access to vaccines—required to mitigate the economic and health fallouts posed by COVID-19. The pandemic has revealed hierarchies of essential work that has singled out care work, disproportionately performed by women of color, as essential but disproportionately at risk. The rallying call to “build back better,” which is galvanizing new momentum to progress gender equality in health sectors, labor markets and at home, must be advanced using an intersectional lens to ensure progress is achieved for all, but especially for women of color and low-income women who have traditionally been left behind.
Through the Generation Equality Forum and more broadly, global decision-makers have an opportunity to view recovery efforts through an intersectional approach to recovery—that is, one that considers how women of color, including those in low- and middle-income countries, as well as migrant women, LGBTIQI+ populations, and others who experience compounding discrimination have been hit harder by the crisis, and designs and implements recovery efforts with this reality in mind. This opportunity includes chances to invest in affordable childcare to enable women globally to (re)enter the workforce. Juggling paid and unpaid work without formal forms of support is a commonplace reality for women and girls in lower-income settings. The World Bank’s recent Better Jobs and Brighter Futures report, for example, describes a childcare challenge that disproportionately impacts families in low- and middle-income countries, where nearly 8 out of 10 need childcare but do not have access. A child in a low-income country is five times less likely to have access to childcare than a child living in a high-income country. At the same time, addressing the global childcare crisis presents a significant job creation opportunity: it is estimated that 43 million new childcare jobs are needed to meet the current gap in access, most of which will employ women.
The COVID-19 Global Gender Response Tracker, compiled by the United Nations Development Programme in collaboration with UN Women, reflects how few governments have addressed care constraints in their COVID-19 crisis response and recovery plans. Just 1.3 percent of the 3000+ policy measures compiled by the tracker focus on childcare services, with no policy measures announced by low-income country governments, and just two from lower-middle-income countries.
Flexible work arrangements offered by companies and mandated by law should also be implemented to allow families greater autonomy when scheduling their work hours, help improve balance between work and personal obligations, and improve women’s participation in the labor markets. Ensuring that these policy options are available across sectors, and importantly extending them to all levels of workers, especially those with the least protections, such as personal support workers, must be prioritized.
In addition, while the pandemic has accelerated a mainstreaming of technology and innovations to facilitate greater work flexibility, it has also illuminated a digital divide, keeping this solution out of reach for women without adequate access to technology or the internet. When viewed through an intersectional lens, telework is inaccessible for many women, and also not a viable solution for women, a vast majority of whom are women of color, who work in the care economy and service sectors around the world.
In the lead up to the Generation Equality Forum in Paris, leaders need to place a greater emphasis on ensuring better accountability mechanisms to monitor progress for all women going forward. This includes access to more nuanced data and reporting on wage gaps, inequities in leadership, and the impacts of gender inequalities. Global Health 50/50’s Gender equality: Flying blind in a time of crisis report strongly advocates for collecting data on intersecting social stratifiers, such as race, age, class, and disability. The report suggests accounting for more than just data on gender when reporting pay gaps, as there are inequities in pay outcomes between women. The Canadian government has highlighted the importance of accounting for identities beyond sex and gender through the development of the Gender-Based Analysis Plus (GBA+) framework that is designed to facilitate an assessment of the potential impacts (intended and unintended) of policies, programs and initiatives on different groups of women, men, and non-binary people. Prioritizing the collection, analysis, and use of such nuanced and disaggregated data, including investments in data infrastructure in low and middle countries so support operationalizing intersectoral analyses, will help to identify avenues to create meaningful change for those who are most at risk.
A year into the pandemic we have seen the disproportionate effects on women, particularly marginalized women, compared to men. Advancing gender equality in global health and beyond broadly requires an intersectional approach, to ensure no women are left behind on the path towards a more gender equal society.