International Equal Pay Day: How the COVID-19 Crisis Highlights the Gender Gap

September 17, 2020 Charlotte Marie-Jeanne

Across all regions, women are paid less than men, with the gender pay gap estimated at 23% globally. Achieving  gender equality and the empowerment of women is crucial in the implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, but progress on narrowing this gap has been slow. While equal pay for men and women has been widely endorsed, applying it in practice has been difficult. To mark the longstanding efforts toward the achievement of equal pay for work of equal value -- and build on its commitment to human rights and against all forms of discrimination -- the United Nations celebrates for the first time the International Equal Pay Day on September 18. 

With the world still in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic it’s worth looking at how the outbreak of the novel virus has impacted gender inequalities, what businesses and supply chains can do to tackle them and why doing so is worth their while.


COVID-19 Widens the Gender Gap

Studies show that the COVID-19 crisis has affected men and women differently. While the virus is infecting them in equal numbers, women appear less likely to die from it then men. However, women are also the ones that bear the brunt of the crisis. They make up the majority of workers in the social health and care sector and earn, on average, 11% less than men in the same field, according to the World Health Organization.

In addition, women around the world do most of the unpaid care work -- around three times as much as men in most countries and four times as much in Asia and the Pacific, according to the International Labour Organization. As health systems become stretched, many people with COVID-19 need to be cared for at home, adding to women’s overall burden, as well as putting them at greater risk of becoming infected.

Women have also been disproportionately impacted by job losses suffered around the world due to the pandemic, according to a report by Citigroup Inc. Of 44 million workers in vulnerable sectors globally, excluding China, 31 million female workers face potential job cuts compared to 13 million men. The figure for China is likely to be even higher. This discrepancy, according to the firm, is due to the segmentation of female laborers into sectors that are the most negatively affected by coronavirus disruptions, such as retail, leisure and hospitality. 


Reporting on Inclusion and Diversity Is a Great Start

Other than being a serious inequality issue, these job losses may pose serious economic consequences, leading to $1 trillion decline in global GDP. This is something that businesses and policy makers need to factor in as they devise policies to adapt to the new normal. 

Reporting on inclusion and diversity is a great start. It helps maintain transparency during the time of crisis and beyond, and companies who monitor and report on diversity are more likely to implement policies and make pledges toward achieving equality. 

Moreover, commitment to gender equality and equal pay can bring tangible financial benefits.
ILO found out that over two thirds of companies surveyed worldwide that track the impact of gender diversity in management reported increased profitability. Meanwhile, commitment to sustainability issues in a larger sense has also been proven to boost business resilience during crises, as discussed in our Return on Sustainability series

Regardless of whether companies are legally obliged to report on the gender pay gap, they should show leadership around transparency and report on their actions. When it comes to large supply chains, buyers can set expectations and monitor the performance of their suppliers so that they align with their values, and embrace the same policies. Through customized questionnaires, EcoVadis assessments provide visibility on whether your supplier reports on key gender equality metrics, and help identify improvement areas so that it benefits both the female workforce and the company. 


How to Foster Diverse Workforce

As mentioned above, the lockdown instituted by many governments to prevent the spread of the coronavirus has also dramatically increased women’s share of unpaid care work, with children staying at home due to school and childcare facilities closures, caring for the sick and the elderly, all while working full-time or part-time. 

The persistent imbalance in unpaid care work has significant implications for female labour force participation and remains one of the barriers to career advancement. More time spent on domestic and care work means less time spent on an economic activity over time. Part-time work and interruption of career have adverse effects on women’s earnings, career prospects and social protection. 

Promoting work-life balance can help. Companies that had already implemented policies such as shared parental leaves may have employees better prepared to share unpaid care work.  Research shows that taking parental leaves increases the involvement of fathers in child care. Companies also benefit from parental leaves in the long-term as women are more likely to return to work after a paid maternity leave than those who do not have one, increasing employee retention. 

The core parts of a management system for ensuring a diverse workforce include flexible working arrangements such as tele-working and flexible working hours, that have also proven very effective in helping employees accommodate their care responsibilities. And companies that had these working arrangements in place were the fastest to respond to the sudden lockdown enforcements and move their office home, and continue their operations.


Addressing the Gender Gap in the New Normal

Looking from our current vantage point, the COVID-19 crisis may either erode many positive gains toward closing gender gaps that developed over the years or -- if the right steps are taken --  it can help improve women’s livelihoods and mitigate future risks. To turn the crisis into an opportunity and create a more gender-equal workplace and society, decision-makers need to take women into account when devising strategies intended to address COVID-19 disruptions and adapt to the “new normal”. 

Hopefully we’ll see family-friendly workplaces to address structural inequalities and help women combine paid employment and unpaid care work, share care responsibilities between working parents, paving the way for a disruption of gender stereotypes, more flexible and resilient workforce in times of crisis, better talent acquisition and retention, and a stronger bottom line for companies.

About the Author

Charlotte Marie-Jeanne

Charlotte Marie-Jeanne is a CSR Analyst at EcoVadis

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