Women Lost $800 Billion in Income From COVID-19

Rural Women With Sewing Machines

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Among the biggest losers last year from the COVID-19 pandemic: women, to the tune of at least $800 billion.

That’s how much women around the world lost in income in 2020, and it’s more than the combined GDP of 98 countries, Oxfam International, a nonprofit group focused on reducing global poverty, said on Thursday. Women worldwide were hit harder than men, with 5% of women losing jobs compared with 3.9% of men. Men lost more jobs (80 million) than women (64 million), but that’s because there were more men in the labor force to begin with, International Labour Organization data showed.

The actual income lost by women is probably even higher. “There are hundreds of millions of women working in the informal sector,” said Mara Bolis, associate director of women’s economics rights at Oxfam. “It’s also not capturing women who reduce their hours and come back.” The informal sector includes jobs as domestic workers, market vendors, and garment workers that aren’t taxed or registered by the government.

The effects of the widening disparities in income caused by the pandemic will be felt for years, with an additional 47 million women and girls worldwide expected to fall into extreme poverty, UN Women and the United Nations Development Programme said last September.

The World Economic Forum also reported last month that closing the “global gender gap” would likely take an additional generation, 135.6 years instead of 99.5 years, because of the blow to women around the globe in 2020. The Forum’s global gender gap index measures gender-based differences in well-being in the areas of economic opportunity, education, health and political empowerment.

An Opportunity for Change

Now that the pandemic has shed a light on gender inequality, however, more countries are taking action to rectify it. 

“This year, everyone has seen it because everyone has been home,” Bolis said. “Women were not seen in policymaking. We followed a ‘one size fits men’ approach in this world. Now, we realize different people have different needs. We need to look at data and see what are the barriers for women, keeping them from meeting their full potential. They are different than the ones for men.”

In the U.S., for example, where many economists dubbed the decline in the economy last year the “she-session” because of how hard women were hit in the job market, Bolis is optimistic. 

“The American Jobs and Families plans look at the unique needs of women and women of color and address them from a policy standpoint,” she said. “We have an administration in this country that gets it. The size of investment in these plans is a systemic shift. In this country and others, they need to analyze policies from the perspective of the needs of women. If not, we’re doubling down on inequality.” President Joe Biden has included in his proposal funding for child care, universal pre-K, and paid leave.

Outside the U.S., Bolis said she is also seeing change. She said 36 countries have strengthened family and paid sick leave regulation and 11 have proposed shorter or flexible work arrangements for workers with care responsibilities.

“If we are able to change crisis into a moment, these are part of the fundamental infrastructure to help women get to work and help women at work,” she said. “We could have a leapfrogging moment.”