COVID-19: time for gender inclusive decision-making

By Salma Al-Rashid, Women 20 Engagement Group Sherpa for the G20

This blog is part of a series on tackling COVID-19 in developing countries. Visit the OECD dedicated page to access the OECD’s data, analysis and recommendations on the health, economic, financial and societal impacts of COVID-19 worldwide.

2020 is a pivotal year for public policy, with the COVID-19 pandemic affecting at least 183 countries. Countries and multinational institutions are struggling as the pandemic not only tests our healthcare systems but creates chaos in our economies with implications far beyond previous financial crises. There is a danger, illuminated by the absence of any language around gender at the G20 Extraordinary virtual Summit on COVID-19 that the important strides made in the last fifteen years to balance women in policymaking are at risk. The consequences of this would be short-sighted as we start to rebuild economic sectors and labour forces.

Mainstreaming gender equality is an intrinsic part on the road to recovery from COVID-19

In the immediate term, we know that women are a vital part of the healthcare infrastructure that is battling the pandemic head-on. Women comprise almost 7 out of 10 health and social care workers and contribute $3 trillion annually to global health, half in the form of unpaid care work. This includes highly skilled workers – in OECD countries, just under 50 percent of doctors are female, and this proportion has been increasing as the share of female graduates continues to rise – and those in lower-skilled positions.

Experts find that pandemics make existing gender inequalities for women and girls worse, and can impact their treatment and care. The World Economic Forum has warned that ‘as health systems become stretched, many people with COVID-19 will need to be cared for at home, adding to women’s overall burden, as well as putting them at greater risk of becoming infected’. Unpaid caregiving is already an obstacle for women globally, with negative impacts on women’s opportunity to participate in the formal economy and seek education or training.

Recognition and risk

Recognition of the role of women in the immediate response may seem obvious. Recognition of the role of women as part of the economic solution should also be straightforward. However, this does not seem to be the case.

The Women 20 Engagement Group is concerned about the lack of direct recognition among G20 leaders of the need to address the impact the pandemic and national responses are having on women. We urge that policies and public health efforts address the gendered impacts of disease outbreaks. The G20 is a primarily economic forum, with its member countries representing 80 percent of the world’s economic output, 75 percent of its trade and two-thirds of its population. G20 outcomes include important guidance to financial systems which demand global collaboration.  In its Presidency year, the Saudi Arabian Government has determined to make women and youth priority work strands. This cannot be lost in the current turmoil. The agenda is more relevant now than ever.

The achievement of the UN 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda, and the Brisbane 25×25 target, a commitment to reduce the gender gap in labour force participation by 25 percent by 2025, is jeopardized unless G20 leaders pave the way for equitable economic recovery.

This is true in the G20 Presidency country itself; where the last few years have seen much progress for women’s empowerment in Saudi Arabia, as the country diversifies its oil-dependent economy, with a target to increase women’s participation in the workforce from 22% to 30% by 2030. The World Bank’s “Women, Business and the Law 2020” study, which tracks how laws affect women in 190 economies, found that of the ten economies that improved the most last year, six are in the Middle East and North Africa. Saudi Arabia made the biggest improvement globally, enacting reforms in six out of eight areas measured including in women’s mobility, sexual harassment, retirement age and economic activity. Reducing the gender gap in labour force participation has the potential to inject $1 trillion USD in the cumulative output of GDP to the MENA region. The current momentum must be maintained.

Inclusive decision-making

So how does the G20 continue to build on these global achievements? One hindering factor is that gender equality is often treated as a separate strand of policy, when it should be treated as an important element of all policy dialogue. Any focus on economic recovery must intrinsically build in gender, and the way to do this is through accelerating inclusive decision making.

Research has found that ‘when women have less decision-making power than men, either in households or in government, then women’s needs during an epidemic are less likely to be met’. This needs to be at all levels of public policy making: community, national and multinational.  At the front-line community level, women are contributors to identifying local trends and responsive policies. At a national level, the WHO has recommended the inclusion of women in national and global COVID-19 outbreak preparedness and response policy and operational spaces. And we should increase the representation of women in global health security surveillance, detection and prevention mechanisms.

As we respond to the economic crises, the value of gender equal decision making is clear. The OECD’s 2014 report on this issue found, “an increased presence of women cabinet ministers is associated with a rise in public spending across a large number of countries.” And that “women politicians more often bring attention to issues such as gender-based violence, family-friendly policies and responsiveness to citizen needs”.

Yet we know that changes need to happen to ensure this balanced input – clear from one look at the G20 Leaders, with only one woman at the table. In 19 out of 20 G20 countries women have the same rights as men to hold public and political office in parliament, public administration and government, but only represent a quarter of the members. Overall global progress on women’s equality has not been deep or fast enough and is often uneven. Progress towards the sustainable development goals is also uneven, and at the current rate it will take 200 years (or 9 generations) to achieve SDG 5 on gender equality.

Boost for a balanced recovery

We don’t have 200 years to build a balanced approach to inclusive decision-making and ensure the health and economic recovery from COVID-19. Rather, we need our leaders – through the G20, OECD and other multinational fora, to seize the opportunity to eliminate discriminatory norms and laws on women’s equal participation, so that both men and women rebuild the economy. Mainstreaming gender equality is an intrinsic part of the road to recovery from COVID-19: our leaders need to directly recognise the impact of the pandemic on women, and the positive role inclusive decision-making at community, national and multinational levels would bring as we rebuild our economies in 2020.