The gender dimension of COVID-19: a wake-up call for business

By Bathylle Missika, Head of Division – Networks, Partnerships and Gender, OECD Development Centre, and Mathias Vicherat Secretary General of Danone and co-chair of the OECD Development Centre’s EMnet Working Group on Sustainability

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.

Although men seem to be hit harder by COVID-19 than women from a medical perspective, the economic and health impact on women is becoming increasingly severe as the disease spreads around the world, and may well prove particularly devastating in emerging and developing economies. When crafting responses and recovery plans, governments and businesses must pay special attention to how the pandemic and the resulting crisis affect women and girls and how to address their specific needs. This will be key to both containing the economic and social fallout of the crisis, but also to facilitating recovery.

Women are at the forefront of the battle against the pandemic as they make up almost 70% of the healthcare workforce, while being largely under-represented in leadership in the healthcare sector. Women also work in sectors largely impacted by the crisis such as the hospitality business or the garment industry, the latter employing 60 million workers around the world, nearly 75% of whom are women. For example, in Bangladesh, as brands and retailers declared force majeure and cancelled orders, about 1 million of the 4.1 million mostly women workers in the sector lost their jobs. Moreover, lockdowns worsen the risks of violence, exploitation, abuse or harassment against women. Finally, and most importantly from an economic perspective, women are disproportionately affected by the crisis due to their position on the margins of the economy. Indeed, nearly 60% of the world’s workers make their livelihoods in the informal economy, and in many of the world’s poorest countries, it is working women who are most likely to be found in informal employment. In Africa for example, 90% of employed women are in informal employment compared to 83% of men. Tens of millions of informal workers have already been affected by COVID-19. Many of these women will not be rescued by social safety nets, as access to benefits frequently depends on formal participation in the labour force.

In addition, more than a third of women in informal employment in low- and lower-middle income countries are contributing family workers, usually considered as unpaid. Prior to the COVID-19 crisis, women already performed most of the unpaid care and domestic work. The OECD’s Social Institutions and Gender Index (SIGI) 2019 shows that gender gaps are particularly large in developing countries: the female-to-male ratio of unpaid work ranges from three times more in Latin America and the Caribbean to almost seven times more in Northern Africa. The current COVID-19 crisis can shoulder even more burden on women. As healthcare systems are stretched by efforts to contain outbreaks, care responsibilities are being “downloaded” onto women and girls, who usually bear responsibility for caring for ill family members and the elderly. The closure of schools further exacerbates the burden of unpaid care work on women and girls, who absorb the additional work of caring for children.

To address these challenges, both the public and the private sectors need to devise gender-sensitive measures targeting parts of the economy where women are likely to be hit the most. For the public sector, the OECD suggests in the just-released Women at the core of the fight against COVID-19 crisis that “governments […] consider adopting emergency measures to help parents manage work and caring responsibilities, reinforcing and extending income support measures, expanding support for small businesses and the self-employed”. But governments are not the only stakeholders that can make a difference. Due to their global reach, multinational corporations have the power to support women in the workplace and throughout value chains, including in emerging and developing economies.

In the context of COVID-19, companies can use their global human resource policies that ensure the protection of all employees around the world. Take Danone, for instance. The global food and beverage company — which has a significant footprint in emerging economies such as China, Brazil, Indonesia and South Africa — has committed to guaranteeing the jobs and salaries of all its employees worldwide through June. The company is also guaranteeing 100% health care coverage for employees on sick leave, under quarantine or with childcare needs. Such policies are critical in countries with weak social safety nets in order to guarantee adequate occupational safety and health standards for all workers, but these measures will also provide crucial help to women who are more likely to have to forego work in order to tend to childcare and elderly care duties.

Companies can also take action to protect staff in their value chains, with specific attention paid to female workers. The Danone Ecosystem Fund was created after the 2008 financial crisis to support the most vulnerable members of its supply chain. The COVID-19 crisis has now put many of the Fund’s beneficiaries at risk – waste pickers who are unable to work, street vendors who saw their business collapse, farmers who risk increased costs and reduced productivity. This is why we committed to additional resources to financially support communities with no or reduced revenue due to the pandemic; compensate potential delays or reduced activity; and build with our network of partners effective longer-term responses to the challenges they face. In addition, in March, Danone announced € 300M financing facility to help vulnerable suppliers facing cash flow issues.  Protecting the most vulnerable parts of the value chain, especially workers who face more unstable or informal work situations, means providing women in developing countries with a lifeline. Companies’ responses to the crisis, both towards their employees and towards their extended value chains, must guarantee the safety and job security of all workers, focusing on safeguarding the incomes of the many working women who are particularly vulnerable in global value chains.

Danone is just one example amongst many; companies of all kinds have been stepping up and taking bold action that supports women in their companies, their value chains and in the communities where they are engaged. Going back to Bangladesh, some major buyers of ready-made garments have committed to pay for all orders in production or completed. But companies can go even further and take this crisis as an opportunity to rethink their business models and role in society. They can join forces not only with each other but with governments too. The need for innovative public-private collaboration in response to rising inequalities is what led to the creation of the Business for Inclusive Growth (B4IG) platform in August 2019 at the G7 Biarritz Summit. B4IG is a unique coalition powered by the OECD that brings together 40 leading companies and partners such as the International Labour Organization, UN Women, and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Over the next few months, all partners in the coalition will come together to explore how innovative public private cooperation can drive an inclusive and gender-sensitive response to the crisis, including in emerging and developing economies.

Having to rethink the way we engage is not unprecedented. Yet, having to do it on this scale, under a short time horizon while thinking about making the response sustainable for the future is entirely new. Governments and multinational corporations must put people, and women in particular, at the core of their responses and pursue their efforts to come up with lasting solutions to face this crisis, and crises to come. Without this Copernican revolution in thinking concretely about how we engage, we are bound to come up with band-aid solutions.