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Covid-19: Gender Inequalities in the Labour Market

Three questions to Monika Queisser

Covid-19: Gender Inequalities in the Labour Market
 Monika Queisser
Senior Counsellor at the OECD

Different sectors of the labor market are experiencing varying degrees of impact in the Covid-19 economic crisis. Some of these differences can be observed along gender lines, with women occupying major parts of the tourism and service industry. What is the extent of the gender gap in this crisis? What will be its long lasting impact in the labor market? Monika Queisser, Head of Social Policy Division at the OECD, answers our questions. 

Covid-19, and the ensuing economic crisis are having a serious impact on the labour market as it is trying to get back on its feet. Are there gender differences to be observed? Where do they stem from?

Women’s position in the labour market remains very different from men’s. On average, employed women work shorter hours, earn less, and enjoy less job seniority than employed men. Women tend to be less attached to the labour market, in particular when children arrive. These gender gaps may make women more vulnerable to lay-offs and precarious work conditions, especially in a crisis situation. Men and women continue to work in different sectors of the economy, with women’s employment often concentrated in the care and education sectors, and in services, which are often low paid. 

In the short term, the economic fallout from Covid-19 is likely to affect some sectors of the economy more than others, with women potentially over-exposed. Industries that rely on travel and on physical interaction with customers, such as tourism and accommodation, retail, and food and beverage services, will inevitably be hit hard. Many of these industries are major employers of women: on average across OECD countries with comparable data, women make up roughly 53% in food and beverage services, and 60% in accommodation services. In the retail sector, on average, 62% of workers are women, rising to 75% or more in Latvia, Lithuania and Poland. 

On average across OECD countries with comparable data, women make up roughly 53% in food and beverage services, and 60% in accommodation services.

Another example is the garment manufacturing industry, which has been facing disruption from both the supply side (e.g. from confinement measures forcing factory closures) and the demand side (e.g. with the forced closure of retail stores leading to a fall in orders). Women are heavily over-represented in this industry – by some measures, as many as three-quarters of worldwide garment industry workers are women. And, given the global distribution of garment supply chains, it is women in developing and emerging economies who will be hit hardest. 

The longer-term impact on employment and the distribution of job loss is, at this stage, much harder to predict. The sheer scale of the economic contraction means that there will likely be job losses in both male- and female-dominated sectors of the economy. But there is some possibility of longer-lasting gendered effects. Consumer habits may well change in response to the virus, and distancing measures mean that firms in the retail sector and accommodation and food industries will be operating at well below full capacity for several months to come. Many firms may find it hard to survive. This could have considerable implications for (largely female) workforce in those industries.

Small business owners have been particularly vulnerable to the global lockdowns. Does this gender inequality extend to entrepreneurship, and to what extent? 

This is an interesting question. We know that women-led enterprises are at a disadvantage in many respects. They tend to have less access to capital, grow more slowly, and female owners are often not able to devote as much time to their business as men. But at least in the 2008 financial crisis, women-led businesses did not seem to be more vulnerable than men-led businesses, with survival rates of business start-ups being more or less the same for both men and women. One of the reasons is that women tend to operate more often in areas which are less affected by economic downturns, such as health, education and other services. 

But this crisis may be different. As the lockdowns were severe in many countries requiring some sectors to close down rapidly and for extended periods, women-led businesses might find it harder to cope as they tend to have less capital and rely more on self-financing than male-led companies. However, the verdict is still out, as the impact is only gradually becoming clear.

Were there lessons drawn from the 2008 crisis or is Covid-19 giving the labour market an entirely different playing field? What can be done to mitigate the gendered differences at this point of the crisis?

Women-led businesses might find it harder to cope as they tend to have less capital and rely more on self-financing than male-led companies.

The 2008 financial and economic crisis was characterised by greater job losses in male-dominated sectors, notably construction and manufacturing. Women actually often compensated for men’s losses by entering the labour market. The net result was an increase in hours worked by women. During the recovery phase, however, men’s employment improved more quickly than women’s employment in many countries. 

This crisis is different in nature to previous ones, and given that the scale of the economic impact is still emerging, it is difficult to make firm predictions on whether and to what extent the crisis may disproportionately affect women’s jobs, business and incomes. Still, there are several valid concerns around the impact the crisis may have on women’s economic outcomes. Early data from Canada on the impact of the Covid-19 crisis shows that this time too, male employment is rising more quickly after lockdown than that of women. 

Like in the 2008 crisis, this time too we are seeing just how important it is to provide affordable good quality child care to families and, even more, for single parents who are predominantly female. As families have been juggling telework, home schooling and broader care and domestic work responsibilities women have once more been carrying the largest part of the burden. Without comprehensive childcare and family policies, but also a better distribution of unpaid work in the home, women risk losing a large part of their advances in the labour market, setting them back decades in the fight for equal work and equal pay. 



Copyright: Philippe LOPEZ / AFP

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