Gender equality: How post-COVID economic recovery programmes took a step back

"The pandemic and the economic crisis it has generated are widening the gap between men and women, after half a century of reducing gender inequality," ccording to a report published in July by France's National Institute for Demographic Studies. EPA-EFE/FEHIM DEMIR [EPA-EFE/FEHIM DEMIR]

With domestic violence and health issues having affected French women more than men during the COVID-19 health crisis, the economic consequences of the pandemic have also impacted the country’s employment sector and have widened the gender inequality gap. EURACTIV France reports.

In May, when most countries started to lift their coronavirus measures, the unemployment rate for women in OECD [Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development] countries reached 9.08% compared to 7.99% for men, according to figures released by the organisation in mid-July.

While the gap over the same period was smaller for the Eurozone, it was still there as 7.8% of women were unemployed, compared to 7.3% among men.

In addition, women who kept their jobs were also more exposed to the virus.

In France, for instance, women are over-represented in several sectors where on-site work had to be maintained during the lockdown, such as healthcare, mass distribution and cleaning.

According to the National Agency for the Improvement of Working Conditions (Anact), nine out of 10 cleaners in France are women, while 90% of the country’s nurses and pharmacy assistants are women too.

A few steps back

Moreover, women lost more jobs during the crisis than their male counterparts.

Among those employed on 1 March in France, only two out of three women were still working two months later, compared with three out of four men, according to a report published in July by France’s National Institute for Demographic Studies.

“The pandemic and the economic crisis it has generated are widening the gap between men and women, after half a century of reducing gender inequality,” the study said.

This finding is also shared by the business community. In an op-ed published at the end of August, nine male and female leaders called for “efforts and work, as well as budgets and initiatives to be devoted to maintaining or increasing gender balance, and not sacrificing it as a result of the crisis.”

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At the end of June, France’s ministry in charge of equality between women and men published a good practice guide on this issue as the country returned to the workplace.

The government has also put in place several measures, such as a partial unemployment scheme “which is aimed at women and men, but is particularly protective of sectors hit by the crisis and which are highly feminised (hotel/restaurant business)”.

France’s recovery plan is particularly oriented towards the groups most affected by the crisis – including women – and provides massive funding for jobs and skills, according to the ministry, though it also told EURACTIV France that no specific guidelines for women exist for these sectors.

Still, Economy Minister Bruno Le Maire appealed to the responsibility of companies, especially in terms of accelerating parity.

The EU Recovery Fund, known as “Next Generation EU”, which passed the penultimate round of voting in the European Parliament on 16 September, also states that “fair minimum wages and binding measures for wage transparency will help vulnerable workers, especially women”.

The same applies to the EU’s long-term budget for the 2021-2027 period, which aims to “promote equal opportunities by ensuring that the activities and actions of programmes and instruments are gender-sensitive.”

Gender mainstreaming

In a June report entitled “Next Generation EU leaves women behind“, the Green group in the European Parliament noted, however, that “the Commission’s proposals are rather vague and the allocation of large sums of money within the different instruments, in particular, is very unclear.”

The EU’s recovery plan focuses mainly on male-dominated sectors and forgets about women,” complained German Green MEP Alexandra Geese. “If we want to create employment where it is needed, we must put gender equality at the centre,” she said.

Among the solutions proposed are specific loan quotas for companies run by women or plans to implement parity for companies with a low proportion of women and which receive state aid.

Various amendments to this effect are currently being discussed in informal meetings with rapporteurs and shadow rapporteurs and should be voted on in the coming weeks in the framework of instruments such as Invest EU or the Just Transition Fund.

Governments should “focus on hard-hit sectors that employ large numbers of women, as well as on measures that help reduce women’s skills deficits and remove practical barriers to their access to employment,” said Valeria Esquivel, a senior official in the International Labour Organisation’s Department of Employment Policies and Gender Equality.

Meanwhile, Sybil Chidiac, head of gender equality programmes at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, believes that economic stimulus packages “must be intentionally gendered” and “ensure that women are involved in their design”.

“In one country I work with, the president created a task force dedicated to developing an economic recovery plan. Around the table were all the ministers except the minister in charge of gender equality. Why this absence on such an important subject?” she asked during a webinar on 16 September about the impact of the COVID-19 crisis on women.

Sarah Hillware, deputy director of the Women in Global Health movement, stressed that “we cannot make decisions that affect 50% of the population without including women in the decisions”.

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[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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