Covid-19 Crisis Could Set Back a Generation of Women, U.N. Report Finds

The Covid-19 pandemic is squeezing working mothers out of the world’s labor pool in ways that could damage women’s economic prospects for years to come, according to a United Nations study.

The primary reason in many countries is child care. The report, from U.N. Women this week, said that at the peak of the lockdowns earlier this year, 1.7 billion children were affected by school closures. Some 224 million remain out of school, forcing many families to decide who must predominantly look after the children. “It is predominantly women—often paid less and with less job security than men—who are sacrificing their careers,” the study found. In some countries, women do up to 11 times more work than men caring for family members and neighbors, all of it unpaid.

Men are struggling, too. A study conducted by U.N. Women and the International Labour Organization found that in 55 high-and-middle-income countries, some 29 million men lost or left their jobs between the fourth quarter last year and the second quarter of 2020. But that is roughly the same as the number of women who lost or left their jobs, and given that there are proportionately fewer women in the workforce to begin with, the impact is higher.

The U.N.’s concern now is that many of these women might not return to work at all, particularly in areas hard-hit by Covid-19, such as Latin America, where the study found that 83 million women are outside the labor force, up from 66 million before the pandemic.

The U.S. has seen similar problems. Many lost American jobs were in the service sector, including retail, food service and personal care, which are heavily skewed toward female workers and particularly vulnerable to the effects of lockdowns and other social-distancing measures. The U.S. Labor Department found that the number of women aged 25 to 54 participating in the workforce dropped from 77% in January to 74% in May.

In many countries, women find themselves juggling a growing share of child care and household chores, even if their partners are working from home, too.

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, executive director of U.N. Women, said earlier this week that women need to be front and center when governments turn their attention to recovering from the economic and social impact of Covid-19. “Already, the pandemic threatens to erase decades of progress on gender equality and women’s empowerment,” she said. “By 2030, there could be 121 women in poverty for every 100 poor men globally, with the worst affected being young women between the ages of 25 to 34—the age when many are raising families.”

Some countries have taken initial steps toward helping women overcome the worst of what some economists refer to as the pink recession.

Australia and Costa Rica took steps to help ensure that child care services remained open during their lockdowns. Egypt, Georgia and Morocco provided cash advances to women traders and entrepreneurs, while European leaders focused on keeping schools open this fall even if it meant shutting down many other parts of their economies as Covid-19 infections began to rise again. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson was among many who warned about the economic burden placed on parents who must stay home to look after children if schools failed to open after the summer.

“Keeping our schools closed a moment longer than absolutely necessary is socially intolerable, economically unsustainable and morally indefensible,” he said in August.

Ms. Mlambo-Ngcuka is urging governments to do more as they try to rebuild their economies, and this time to ensure women are able to compete fairly with men by providing more child care and other support.

Write to James Hookway at [email protected]

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