Despite recovery efforts, women’s unemployment continues to grow
Every year, the International Labour Organization (ILO) publishes an authoritative World Employment and Social Outlook report that the United Nations, governments, and civil society organizations use to understand global labor patterns through deep-dive statistics. The findings in this year’s report are especially worrying to ILO experts. Job losses in 2020 were significant, and employment still hasn’t returned to pre-pandemic levels. They also found that the recovery so far has been unequal, with women faring worse than men:
- Male employment has mostly recovered to pre-pandemic levels, but total global female employment is 13 million lower than in 2019.
- Women’s unemployment is expected to increase in 2021.
- Since 2019, 73 million additional women have left the labor force and aren’t looking for jobs—whether because they lack opportunities, lack time due to increased caregiving burdens, or lack hope.
Recently, Melinda French Gates wrote about this “shecession.”
Clearly, women are being left behind, even as broader global labor indicators are beginning to improve. But there’s also hope. At last week’s Generation Equality Forum, leaders made commitments to a number of action plans to reverse the marginalization of women—steps that will benefit both men and women and could grow GDP by an estimated $13 trillion.
As women continue to struggle with many barriers, we asked Diva Dhar, an economist in our Gender Equality division, and Rafael Diez de Medina, ILO’s chief statistician, to explain some key findings from the ILO report.
The foundation launched a major effort on gender data in 2016. Before we dig into the numbers, can you share some background?
DIVA DHAR: We’re five years into this journey, and while there has been a lot of progress, there’s still so much to uncover. Our work focuses on improving the quality, production, and use of gender measures and data, and building evidence on women’s economic empowerment, including both employment and enterprise. Now the pandemic has eroded recent gains while also underscoring the importance of measurement, data, and evidence in this area. Without data, governments and decision-makers don’t get a clear picture of reality. How can they craft an effective response? We’re working with a number of partners, including ILO, UN Women, the World Bank, Data2X, and the University of California, San Diego, to strengthen gender measures and data during the pandemic.
Why focus on women’s work?
DHAR: It’s clear that the undervaluing of women and girls is at the root of so many problems, and we’ve seen that even as GDP grows, women’s labor force participation doesn’t necessarily improve. We knew that understanding why would be key to advancing women’s economic empowerment. It’s interesting that while there has been growing research and investment around women’s financial inclusion and sexual and reproductive health, there has been less around women’s work and enterprise, including barriers such as care work or gender norms.
While there’s more discourse around gender, there haven’t been a lot of gender-responsive policies and programs, even when the pandemic’s disproportionate impact on women started to become clear. For example, we know from UNDP–UN Women’s COVID-19 Global Gender Response Tracker that only 13% of labor and social protection measures in response to the pandemic address women’s economic security and only 11% provide support for unpaid care work, despite the huge crisis around women’s livelihoods and care.
And now we’re seeing that even the recent gender data collection gains may be hindered by the pandemic. These data are vitally important. It’s only when you dig into the data that you see the full scope of the discrepancies between what men and women are facing.
What are the discrepancies?
RAFAEL DIEZ DE MEDINA: Starting with the big picture, global working hours for both men and women plunged in 2020. There was an equivalent loss of 255 million full-time jobs, which is quite significant. But the crisis has disproportionately affected women. Women’s employment declined by 5%, compared with 3.9% for men. We had very optimistic trends before this pandemic, but these are clearly shocks.
For men, employment has been recovering, albeit slowly, and mostly in parts of the world where vaccines are available. But women are lagging. So many women lost their jobs or withdrew from the labor force and haven’t yet returned.
Compared to 2019, an additional 108 million workers fell into poverty, joining the working poor who live on the equivalent of less than US$3.20 per day. It’s not surprising that we’re seeing inequalities grow within countries, within regions, between men and women, between old versus young. These inequalities are harmful for our society.
The ILO report predicts women’s unemployment will increase by 2 million this year. Why?
DHAR: For one thing, women’s economic activities—their livelihoods and businesses—are more vulnerable than men’s. Looking across the data and evidence efforts made by many of our partners, we also know that women often have less access to health services, government programs, and pandemic assistance, and they lack access to financing for their business enterprises. Care work—caring for children or aging or sick family members, for example—is still a huge issue for both women and adolescent girls. We know that in the pandemic, men have increased the amount of care work they perform, but women have still spent disproportionately more hours providing care. All these factors, and more, are likely holding them back from productive economic opportunities. We also know from other data that when women leave the labor force, it is harder for them to reenter.
In addition, the report indicates that many women not only lost their livelihoods, they’ve given up looking.
DIEZ DE MEDINA: Yes, the technical term for that is “inactivity,” and it’s a crucial factor explaining the numbers we’re seeing. In 2020 there were 81 million more women and 73 million more men in inactivity than 2019. Part of this discrepancy is because women shifted so much of their time to family caregiving. It’s work, and it’s very important for households, but it’s unpaid and it’s not counted in employment figures. Some of them have withdrawn from the labor force.
Also, remember that women also tend to work in fields that have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic, including informal jobs, which aren’t quickly coming back because there are still lockdowns. Some of these jobs have disappeared altogether with the crisis. Even when women are starting to look for jobs, they’re struggling to find them. In 2021, the inactivity gap is projected to slowly decline for women to 73 million and women are expected to increase their availability to work and increase their job searches. So hopefully this trend is not here to stay.
“Inactivity” is a curious term when women are shouldering so much unpaid work.
DIEZ DE MEDINA: Yes, it can be a misnomer. Traditionally, the term “unemployment” includes people looking for a job who are available to work. It’s about demand and supply tension. “Inactivity” generally means those who are not seeking work for pay or profit and not available—supposedly. There are people who may not be seeking work but are willing to work. And also people who are not available now but would be if they had the chance. That’s what has happened in the pandemic. You cannot seek work if there’s a lockdown and everything’s closed. Also, a woman who’s looking after the kids is not available but might want a paid position if it were offered. Many have had no recourse but to fall outside the labor force. Instead of inactivity, we’d like to use the term potential labor force. This includes people who show interest in paid work even if there are no job opportunities or even if they face barriers such as those I’ve described above, and that have become so apparent during the pandemic. It’s clear that unemployment should not be the only headline indicator for watching the impact of the crisis: Underutilization, informality, and potential labor force should be equally important.
DHAR: What the pandemic has done is exacerbate gender gaps, whether around work or barriers to work like unpaid care work. Policies and provisions to address the burdens women face have not picked up in the wake of the pandemic. Care work and time use is an area that feminist economists and advocates have been talking about for decades, and the call to action on the 3Rs—Recognize, Reduce, and Redistribute unpaid care work—has been around for a while. It’s only in this last year that you’re seeing these discussions resonate with a broader policy audience. A recent report that we produced with partners, including the International Development Research Centre (IDRC) and the Initiative for What Works to Advance Women and Girls in the Economy (IWWAGE), and another report by the World Bank looked at evidence of the care crisis and called for action. It was also an important topic of discussion and commitments at the international Generation Equality Forum earlier this month, where the foundation announced its support for a new World Bank initiative to accelerate investment around child care.
What else is ILO doing in this area?
DIEZ DE MEDINA: We’re involved with a lot of efforts to make informal work both visible and measurable. But right now, the term itself is ambiguous. Informal work isn’t necessarily for pay or profit, but it’s still work. Volunteer work, for example, or own-use production—that is, producing goods or services for the household. Informal workers are also part of the employment picture. Currently, that kind of informal work is measured only in some countries, mostly in the developing world. We want to have worldwide estimates for this, and to harmonize the definition, meaning it’s the same for all countries. We’re actively working with countries to develop better ways of measuring all of this, to get more granular data. The gender aspect of this will be crucial.
But it’s not easy. Data are a public good, but this public good can be expensive and many countries are falling behind because of fiscal constraints aggravated by the pandemic. Also, there are cultural barriers in some countries where gender is not seen as a major dimension. We have pushed on that, and now we have gendered data from many more countries.
What are the foundation’s priorities for women’s economic empowerment?
DHAR: Three things: Care, data, and cash. This is how governments can put women at the center of economic inclusion. Right now, we’re doing a lot of work with partners around child care, which is a substantial barrier for women seeking work. We’re supporting the World Bank, for example, to build data, build evidence, and identify scalable interventions to address this crisis. We’ve also been supporting a number of partners to help fill data and evidence gaps. Global Health 5050 is tracking sex-disaggregated data around health during the pandemic, including case numbers, mortality, and vaccinations, to understand the gendered health impact. Partners such as the International Development Research Centre (IDRC), International Center for Research on Women (ICRW), and Innovations for Poverty Action (IPA) are leading the efforts to build evidence around the economic impact. We also believe governments must ensure that stimulus efforts get directly into the hands of women.
So yes, there’s a lot going on.