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The Social and Economic Gendered Impacts of COVID-19: The Problems are Clear, Now What’s Next?

November 09, 2021

Recommended

Event
COVID as a Gendered Crisis
November 09, 2021
10:00—12:45 PM EASTERN TIME (US AND CANADA)

This blog reviews research covered in this year’s Birdsall House Conference on Women, which is available to watch online at your convenience.

Throughout the pandemic, working through CGD’s COVID-19 Gender and Development Initiative, in partnership with EMERGE at the University of California San Diego, our team of researchers have synthesized evidence on the gendered impacts of the crisis. To date, we have examined papers spanning over 100 countries, most of which show that women and girls have borne disproportionate socio-economic and indirect health consequences.

This blog examines 36 new papers collected in April and May 2021, identified through applying the same search criteria as our last review. We take stock of the updated evidence, noting which findings have been further reinforced and where new themes are emerging.

Figure 1: Geography of included studies

In this review, India is a country of focus in the most studies (4), followed by Brazil and Turkey with three each. Overall, nine studies focus on countries in South Asia, seven in Latin America, six each in sub-Saharan Africa and East Asia, with just one in the Middle East and North Africa.

Figure 2: Topic of included studies (studies may cover more than one topic)

Most papers in this review (21) include findings related to women’s employment and entrepreneurship, and about half of the papers (12) include findings on unpaid care work. Six papers each touch on gender-based violence or education, while six more papers total include findings related to agriculture (4) and food insecurity (3). Finally, three papers analyze response measures with a gendered lens.

Employment and entrepreneurship

In this latest round up, we find 21 studies that focus on women’s paid work. Their findings reinforce our earlier conclusions that women have experienced disproportionate job losses, and decreases in income and working hours. For example, women comprised 60 percent of job losses between February and April 2020 in South Africa; simulations in Chad estimate more women will lose wages as a result of COVID-19 than men (61 percent vs. 57 percent); and a study of 29 countries found that a larger percentage of women lost employment during COVID-19 than men (42 percent vs. 31 percent).

Corroborating earlier findings, two studies find that informal workers, and women in particular, experienced outsized negative impacts of the crisis. World Bank research in India find that in the initial stages of the pandemic, informal workers were significantly more vulnerable to job loss and loss of income, with women much more likely to be informally employed in the country. Research out of Peru shows that 49 percent of informally employed women lost their jobs, compared to 39 percent of men.

Previous studies suggested that women-owned businesses were more vulnerable to profit loss and closure during the pandemic. New World Bank analysis reinforces this conclusion. Across South Asia, women’s businesses closed at a rate of about 50 percent compared to men’s at 39 percent.

Agriculture and food security

Six papers focus on agriculture and food security in Latin America, sub-Saharan Africa, and Asia. A model simulation in Chad predicts that women would insulate against anticipated economic shocks by relying more heavily on livestock production during the pandemic and less on food crops and cash crops, since livestock production is less volatile and the input price fluctuates less than in other activities. Phone surveys in Myanmar during the early months of the pandemic (January-June 2020) found that women farm laborers reported greater difficulty in finding farm wage employment than before the pandemic. 

More papers have emerged related to food insecurity during the pandemic, but few report outcomes beyond the household level to illustrate gender differences. Surveys in Senegal found that household food security was a top concern of women during the pandemic, and in Sri Lanka research found that household-level food insecurity had increased by 12 percentage points from 2019 to 2020. A study in Brazil found no difference in food consumption between men and women during COVID-19, and a study in Guatemala found that women’s dietary diversity remained unchanged from 2019-2020. While these findings are encouraging, more research should be done at the individual level and in other regions and countries to corroborate. Even before the crisis, women and girls faced greater vulnerability to food insecurity, so it is important to continue research in this area as the crisis wears on and economic recovery is slow in many places.

Care work

About a third (12) of the new papers include analysis related to care work. Three papers estimate the change in the amount of time spent on unpaid care and domestic tasks during the pandemic, with all finding increases for women. In South Africa, Casale and Posel estimate that 79 percent of women and 65 percent of men spent over four additional hours on childcare per day. In Ghana, mothers spent an additional one and a half hours on housework compared to before the pandemic, and the amount of time spent on childcare doubled. Finally, in Argentina, a survey of married couples with children finds that while time spent on unpaid care increased for both partners relative to before the pandemic, women spent 2.3 more hours per day on care activities, and the within-couple gender gap in care work increased.

One prominent theme emerging from this round of papers is the intersection of paid remote work and unpaid care work—explored in studies from Bangladesh, India, Brazil, Ghana, Turkey, Pakistan, and Vietnam. Studies in Vietnam and Turkey—conclude that women, and especially women with multiple children, prefer teleworking more than men because remote work allows them to combine paid and unpaid care work, though women’s attachment to the labor force may be waning as a result. Studies in India, Brazil, Ghana, Pakistan, and Turkey show that women’s increased unpaid care work inhibits their ability to complete paid work assignments.

These findings highlight the double-edged sword for women working from home. On the one hand, work from home allows women to spend more time with children and more easily combine paid work and unpaid care; but, on the other hand, it can hinder work-life balance and negatively impact job performance. To highlight this impact, a survey of Argentinian married couples with children finds that women working from home spent less time on paid work, more time on unpaid domestic work, and that overall, the time spent on work (paid and unpaid) increased by one hour per day. Notably, these studies cover a very small and relatively better-off sub-population of women workers. Very few women workers around the world have the types of jobs that can be done from home, leaving out the majority of the global workforce.

Gender-based violence

Six papers document impacts related to gender-based violence, with mixed results. A paper from Peru finds that both young men and young women experienced an increase in physical domestic violence during lockdown, and that those who had previously experienced violence were more likely to experience it again. In Zimbabwe, a qualitative study of informal women workers also documents increased instances of gender-based violence due to staying home with abusive spouses. In Bangladesh, a study on intimate partner violence finds that, overall, 45 percent of women surveyed had experienced intimate partner violence during COVID-19, and that women in arranged marriages, from rural areas, and with lower levels of education were more likely to experience violence.

While most studies have confirmed an increase in gender-based violence during the pandemic, an analysis of media reports in Turkey finds that social distancing orders and curfews greatly decreased the number of women murdered (57 and 83 percent for each measure, respectively), and a study of Asian university students in Jordan finds than men were more likely to report cyberbullying during the pandemic than women. Overall, however, most studies in this sample and in previous synthesis analyses point to an increase in violence against women (and children) during the pandemic.

The final paper included on gender-based violence deals with response measures. In a study of WHO European member states, Pearson et al. document the various policy measures taken related to gender-based violence (GBV), concluding that 52 of the 53 member states had implemented at least one measure to prevent or respond to gender-based during COVID. The authors stop short of examining which policies were most effective in their goals.

Education

Among six papers with findings on gender gaps in education, two studies focus on undergraduate and graduate students in China, Macau, Hong Kong, and Australia and find no significant gender differences in readiness for online learning or learning outcomes. But other studies point to a potential gender digital divide: a study in China finds than men teachers were more likely to rate themselves highly competent in the digital skills needed to teach virtually compared to women. A multi-country survey found that women were less likely compared to men to report that their school-aged children continued with schooling through digital platforms during the pandemic.

Policy response and gender

Beyond the one paper on GBV policy responses referenced above, only two additional papers (6 percent of our sample) analyze governments’ policy response measures to COVID-19 from a gender perspective—and with few positive results. A study conducted across South Asia found that women-led businesses were half as likely to access public support in comparison to men-led firms. Qualitative research in Nigeria found that women informal workers faced barriers to enrollment in food vendor programs established by the government to allow for continued income generation during the pandemic. Women in this study also expressed lack of trust in the government, even to the point where many believed COVID-19 to be a hoax. These two studies point to an important shortcoming in the design of public financing and economic response measures, and point to the need to target and prioritize women-led businesses and women informal workers.

Where do we go from here?

While evidence proliferates on the disproportionate and negative impacts of the crisis on women, we still have very little understanding of whether interventions and policies have effectively mitigated these impacts. Where limited evidence does exist, it suggests that policy measures to respond to the pandemic have not equally reached and benefitted women.

While we continue to research the impacts of the crisis, we need to simultaneously investigate which response measures have been most useful. This investigation requires a shift in the research agenda to make the most of natural experiments in differential policy response across contexts. To recover from this crisis and better prepare for the next, policymakers and researchers need a better understanding of what works to mitigate the gendered impacts of the crisis that have now been thoroughly documented.

Disclaimer

CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.