A year after US COVID-19 lockdowns began, Al Jazeera asked US small businesswomen about challenges and silver linings.
The coronavirus pandemic has widened the gender gap by a generation and closing it will take concerted efforts by policymakers around the world, a new report by the World Economic Forum (WEF) has found.
Based on the current trajectory, women will have to wait another 135.6 years – up from 99.5 years in 2020 – to achieve overall parity with men. The report also examined the gender gap in the areas of economic participation and opportunity, educational attainment, health and survival and political empowerment.
“Reaching parity in our lifetimes is possible, but only if leaders urgently commit to meaningful action and targets,” Saadia Zahidi, WEF’s managing director, told Al Jazeera.
The Global Gender Gap Index report found that the political gender gap is expected to take 145.5 years to close. Just 26.1 percent of parliamentary seats in the 156 countries examined in the report are held by women, and just 22.6 percent of government ministers are women. More than half of the countries in the report – 81 – have never had a female head of state.
On the economic front, the index found that it will take 267.6 years to bridge the gender divide, and while progress has been made in some areas, the pandemic – which the report’s data does not yet fully reflect – is likely to set equality back further. While the number of women skilled professionals continues to rise, progress is still weighed down by wage gaps and a lack of women in senior and managerial positions.
WEF’s index, now in its 15th year, uses a 0-to-100 scale. Scores reflect the percentage of the gender gap that has been closed.
The Middle East and North Africa region (39.1 percent) continues to have the largest gender gap, WEF found. South Asia (62.3 percent) is the second-lowest performer, with progress being reversed over the past year.
Northern European countries continued to perform well, with Iceland (89.2 percent), Finland (86.1 percent) and Norway (84.9 percent) taking the top prizes in bridging the gender gap.
The five most improved countries are Lithuania, Serbia, Timor-Leste, Togo and the United Arab Emirates, having narrowed their gender gaps by at least 4.4 percentage points or more, according to WEF.
More good news: Gender gaps in areas of education and health are closing.
Thirty-seven countries have reached gender parity in education, but still, it will take about 14.2 years to completely close this divide, WEF found. In health, over 95 percent of the gender gap has been closed.
The COVID-19 crisis reversed years of progress in women’s economic and political participation and exacerbated pre-existing gender gaps.
Five percent of all working women lost work or income compared to 3.9 percent of working men, according to figures from the International Labour Organization.
As lockdowns and restrictions spread across the globe, women found themselves in a balancing act between professional work and childcare and housework duties – tasks that fell disproportionately on them.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has erected new barriers for women on the road to gender equality,” Zahidi told Al Jazeera.
And while women were more likely to lose their jobs because they were employed in sectors hardest hit by the pandemic, they continue to be shut out of the “jobs of tomorrow”, WEF found.
The coronavirus pandemic has accelerated the path towards automation and digitalisation. But women make up only 14 percent of the workforce in cloud computing; 20 percent in engineering; and 32 percent in data and artificial intelligence, according to WEF.
Going forward as countries pass COVID-19 relief packages, governments and the private sector must include gender-equality components in their recovery plans and policies.
A public-private partnership is key, WEF argues. Investing in equitable access to care leave for both men and women will be vital to bridging the gender gap. Women must also have equal access to mid-career reskilling training as businesses ensure unbiased hiring and promotion policies.
“We know where the solutions lie,” said Zahidi. “Now is the moment to embed gender parity by design into the recovery.”