A ‘she-cession’ hurts us all

We can't ignore that the pandemic has affected women more than men

This article was first published in OMFIF’s 2021 Gender Balance Index. The report can be downloaded below.

Every March we take stock of women’s rights in the world: looking at how far we’ve come and, more importantly, how much further we still have to go. But 2020 was a year like no other for gender equality.

The social and economic consequences of the pandemic have fallen disproportionately on women. There is even a word for it: ‘she-cession’, coined by C. Nicole Mason. It highlights that, for the first time in history, the US is experiencing an economic downturn where unemployment and income losses are affecting women more than men.

But it is not only happening in the US. According to the recent International Labour Organization report, in 2020 the global loss in employment for women was 5%, versus 3.9% for men. Why are women more at risk than men of losing their jobs? A quarter of global job losses come from sectors in which women account for a higher proportion of the workforce: leisure, hospitality and retail have all been hit hardest.

But there’s another critical reason. Lockdowns have meant many of us (including men) have had to provide additional childcare, education and housework: 52 hours a week on average, more than another full-time job.

But the burden of unpaid care work falls unequally on women. Even before the pandemic women globally were doing on average 75% of unpaid care work. According to United Nations Women, during Covid-19, women have been doing a full working day of unpaid childcare more than men each week.

One in four women have considered downshifting their careers or leaving work altogether, and the majority say childcare responsibilities are the main reason, according to the latest McKinsey and Lean In ‘Women in the Workplace’ study.

Why does this matter? Several studies have found that the share of women in unpaid care work has a
high and negative correlation with female labour force participation rates. It also has a negative impact on women’s chances for professional and technical jobs or holding leadership positions. If this disproportionate impact on women goes unaddressed, it will not only put at risk gender equality, but also have global economic consequences.

During the Covid-19 crisis, the priority of most financial institutions has been (and still is) the wellbeing
of their teams. At Santander, we provided the tools for remote working after sending home 100,000 employees. We also adapted our branch network to ensure the safety of staff who continued to interact with customers in person. As work-life balance and stress brought further challenges, we implemented flexible working arrangements and gave mental health support, as well as advancing payments and granting special loans.

Organisations can and must do their part, but government policies are crucial. If governments work
with the private sector to develop effective, evidence-based interventions, we can counter workplace
inequality while encouraging a balanced recovery. Promoting gender equality could add $13tn to global
gross domestic product by 2030. If we ignore the fact that the pandemic is affecting women differently, our economic recovery will be unequal and slower.

As we continue to plan our way out of this crisis, we must remember that a ‘she-cession’ hurts us all.
When we support women, we support families and communities: the financial empowerment and economic wellbeing of women is good for everyone and it is the foundation of an equitable, resilient and sustainable post-pandemic world.

Ana Botín is Executive Chairman of Santander.

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