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Pandemic has reversed progress on gender equality

Kristie Pladson
March 31, 2021

The pandemic has stalled efforts to reach global gender equality, a report from the World Economic Forum has revealed. At the current rate, it will take 133 years to achieve equality between men and women worldwide.

A woman sits stressed before her laptop in her home
Studies show that the pandemic has more severely impacted women than menImage: ROBIN UTRECHT/picture alliance

The pandemic has reversed global progress in achieving equality between men and women and the fallout could be long-lasting, the World Economic Forum (WEF) concluded in its 2021 Global Gender Gap report released Wednesday.

The annual index has tracked the development of gaps in gender parity since 2006. The WEF evaluates progress in achieving gender equality in four key dimensions: economic participation and opportunity, educational attainment, health and survival and political empowerment.

The global gender parity gap is currently 68% closed, according to this year's report, which looked at 156 countries. This is down half a percentage point from the year before. Continuing at this rate, it will take 133.4 years to achieve global parity between men and women.

Infographic: Years until global gender parity by dimension

The global decline in gender parity was driven primarily by poor performance in large advanced and emerging economies, a summary of the report said.

The coronavirus pandemic is partly responsible for reopening gaps between men and women. Initial data indicates that the economic and social fallout of the pandemic has more severely impacted women than men. Thus far, 5% of all employed women worldwide have lost their jobs, compared to 3.9% of employed men. Further data showed a significant decline in the number of women hired into leadership roles, setting back recent progress by one to two years.

Barriers in disruptive industries

Of the eight job sectors tracked, just two ("People and Culture" and "Content Production") have achieved gender parity. Meanwhile, women remain severely underrepresented in many sectors. Conditions made worse by the pandemic could have a "scarring effect" on economic opportunities for women going forward, the report warns.

The COVID-19 health crisis has sped up digitalization and automation and led to faster labor market disruption. But data shows that gender gaps are more likely in sectors that require disruptive technical skills. Women account for a third or less of the workforce in the sectors of cloud computing, engineering and data and AI. Current low inflows of new talent into these sectors mean that the share of women joining has increased only marginally, or even fallen, in recent years.

Femicide in Germany

A new indicator introduced this year shows that it is harder for women to transition to fields such as these in which they are underrepresented.

"Transitioning to fields where women are currently underrepresented remains difficult," a summary of the report says.

In the context of the pandemic, women are also more prone to increased stress due to a longer "double-shift" of paid and unpaid labor brought on by school closures and the limited availability of care services. This is another obstacle to women gaining leadership positions or breaking into new industries.

Political equality declines

With only 22.3% of its gap closed, political empowerment is the least developed of the four gender gaps tracked by the WEF. The gap has widened by 2.4 percentage points since last year's report. Across all countries tracked, women made up just 25.7% of around 35,500 parliament seats and 22.8% of over 3,400 ministers worldwide. At the current rate, it will take 145.5 years to achieve gender parity in the realm of politics.

Economic participation and opportunity is the second least-developed of the gaps. After a year of marginal improvement, the latest index measured the gap as 58% closed. For now, it will take 257.2 years for economic participation and opportunity to be equal for men and women.

When it comes to educational attainment and health and survival, however, the gaps are nearly closed. The global educational attainment gap between men and women is 96.3% closed. Complete parity should be achieved in 13 years at the current rate, with 30 countries already there.

The health and survival gap currently sits at 95.6% closed, following a small decline over the past year (not related to COVID-19). The time until this gap will close is undefined.

Greater care policies needed

For the twelfth straight year, Iceland ranked as the most gender-equal country in the world.

Western Europe remained the region that had made the most progress towards gender parity, with 77.5% of the gap closed, followed closely by North America at 76.4%. With gaps only 61.5% closed, the Middle East and North Africa were again the regions with the most progress left to make.

The countries that improved the most this year were Lithuania, Serbia, Timor-Leste, Togo and the United Arab Emirates. Timor-Leste and Togo were among just four countries (including Côte d'Ivoire and Jordan) that managed to improve their economic participation and opportunity gaps by at least one percentage point since the last report.

Infographic: Years until gender parity by region

To achieve a future with greater equality between men and women, the WEF recommends greater investment into the care sector as well as equal leave policies for men and women. Targeted policies and practices are also needed to overcome occupational segregation by gender. Lastly, the report calls for mid-career reskilling policies and managerial practices which embedded sound, unbiased practices for hiring and promotions.

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