The Pandemic Has Pushed Women Out of Work. These Policies Can Help.

Women in Southeast Asia were more likely to lose their jobs during the pandemic than men. Photo: ADB
Women in Southeast Asia were more likely to lose their jobs during the pandemic than men. Photo: ADB

By Sameer Khatiwada, Souleima El Achkar Hilal

In Southeast Asia, women workers were disproportionately affected by the pandemic. Urgent policy action is needed to address the issue and improve the welfare of women in other areas as well.

The COVID-19 pandemic has had devastating impacts on labor markets worldwide and Southeast Asia is no exception. Although both men and women were hit hard, the greater impact on women must be well understood and explicitly targeted in policies aiming at improving labor markets and people’s lives post-pandemic.

According to our research, the disproportionate impact on women is most evident in the area of job losses.  At the height of the COVID-19 impact on labor markets in the second quarter of 2020, women represented approximately 91% of manufacturing job losses and 58% of overall job losses in Thailand.

Beyond job losses however, the differential impact was reflected in far more labor force exits among women, in all our sample countries and across nearly all ages, while men were more likely to become unemployed. This means that in contrast to men, most women who had lost their jobs were not searching for work and/or were not available to take up work. 

Labor force survey data suggest that labor force exits among women were mainly temporary, and at least as many women re-entered the labor market in the second half of 2020 as those who had left in the first half of the year.

However, a close look reveals that many women who re-entered the labor market did so into ‘lower quality’ jobs than they had prior to the crisis, often informal, own-account or contributing family work. This is indicative of an ‘added worker effect’ or ‘distress employment’ whereby additional family members join the labor force to compensate for lost household income.

It reflects the fact that many low-income households in these countries – in a context of weak social protection and without savings to draw upon – cannot afford to stay without employment income for long. We should ensure that these female workers do not remain ‘trapped’ in lower quality forms of work, which would represent significant disruptions to their working lives, including potential ‘scarring effects’ for young labor market entrants.

The disproportionate impact on women reflected in their share of job losses is largely related to their sector of employment, and their occupations.  In much of Southeast Asia, there remains a significant amount of gender segregation in employment.

The pandemic has painfully highlighted the vulnerability of women in Southeast Asia’s workforce.

Manufacturing – hit hard by the pandemic through supply chain disruptions and declines in global demand –constitutes an important source of female employment, and particularly of wage and salaried work in the region. However, much of this employment remains in lower value-added industries, where wages and productivity – although generally higher than in agriculture and low-skilled services – remain low.

In particular, many workers along global supply chains have temporary contracts, and informal employment remains elevated even within formal enterprises. As a result, they have high levels of job insecurity and limited access to social protection. This compounds the vulnerability of workers in these occupations at high risk from automation.

In the services sector, large shares of the region’s female workforce are in middle-skilled sales and service occupations and low-skilled elementary occupations, which were heavily affected by containment measures and mobility restrictions, and by the decline in aggregate demand and tourism. 

In these occupations, physical proximity is key and few tasks can be undertaken remotely. Conversely,  with the exceptions of health care and education, female employment in higher skilled services and in the professional and associate professional occupational categories remains limited in the region.

Beyond sectoral and occupational segregation are gender-specific barriers to female labor force participation, often rooted in social and cultural norms with respect to gender roles. As schools closed and the health emergency was maintained, women exited the labor market en masse to take care of children and ill relatives. The ‘care burden’ fell more heavily on women, along with its associated trade-offs as women transitioned from paid work outside the home, to unpaid care work within their households.

The pandemic has painfully highlighted the vulnerability of women in Southeast Asia’s workforce, and the growing inequalities across workers, based on skills and the nature of their working arrangements, among other dimensions. As technology and other factors continue to drive these inequalities, improving women’s access to decent work would have substantial spillovers effects for societies and economies.

As countries develop their post-COVID recovery strategies, both demand- and supply-side hurdles to the expansion of decent work for women must be addressed.

On the demand side, labor force activation measures and employment creation incentives must target women. On the supply side, women’s access to economic and productive resources and to skills development (including reskilling and upskilling in digital and technical areas) must be expanded.

 Barriers to female labor force participation must be dismantled, through investing in family support services, and improving legal and institutional frameworks to tackle social norms that discriminate against women, eliminate gender-based violence, protect women’s rights, and recognize, reduce and redistribute unpaid care and domestic work.

Additionally, social protection has a key role to play: as women face numerous disruptions to their working lives, life-cycle programs and policies (including maternity benefits, unemployment insurance) can help limit these impacts. All of these constitute elements of the SDG 5 (gender equality) of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Another critical issue is how climate change affects men and women differently. With the strong impetus building to make post-pandemic recovery pathways green, there may be several opportunities to have a positive impact on both women and climate.

While the pandemic has cast a spotlight on persistent labor market challenges faced by women worldwide, it has also opened a window of opportunity to make decisive policy changes in many other areas as well that benefit women. It is time for policymakers and communities to take action.