Working Towards a Women-Focused Pandemic Recovery


By Samantha Hung

The pandemic threatens to reverse recent progress on gender equality. Making women central to pandemic recovery efforts will help the region to build back better. Here are answers to some of the key questions. 

How did the pandemic affect women?  

The coronavirus pandemic has multilayered gender impact – affecting women and men very differently. It is clear that the pandemic represents one of the most significant threats to gender equality gains in the Asia-Pacific region in several decades.  Let me share three main impact channels:  

Firstly in relation to job losses. Women’s jobs have been severely impacted because women are more concentrated in the sectors that are most hard hit such as tourism.   

In Asia and the Pacific, women’s labor force participation was already declining before the pandemic, and it’s the only region where this is the case. Women’s jobs are also more vulnerable in terms of the informal sector because they lack the social protection floor to support them in periods of crises.  

Secondly, the increased volume of unpaid care work. Women have borne the burden of caring for sick family members, helping children with schoolwork during distance learning, and additional household chores. This has fallen disproportionately on the shoulders of  women and girls.  

Even before the pandemic, women already spent four times more (time) than men on unpaid care work. So this increased burden has hit women harder and made it difficult for many women to stay in their jobs in paid employment.   

Last but not least, the economic and social stress of the pandemic have led to increases in domestic violence.  Across Asia and the Pacific, there were reports that requests for  women seeking help have increased by almost 50% during the pandemic. And therefore, this is being called the “shadow pandemic”.  

During the pandemic, crisis management by women leaders were held up as models, why is that so?  

Women’s leadership is often characterized with traits such as consultation, collaborative and participatory approaches, and also a focus on ensuring that nobody is being left behind.  

These are some of the leadership traits that have been associated with political leaders such as Jacinda Ardern of New Zealand, where we all know that pandemic management has led to one of the lowest infection and mortality rates in the world. But most importantly, whether it’s responding to a pandemic, or leading a business, or leading at community level,  there is a lot of evidence that shows gender diversity leads to positive outcomes.  

Unfortunately, women remain largely under-represented politically with less than a quarter of women parliamentarians across the globe. Let’s hope that these positive role models of female leadership will become the norm in the new normal.  

How can a government make sure that its recovery program can improve gender equality from what it was during or even before the pandemic?  

COVID-19 threatens the important progress made for gender equality and therefore to address these, governments will require very strong and deliberate commitment to protect these hard-won gains.  

There are a few key actions for governments to consider.

The first one is really to deliberately ensure that the gender lens is applied when designing recovery programs. And this means looking at how the pandemic is affecting men and women differently - for example in terms of job losses – and designing targeted solutions rather than a one-size-fits all (solution), or what some gender specialists would call avoiding a gender blind approach.  

Economies need the full range of talent and skills of their population to contribute to growth, and cannot afford to leave women further behind.

Secondly, it’s important to assure that there are enough resources allocated to targeting, addressing gender issues. This could be through gender-responsive budgeting, for example, which also promotes greater transparency and accountability in the budget management process.  

And thirdly and some would argue, most importantly, it’s very critical to address discriminatory social gender norms which underpin gender inequality, whether that be in the job market or the education sector, or many other areas. This would be critical to enabling member governments to address Sustainable Development Goal 5.  

How can a women-focused recovery be beneficial to the economy and society?   

Focusing on women in recovery efforts makes sense from an economic as well as a development perspective.  

We know that job losses have been higher among women than for men. Therefore, it is imperative that recovery strategies prioritize creating decent work opportunities for women as they reenter the labor market. Economies need the full range of talent and skills of their population to contribute to growth, and cannot afford to leave women further behind.  

A recent ADB policy brief on Mongolia found that closing the gender gap in labor force participation rate could lead to 16% increase in GDP over the next 30 years. The potential for growth as well as gender equality is enormous and is a viable economic strategy. 

Beyond the economy, a women-focused recovery goes hand-in-hand with building back better. It holds the promise of inclusion and sustainable growth, by removing barriers to women’s empowerment in all aspects of life, be it in household level, in public life, through education, or in the labor market.  

This is an edited transcript. Watch the full interview here.