Build back better: 3 ways policymakers can improve gender equality

Principal Consultant Cornelia-Madalina Suta shares three key policy areas that policymakers must consider if countries are to ‘build back better’ in a just and gender inclusive way.

We are finally seeing the light out of the pandemic tunnel. Some countries in Europe have started to implement recovery plans, while many are still struggling with the aftermath.

In October 2021, ILO warned of an uneven and gender-unequal COVID-19 recovery. Job losses hit women the hardest and the job recovery is at a slower pace for women. Historical trends have shown us that during a time of crisis, women are more likely to go into inactivity rather than unemployment.

What should policymakers do then to ensure women not only stay in the workforce, but also ensure that the historical gender inequality that has been worsened by the pandemic is improved?

Policymakers at all levels need to design new policies to make the recovery gender equal:

  1. Increase the coverage of care services to make societies resilient to other similar shocks
  2. Reduce the number of years in which we close the gender wage gap
  3. Ensure a just transition at household level

1 Increase care coverage

Policymakers need to increase the resilience of the care services by creating greater access so that women can remain active participants in the labour market.

The care economy is formed of education (starting from early childhood education) and health services and social services (disability, long-term care and elder care). To this day, women make up the majority of the care economy, both in paid and unpaid work.

Before the global pandemic, 36% of inactive EU women between 25-64 were inactive because of care of adults with disabilities or children and other family or personal reasons. The worldwide lockdowns showed how important these childcare, healthcare and social care services are for both genders in employment, which we analysed last year in this twitter thread using Understanding Society longitudinal survey data.

New care responsibilities created by the closing of the schools and little access to social care support reduced women’s labour force participation and forced many to quit paid employment altogether. The slow recovery of employment will make the come-back even harder.

So, how should policymakers respond?

Policymakers must ensure that care services will be resilient in the face of new challenges and improve the access to and coverage of care services. This will ensure a higher participation of women in the labour market in the next decade.

In Europe, we are also experiencing the ageing of the European population, so demand for elderly care is increasing. Yet another reason why we cannot afford to lose any of the existing workforce to inactivity.

Both genders were affected by the closing of schools, so it should not be so hard to understand how important the continuity and expanding of  these care services is to the businesses.

2 Close the wage gap

A set of policies that focuses on closing the wage gap should be considered an important part of ‘building back better’ as countries around the world economically recover from Covid-19.

“COVID-19 has increased the global gender gap from 99.5 years in 2020 to 135.6 years in 2021.”, found the World Economic Forum’s 2021 Global Gender Gap report. Policymakers need to take immediate action to reduce the number of years in which this gap will be closed.

In the last two years, there has been a lot of discussion about the working conditions of essential workers (such as education and health workers). It has been said that many essential workers were not among those receiving a decent wage.

In Europe, women are the main essential workers in education (around 72% of workers in this sector aged 25 and older in 2020) and healthcare and social services (around 78% of workers aged 25 and older).

ILO has been promoting decent wages in these sectors under their Decent Work Agenda. Offering a decent wage in these two sectors would not only attract more workforce (thus helping with increased care coverage) but also increase the wages of 25 million women in Europe. This will, in turn, close the wage gap. According to WEF global gender gap report, this gap persists since more women are in low paid jobs while more men are in high paid jobs.

3 Just transition for all households

As part of building back better policies, we need to ensure just transition not only from the point of view of skills/ jobs but also from point of view of households being able to afford decent living conditions.

To fight climate change, we need to move away from fossil fuels. The recent increase in energy prices will take a toll on households’ budgets.

As single parenthood households are becoming more common in the EU, we need a just transition for all types of households. The majority of single-parent households are headed by women and compared to couples with children, single parents do have higher rates of living in a household with low work intensity, at-risk-of-poverty (AROP), or material deprivation.

As my colleague Jennifer Dicks says in a recent blog, reducing fuel poverty and taking climate action should go hand in hand. Many of these households will continue to face higher prices as they do not have the means to invest in the new technologies (which would bring down the expenses) needed for a successful transition to a low carbon economy.

As suggested by the widening gender wage gap, women have lower incomes than men. So, policy makers need to make sure that households of single women with children are among those that will be targeted by just transition policy interventions and packages.

Considering these three policy areas in the recovery process is only the starting point of making sure the recovery is less gender unequal. There are more policy areas that needs addressing to achieve gender equality.

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Cornelia-Madalina Suta Principal Economist [email protected]

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