We have achieved much in recent history on the path to gender equality, but we have a long way to go to ensure equal endowments, participation, and voice for women.
The stakes are even higher now that the coronavirus pandemic (COVID-19) is ravaging the world, as times of great crisis often put women on the front lines. Women predominate in key roles as nurses, social workers, and caregivers. They are also working as doctors and volunteers, and as political and community leaders making critical decisions about how to address the public health, social, and economic effects of the crisis. Women’s participation will be vital to our success against this shared global threat.
Let us first acknowledge the progress made so far…
Today, we tend to take it for granted that women can vote. But - with the exception of a few frontrunners like New Zealand, Australia, and Finland - universal suffrage became a reality only after World War I. Eventually, voting rights for women were introduced into international law in 1948 by the United Nations Commission on Human Rights.
Women have also taken advantage of increased opportunities to serve as leaders. In 2019, women held nearly 1 in 4 legislative seats worldwide - more than double their share in 1995. Management positions are also more likely to be held by women now than twenty years ago, though parity is still a long way off.
With greater representation comes improved outcomes. Looking at education, the world has seen enormous progress in reducing gaps between girls and boys across a variety of important areas such as enrollment rates and literacy outcomes.
In health, fewer mothers are dying in childbirth and significant increases in female life expectancy have followed. With few exceptions, women now outlive men in virtually every country.
In terms of labor participation, more women in countries at every level of income have been engaging in economic activities beyond non-market work in the home.
Around the world, many national reforms have been enacted in recent years to improve the status of women in the workplace, in marriage, and especially to protect women from violence.
Yet, there is still a long way to go…
Despite this meaningful progress, important gender gaps remain. These vary in scale from country to country and take different forms - from physical violence and deprivations to unequal opportunities in work or political life.
The World Health Organization estimates that over 1 in 3 women worldwide will experience violence in their lifetime.
Sadly, the risk of being subjected to violence increases in times of distress, such as the outbreak of COVID-19. The UN Special Rapporteur on violence against women, Dubravka Simonovic, warned that it was “very likely that rates of widespread domestic violence will increase, as already suggested by initial police and hotline reports.”
Gender disparities also take shape in unequal opportunities to participate fully in economic life. UN Women found that women are less likely than men to participate in the labor market and more likely to be unemployed.
Women are paid less, earning 77 cents to every dollar earned by a man, and bear disproportionate responsibility for unpaid care and domestic work (performing 76 percent of total hours of unpaid care work worldwide). In fact, if women’s unpaid work were assigned a monetary value, one study of six countries has suggested that it would constitute between 10 and 39 percent of GDP.
These opportunity gaps suggest that women could be disproportionately affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. Women make up a larger share of health and social care workers around the world: 70 percent in 104 countries. Also, early analysis from the World Bank indicates that those in caregiving roles may face an increased burden in the wake of school closures, with working mothers finding themselves even more stretched than usual in trying to juggle home-based work, home-schooling, childcare, and housework.
Inequality of access is also a key concern. Globally, nearly 40 percent of women in wage employment are estimated to lack access to social protection.
Women are less likely than men to have access to financial institutions or to have a bank account. Although women-owned enterprises represent more than 30 percent of registered businesses worldwide, only 10 percent of women entrepreneurs have the capital they need to grow their businesses.
These gender gaps impose real costs on society…
As the World Bank Group’s Women, Business, and the Law 2020 points out, “equality of opportunity is good economics.” Indeed, it is estimated that women’s lagging participation in employment and entrepreneurship cost the world about 15 percent of its GDP.
In considering a “full potential” scenario in which women participated in the economy identically to men, McKinsey concluded that this would add $28 trillion (26 percent) to annual global GDP by 2025 as compared to business as usual.
Yet when girls are allowed to dream and realize their potential, we are all better off…
To quote the famous early 20th century Armenian novelist and activist, Zabel Yesayan, “a woman is not born into this world to be pleasing. A woman is born to develop her mental, moral and physical abilities.”
Over the course of history, many women have embarked on a path of self-realization to the benefit of our society. Some are famous, some less so, but each contributed to advancing the world, whether by promoting human rights and peace, forging ahead in science, or serving on the front lines to save human lives and protect public health.
Let us pay tribute to just a few.
Marie Curie was the first woman to be awarded a Nobel Prize (twice!) - in physics in 1903 for her work on radioactivity, and again in chemistry in 1911 for her study of the elements polonium and radium.
The first Chinese female Nobel laureate, Tu Youyou, received the 2015 Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine for her discoveries in advancing treatment for malaria, which have since saved millions of lives.
Katherine Hannan, responding to the Red Cross’s call for nurses, volunteered just as the United States entered WWI and the Spanish flu began to ravage the army and eventually the world. She quickly rose through the ranks to head nurse and superintendent, overseeing 100 nurses.
Mother Teresa was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize in 1979 for her tireless humanitarian work on behalf of the poor and ailing in Calcutta.
And, today, women are helping lead the battle against COVID-19: on March 7, the Chinese authorities recognized 20 female medical workers for their outstanding and heroic role in the country's fight against the coronavirus outbreak.
Carolina Elliott, a local woman from Charlotte, North Carolina, in the United States, is organizing food deliveries to help doctors and nurses get “through grueling 12-hour shifts.” “Because when you’re busy in the hospital like that,” she says, “you don’t have time to think about food.”
Shobha Luxmi is one of the doctors leading the fight against COVID-19 in Pakistan. She heads an isolation ward for coronavirus patients at a Karachi hospital, which receives 500 patients a day. “I have almost been working round the clock. I just get a few hours of sleep, and even then I am thinking about the hospital,” she recounts.
And we also look up to the many anonymous and silent female heroes around the world who are caring for the growing number of sick people and helping the vulnerable who have been affected by the current pandemic.
Despite the added burdens, crises present an opportunity to improve gender equality…
Unfortunately, we are likely to see some setbacks in gender equality during the COVID-19 pandemic and its aftermath. The European Institute of Gender Equality has stated that the closure or near-closure of businesses could have a severe effect on women-dominated professions (such as flight attendants, hairdressers, and tour operators), and unpaid care work will continue to increase.
In highlighting the gendered impact of COVID-19, the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights has stated that, “Targeted measures to address the disproportionate impact of the crisis on women and girls are needed.”
The COVID-19 crisis has put unprecedented pressure on governments, development organizations, and communities. While we strive urgently to respond, we should not lose sight of our goal to achieve gender equality. Instead, we should make it part of our overall effort to tackle these unprecedented challenges and come out stronger afterward.
With contributions from Armine Grigoryan (Consultant, World Bank, Armenia) and Amanda Green (Consultant, World Bank).