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Podcast June 21, 2022

The Poverty Podcast: Gender and COVID-19

As the COVID-19 pandemic progresses, social scientists and economists are delving into how the last two years have affected gender. Women and men have experienced the pandemic differently, but in which ways? The pandemic has cost lives and livelihoods. It has put enormous pressure on global health, wealth, and wellbeing.

But even though everyone went through it together, the consequences and outcomes of the pandemic were not the same for everyone. COVID-19 has made pre-existing inequalities worse, but to what extent and how needs to be better understood to ensure that the policy response now and in the future can be effective and reach those in most need.

Mel: Welcome to the fifth episode of the poverty podcast. I am your host, Mel Fleury. Today, I'm joined by Miriam Muller, a social scientist in the Poverty and Equity Global Practice and Javier Romero, an economist working in the Poverty and Equity Global Practice for Latin America and the Caribbean and the Gender Innovation Lab of the region.

They join us to tell us what we have learned so far about how COVID has affected men and women differently across the different dimensions of gender equality. Our discussion today is based on Miriam's paper, Gender and COVID-19: What Have We Learnt a Year Later? And Javier's paper, The Gendered Impacts of COVID-19 on Labor Markets in Latin America and the Caribbean.

Miriam based her research on a review of global evidence with respect to gender and COVID while Javier based his research on analysis of household monitoring, phone survey data in LAC. Miriam, Javier, thank you very much for joining us today. So, turning to you, Miriam, how has COVID-19 affected men and women differently?

Miriam: We looked at educational health, economic opportunities, and then, agency or the power to make decisions. And I think in a summary sentence, you could say that men have been more likely to lose their lives from COVID, but women have really lost out more than men in terms of jobs, income, safety. So very briefly, if you looked at health, men have been really the net losers. So both death rates, infection rates have been systematically higher among men than women across countries and regions. In certain context, the exposure to infection may be really predetermined a bit by the societal roles that women and men play. What are the social norms? What are the gender norms in those countries where women and men socialize? How present are they in the public space etc. I think social, social norms, gender roles, largely also influence what we observe.

Mel: But your paper also shows that although men suffered more with direct health outcomes from COVID-19, women's health suffered in different ways.

Miriam: Stress, worry, psychological consequences have been really more common among women in countries where we have the data. In some countries, Armenia, Pakistan, I recall, and Senegal, data was collected on these aspects, and it was very obviously pointing towards the direction that women's health in those aspects has been more affected.

Mel: So, what sticks out in your review of the evidence so far is that the COVID-19 pandemic has undone progress in many dimensions for women, but the economic sphere is where women lost more. When it comes to job losses, gender mattered more than education, location or generation. Women were more likely to lose their jobs in the first months of the crisis. The greatest impacts were observed in sectors where women are overrepresented. This led to unemployment and unpaid work in sectors like tourism, hospitality, and retail. Sectors that in many countries employ mostly women. Javier Romero now speaks of the specific economic impacts in the Latin America and Caribbean region.

Javier: What we find there is that women were 44% more likely to stop working at the onset of the crisis than men. And we also see that this effect was persistent over at least six months into the pandemic. One of them is the sectors in which women are over-represented. Many of these sectors were not simply suitable for going with the social distancing measures so retailers and services and so on. These are the kind of jobs that are going to be the most affected by a socially distant world. Then you also have issues of job quality. Some women, again, are overrepresented in the pockets of independent workers, informal workers, workers with no wage. Which also relate to job safe security during this pandemic.

Mel: On top of being more likely to lose their jobs than men, women also faced a dangerous outcome of the pandemic and its lockdowns: domestic and gender-based violence. Because it is such a sensitive topic, gender-based violence is a hard dimension to measure and get data.

For that, the World Bank has reviewed reports that looked at increased helpline calls, police, registrations, and other service providers. Gender-based violence has clear long-term implications for women, their children and societies overall.

Javier, can you tell us a bit more about long term risks from what you have observed so far?

Javier: Risks of long-term effects in gender equality not only for Latin American region, I think in general, globally, we should worry about. One of them, and the most obvious that we have been able to measure is labor force participation and employment.

The progress that has been done in the last three decades, in LAC, and over several decades around the globe in general, we may be going back and, and that means women out of labor force or women in lower quality jobs, not to mention violence. Violence against women have all sorts of effects and it also can have intergenerational effects.

So it's not only about the victim of violence, but it's also about the children in that household if there are any. We also need to think about those implications and if there are also effects in education. If there are effects in human capital accumulation, especially for women, then this might mean lower wages in the future and this might mean lower economic returns for women. There's a whole breadth of potential long-term consequences. But I want to emphasize that we need to think about how to avoid those long-term negative consequences and make it about inclusive growth.

Mel: Now, Miriam, do you have any other thoughts from your end on long term effects?

Miriam: What we've really seen so far with the data that we have at hand is that the general gaps that predated the pandemic have widened. So to oversimplifying countries where labor force participation or economic activity of women was a big problem, you see these gaps widening, gender violence increasing, etc. Across all the different dimensions of gender equality, we've really come to see the progress that we have observed over the last decade or so not stall, but really be eroded. So I think there is a substantial risk actually, that this has long-term consequences if we do not respond adequately.

And I think what's important also to register here is that so far, we've only spoken about women and men in general, but we haven't, and what's difficult because most of the time we don't have adequate data, haven't spoken at all about differences between women or between men.

So how do overlapping constraints affect different women and men differently? What about age? In indigenous women, women in rural areas etc.? Other layers of inequality may actually intersect with gender, and I think this is where we really need to focus the attention going forward in the policy response.

Mel: When it comes to poverty in vulnerable groups, more women than men across the globe live on $1.90 cents a day or less, according to a 2018 World Bank report. The same report found that 122 women between the ages of 25 and 34 lived in poor households for every 100 men of the same age group.

According to that report, not everyone in the same household experiences, the same levels of deprivation and therefore the same level of poverty. Evidence shows that often vulnerable groups, such as women, children, elderly people, or people with disabilities, face larger deprivation in a household.

Javier, how do you see the relationship between gender gaps and gender and poverty?

Javier: I think that the relationship between gender gaps and gender and poverty is that it can lead to a suboptimal outcome for society. I mean, very likely it does. Let's think of society and have an important subgroup that does not have equal access to opportunities or equal access to produce wages or equal access to productivity and to innovate or political participation voices. It is very likely that we are missing a lot of potential talent and then potential wages and potential. So it is very likely that because of gender gaps, we end up in an inefficient equilibrium, a suboptimal outcome.

Mel: As both Javier and Miriam have previously said the COVID 19 pandemic has worsen existing gender gaps.

When we delve deeper, we also find gaps within each gender group, women across the globe, vary from each other. And so do men, one global approach to fix gender gaps will not be able to reflect the breadth of experiences even within the same gender group. As gender intersects with other social demographic characteristics, such as age, race, income, ethnicity, and location.

It is particularly important to take these characteristics into account when aiming to paint a more accurate picture of gender disparities in a specific context. If we can respond to the gaps quickly, we'll face suboptimal outcomes for society.

What can countries do Javier?

Javier: Some countries, not all, but some countries, many will have cash transfers already in place targeting women, especially women with children. That's a population we may want to retarget during the pandemic because of the food insecurity issues that have been brought by other people because of the labor consequences because of the losses of income. We know these are vulnerable groups already. We could target with the registries that are already there, but that's not the case in every country. Some countries cannot do that. And we may want to think a bit more openly and think, okay, maybe what we can target is a specific type of workers where we know women may be overrepresented, for instance, informal workers or independent workers or certain sectors. Do we have an ability in some countries to target those sectors and expand the social coverage into, into those areas?

We also may want to think about ways of restarting businesses and incentivizing specific sectors, where women, again, can be found access to credit, supporting women to entrepreneurs. But in the medium term and in the longer term, I think we need to think about how the pandemic has been teaching us that we need to create higher quality jobs for women in general.

If we think that there's a chance for women to fall behind in, in education, then we need to target that because we know it has implications for future wages. We know we have implications for agents in the future and so on.

Mel: As the COVID pandemic widens the gender gaps, we'll begin to feel the effects unless rapid action is taken to reverse damage, both Miriam and Javier discussed the vital importance of an inclusive recovery from this pandemic.

According to their research educated policy making will be crucial to recover from gender disparities and increase vulnerability of females and males. A strong and inclusive recovery will not be feasible when specific needs and interests are neglected and not proactively addressed. We'll need to work together to close these gaps.

This is our episode for today. Make sure to follow us on Twitter for regular updates at @WBG_Poverty underscore poverty. We'll be back soon with more updates on poverty stories, data and analysis from the world bank Group and its staff around the globe, never miss an episode by subscribing to us wherever you get your podcasts. Stay safe.