The study findings were compiled into a policy brief that was published in English, Spanish, Portuguese, and French and were covered by several outlets, including the Economist, the World Bank, Foro Económico, and El País. The policy brief was also presented at public events, including a joint seminar by the World Bank and the United Nations, as well as in a public World Bank Webinar targeting academia, think tanks, international nonprofits, governments, and civil society in Bolivia, Chile, Ecuador, and Peru.
Survey results showed that at the onset of the COVID-19 crisis women were 44% more likely than men to lose their jobs. As the crisis evolved and temporarily unemployed workers started to go back to work, the difference in job losses among women and men persisted. Two reasons emerge most strongly. Highly female-intensive sectors—trade, personal services, education, and hospitality—explain 56% of all job losses, and the presence of school-age children at home is linked to a rise in job losses among women, but not among men. Details and additional key findings of the study include the following:
- Job losses from the COVID-19 crisis have disproportionally affected women, and this difference has persisted. The first round of data collection (May 2020) showed that 56% of women lost their jobs either temporarily or permanently, a rate 44% higher than that for men. Data from the second (June-July 2020) and third (July-August 2020) survey rounds show that, as individuals started returning to work, the gap between men and women remained virtually unchanged. By the third round of data collection, the difference in total job losses between men and women was still 15 percentage points, and the permanent job losses affected one woman in five.
- The depth and breadth of this employment shock for women was observed across all countries in the sample. In all 13 countries, women were more likely than men to lose their jobs between round 1 and round 3, though not all countries were affected equally. In the first round at the onset of the crisis, the highest gender gaps were found in Costa Rica and Honduras, where women were 25 percentage points more likely than men to be unemployed. Bolivia and Peru exhibited the narrowest gap (10 and 11 percentage points, respectively), but also some of the highest overall unemployment rates in the region.
- Women tend to work in sectors that rely more heavily on face-to-face interactions and are thus more vulnerable to social distancing measures. Indeed, the most female-intensive sectors explain most of the observed job losses (56% of the job losses were concentrated in trade, personal services, education, and hotels and restaurants, according to the first wave of data collection), and these are four of the five most highly female-intensive sectors, employing 60% of females before the crisis. This pattern suggests that gender gaps in labor outcomes are being exacerbated as a result of the COVID-19 crisis. Job losses among females not only widen economic gender gaps but can exacerbate other intrahousehold imbalances by reducing women’s empowerment, lessening their intrahousehold bargaining power, and exacerbating intimate partner violence.
- Pre-pandemic wage employment, internet access, and education are found to increase the probability of remaining employed, but effects differ between men and women. Using a multivariate regression approach, the study explored the factors that correlate with the probability of remaining employed across the three survey waves. Relative to self-employment, pre-pandemic wage employment is associated with a greater likelihood of remaining employed after the COVID-19 crisis, and this is the largest difference found in the model. It is likely that pre-pandemic wage employment operates through the increased job security that formal jobs offer and the ability of firms to adapt to the crisis relative to self-employed workers, who are more likely to own informal firms.
- High educational attainment (i.e., at least secondary education) is associated with greater resilience to job loss. This result may be related to the type of work pursued by educated workers. Educated workers may pursue relatively more nonroutine cognitive employment tasks. These results may also be consistent with more educated workers’ higher productivity and evidence that unemployment decreases as years of education rise.
- Women are more likely than men to lose jobs because of increased childcare and household responsibilities, given that social norms encourage women to become the primary family caregivers. Results two months after the onset of the COVID-19 crisis (May 2020) showed the presence of school-age children in the household was not associated with the probability of remaining employed. As pandemic-related job losses persisted, caregiving remained a more relevant factor in unemployment for women than for men.
- As of August 2020, most sectors do not show signs of a recovery among female workers, and those that do mostly involve lower-quality jobs. Only 42% of individuals who had been employed pre-COVID-19 were working in the same sectors in August 2020. Essential sources of employment among women, such as trade, personal services, and education, remain at considerably lower levels of operation. Also, the distribution of women workers across types of jobs has changed. Before COVID-19, 61% of female workers were paid employees and 33% were self-employed. By August 2020, 53% were paid employees and 38% were self-employed.
Bank Group Contribution
The analysis was conducted by the LACGIL, which works in partnership with World Bank units, aid agencies and donors, governments, nongovernmental organizations, private sector firms, and researchers to support impact evaluations and inferential research to generate evidence on what works in closing gender gaps in human capital, economic participation, social norms, and agency. In addition, the LACGIL disseminates findings to improve operations and policy making in the design of cost-effective interventions that tackle gender inequalities and drive change. The High Frequency Phone Surveys, the main source of data for this study, were collected by the World Bank Poverty and Equity Practice.
The study raised awareness concerning the unequal effects of the pandemic on women, and it helped produce better-informed policy making by prompting discussion on the unequal adverse effects of the pandemic on women. The dissemination efforts of the report targeted policy makers, World Bank offices, academics, international organizations, the civil society, and the wider community of stakeholders, prompting them to take action for an inclusive recovery. With this effort, the report has triggered discussion on the most effective ways to tackle gender disparities and has furthered the World Bank’s role in generating and disseminating evidence promoting gender equality.
The study provided greater insights into the gender implications of COVID-19 that will be key to informing the design of effective policy responses. Specific policy recommendations arising from the study for future responses and actions include the following:
- By targeting the women most affected by the crisis, safety net programs can help households to mitigate the pandemic’s negative shock and continue to invest in children. The most affected groups include female-headed households, informal and domestic workers who do not benefit from social protection coverage, and unemployed females. Moreover, cash transfer programs may also support self-employed women in restarting their businesses, considering that most female-intensive sectors are also more prone to be affected negatively by social distancing measures. Since cash transfers can be implemented with limited person-to-person interactions and at a low cost, they are effective measures to implement in a COVID-19 context.
- In the medium term, policies could aim to raise the resilience of self-employed and less well-educated workers, especially women. This might include providing liquidity and other financial support through lines of credit or financial services for women-owned firms. These initiatives may also be combined with training and mentoring, incentives for formalization, and business plan competitions. In addition, after economic activities outside the household resume, policies might facilitate access to formal caregiving support and elder care and promote measures to recognize, reduce, and redistribute the burden of unpaid work within households.
- Ensuring the availability of disaggregated and representative data may help when designing more specific and well-targeted policies. Country-specific policies may be needed to maximize the impact of policy actions. HFPS data can be used at the country level to identify specific gender gaps and tailor policy responses. The transmission channels identified in this note focus on women’s economic conditions. However, the COVID-19 crisis may also influence their agency and human endowments, such as health care and education. This possibility drives the need for gender disaggregated and representative data that can assist in measuring the impact of the crisis on such dimensions. Dimensions requiring study include school dropouts and educational attainment, early childhood development among boys and girls, access to health care services, time spent doing household chores, potential changes in social norms and attitudes, and the greater risk of violence against women and girls.