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Exacerbating Inequality: Impact of COVID-19 Pandemic on Women and Work


Simi Mehta, Sunidhi Agarwal, Sakshi Sharda, Ritika Gupta, Anshula Mehta

There has always been a wide gender gap in terms of job opportunities, wage gap, and power distribution in the work sector. While the ongoing pandemic has deeply impacted the employment sector all across the world, leaving millions unemployed, worse affected are the women who have been bigger victims of this misfortune for various reasons. To discuss the same, IMPRI Impact and Policy Research Institute organized an online discussion on ‘Exacerbating Inequality: Impact of COVID-19 on Women and Work’, on May 31, 2021. The session started with Dr Simi Mehta, CEO and editorial director, IMPRI, introducing the speaker Dr Aparna Mathur, and Ms Suhela Khan.

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Dr Aparna Mathur, Senior Manager, economics, Amazon, began her presentation by telling the audience about the massive health and economic chaos created by the coronavirus across the world. She explained her experience at the workhouse as an advisor for helping the US government deal with the pandemic and the challenges faced in predicting the virus, its impact, and coming up with strategies to reduce its impact on people of the country.

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She pointed out the self-enforced changes by people including working remotely even before the lockdown was announced, limiting consumer-based activities like eating out, visiting shopping malls, and going to theatres. Ultimately, however, the lockdown had to be mandated to get things under control.

Official US-wide government data showed big increases in unemployment and income losses, food insecurity, housing insecurity, due to the imposed lockdown. While efforts were made to provide relief on a larger scale, the impact of the measures was differential across industries, and groups of people. There is also a significant gap in the way COVID affected different communities and people.

Dr Mathur then introduced the audience to the term “She-Cession” which gained popularity during the ongoing pandemic. The non-participation of women in the labor market increased significantly and particularly for women with children, during the pandemic.

According to a study by Albanesi and Kim, in 2021, the total nonparticipation increased from 70% in spring to 86% in summer. Even in recessions before the Covid recession, women were found to be more affected by job losses than men. The pandemic is also likely to bring structural changes in the types of jobs that will exist after Covid, as many service jobs may be automated away, leading to further job losses. Job sectors dominated by women, which are also contact based such as home health care workers, and leisure sector workers are more susceptible to such changes.

A large number of countries have witnessed larger employment declines among women, especially among parents of school-going children. Employment gaps are widest among those women who cannot telecommute or have flexible schedules. Even in cases where both parents worked from home, productivity declines were larger among mothers of school-age children, as compared to the fathers.

The industries worst hit have been the tourism, and leisure industry, in which women play an important role.

In India, women’s labor force participation was an issue even before the pandemic. According to World Bank data, the women labor force participation fell from 32% in 2005 to 21% in 2019. Unemployment rates of women are 3 times higher than that of men. The difference has only increased during the pandemic. The reasons for such gap include a wider wage gap leading to lower levels of independence among women, higher rates of domestic violence, and higher incidence of early marriage and early childbirth.

Another reason for low LFP in India is that a 2016 survey found that around 40-60% of women and men in rural and urban parts of India believe that married women whose husbands earn well should not work outside the home.

Recent studies have also shown that violence against women in public places, and the risk of sexual assault, and the unsafe work environment, discourage Indian women from entering the labor market. Since women have lower access to mobile phones and the internet than men, it will further divide the LFP, as remote work becomes the norm.

Ms Suhela Khan, lead, EU’s WeEmpowerAsia program, UN women; Ford Fellow, then took over to reflect on how the labor force participation in India is in crisis. She pointed out that there has been increased access to education for women, however, there are deep-rooted issues in the measurement of unpaid and care work done by women.

Women also suffer from a lack of access to infrastructural facilities, like water, technological resources, and so on. They face more challenges than men in cyber workspace. Men are more proficient in navigating through e-commerce platforms than women due to the lack of training and resources for women. Women also have trouble finding jobs with flexible work schedules that they are usually looking for.

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As most of the government policies come into action to benefit workers in the organized sector, 92% of women are involved in the informal sector excluding them from being the beneficiaries of policies and schemes. In India, the process of job creation has not been consistent with economic growth. According to a study on the gender impact of Ebola, it was harder for women to go back to the pre-pandemic stage than it was for men. Lack of access to resources, and unpaid work expectations only add to the burden.

Ms Khan pointed out that rural women have immense potential. During the pandemic also, they are running their businesses effectively. They need access to capital in the form of financial, as well as social capital. As per the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE reports), there have been 17% more job losses for women than double the unemployment rate for men.

There is a need to explore more ways to strengthen women’s networking skills. We have to empower women to navigate through e-commerce platforms. As an initiative of EU’s WeEmpowerAsia Programme, more than 5000 companies have signed the women’s empowerment principles that aim at encouraging better workplace policies for women, better market policies, and better transportation policies to make market accessibility easier for women.

Dr Simi Mehta brought to the notice of the audience that India ranked 94th out of 107 countries in the world hunger index in 2020, and the situation only seems to be getting worse. She also pointed out that the reason women seem to be less participative in the employment sector is that women tend to prioritize their family members’ opinions over their own, which has also had implications for vaccination drive across the country, as women put forward the health of the male family members and their perspectives over their own safety and wellbeing.

The government of India has introduced the Aatmanirbhar package aimed to benefit 80 crores of poor people, which only tends to reflect the extent of poverty in the country. Women also tend to have a lack of access to mobile phones, internet connection issues, and additionally, having to give up their phones for the online education of their children. There has been ample evidence for increased cases of domestic violence ever since the beginning of the lockdown.

Dr Aparna Mathur reflected on the health-focused recession that the world is currently ongoing. She suggested that there is a need for policies at a larger level addressing the gender divide, and such policies are required at the employer level, at the government level, as well as the cultural and legislative levels.

Ms Khan also highlighted the positive side that there is immense job creation potential in the care sector, and it could be greatly beneficial for women if efforts were directed towards that.

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Dr Simi then put forward some questions on the behalf of the audience, asking for recommendations for lack of financial assistance for women in the informal sector by the government, and recommendations regarding tax reliefs for women-led small businesses.

Dr Aparna began responding to the question by stating that efforts by the government have always been gender-neutral, however, it is the implementation where the main differentiation shows up. She also recommended that efforts are needed to go after sectors that are specifically suffering more in the pandemic and providing them with relief.

There is a whole mix of policy needs including financial, social, that should be focused upon to get through the pandemic no matter how much burden it brings in the longer run, as it can be dealt with later, once the pandemic ends. Ms Suhela also came in to point out food security as a major issue in Rural India, and that the government should prioritize the need of the hour.

According to Ms Khan, cash transfer seems like a viable option for helping women working in the informal sector.

Dr Simi read out another question from the audience questioning India’s shame in asking for financial assistance, and what can be done to reconcile such a thought. The individual also queried with Dr Aparna if there is a risk for the third wave, and what should the government do to prepare for it. Ms Suhela first took a turn to answer and mentioned that the realization that India needs help is increasing, and neighboring countries are reaching out to help India.

Dr Simi Mehta also added to it stating that as India has helped out a lot of countries through vaccine diplomacy, it should not be shy to reach out to them when it needs help itself. Dr Aparna also agreed that there should be no hesitancy in asking for help and we can only get through the pandemic by helping each other.

As for the third wave prediction, Dr Mathur mentioned that the previous Spanish flu, for example, also had many waves and thus, it’s better to be prepared and to rather be safe than sorry. She revealed that a lot of the US population is already vaccinated, and that the best way for any country to be prepared was to increase its vaccination capacity.

The session was then concluded by Dr Simi Mehta asking the speaker and discussant for their final insights on the session to which Ms Suhela mentioned that the world has seen the best and worst of humanity, and hopefully this ongoing crisis will soon be resolved with people working together. Dr Aparna also mentioned how insightful and eye-opening the conversation was for her. Dr Simi Mehta, at last, thanked the speaker, the discussant, and the audience, after which the session was ended.

Acknowledgement: Mahi Dugar is a research intern at IMPRI.

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