The impact of COVID-19 has been like no other. Disruptions to economies, industries, value chains and business models have unfortunately been part and parcel of the last year, with the effects of the pandemic likely to be felt long into the future. One such impact has been on females, particularly in their participation in the labour force and employment.
According to McKinsey, women comprise 39% of global employment, but have accounted for 54% of the overall job losses, indicating a widening of gender imbalance. Other research shows that that there has been a significant decline of women entering into leadership roles which has reversed progress of the last few years, and that female labour force participation has fallen faster than males. Looking ahead, occupationally, the World Economic Forum finds that only in two out of eight jobs of tomorrow is there gender parity, these are people and culture and content production jobs; and that there are wide gender gaps in sectors that require disruptive technical skills such as cloud computing, engineering and data and artificial intelligence.
For India the situation has been even more stark. Some estimates find that 4 out of 10 working women have lost their jobs following the lockdown, while 90% of female businesses have lost revenue considerably.
A variety of reasons can be put forward. Firstly, that females in India and globally are disproportionately located in sectors that have been vulnerable under COVID-19 and lockdown, including the consumer sector, not for profits, food, arts and fashion, retail, hairdressing, cleaning and the media. Second, that the burden of unpaid work and child care has even more significantly fallen on females during COVID-19, thus further constraining participation in the labour force. Time spent on family responsibilities has increased by 30% for women in India during COVID-19 and there is a strong and negative correlation between unpaid work and labour force participation. In a similar vein, are continuing attitudinal barriers and social mores. Further analysis shows that the crisis may have adversely affected ability to access financial capital from within dwindling family resources, thus impacting on female entrepreneurship.
According to a McKinsey survey during COVD-19, Indian (and Chinese) women faced significantly higher challenges than the global average in physical and mental health, increase in workload, job insecurity, opportunities for advancement, healthy work places, and connectivity and a sense of belonging. These factors are heightening stress levels and anxiety for females compared to males.
COVID-19 is exacerbating existing parameters of inequality in India. The latest World Economic Forum Global Gender Gap Report, referred to earlier, which canvasses 156 countries, finds that India overall is rated 140th out of 156th globally for gender gap. With the exception of Pakistan (153rd), the Indian performance is significantly worse than other South Asian countries, BRICS nations (Brazil, Russia, China and South Africa), and other emerging Asian economies. Thus, India struggles for female inequality, when compared with nations of either similar or lower levels of economic development.
Consistent with the findings earlier, what stands out is the poor performance in economic participation and opportunity. India is rated 151th out of 156 for this pillar, which comprises labour force participation (148th), income (148th), percentage of females who are legislators, senior officials and managers (140th) and professional and technical workers (136th). Indian females comprise less than one quarter of the adult labour force, even though the population of females is only slight lower than males. Another related problem is that Indian females lag behind males on education attainment in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics, which arguably are the core drivers of knowledge industries of the future, and on overall literacy, a fundamental need and right. It should be noted however, that India is rated number one in the world in the Global Gender Gap Report for gender equity in enrolments in primary, secondary and tertiary education. However, this is not a measure of completion, quality of education or relationship of education to labour force engagement.
It is important to consider the wide factors that shape women’s empowerment. The World Economic Forum also has pillars for health and survival and political empowerment. On the former, India is rated second worst in the world, 155th out of 156, but fares better on political empowerment, at 51st place. Indian females should utilise their relatively better political empowerment performance for broader empowerment.
Overall, what can be done to improve India’s performance in the economic domain?
First, we argue for well-developed and resourced training and skills development programs to transition out of traditional female oriented sectors towards other growth areas. Second, is to develop broader Government programs with a gender lens. For example, Government procurement could favour female led businesses.
Third, could be to establish a post COVID-19 recovery and reconstruction fund to stimulate female entrepreneurship through loans, grants and other incentives. Fourth, would be to encourage more formal registration of female businesses to avail themselves of Government programs and other benefits. Fifth, could be greater recognition of, and support for, female participation in the gig economy as a “transit” point for entry eventually into more secure forms of employment. Skills gained through participation in the gig economy could be a springboard to other forms of employment.
Sixth, could be the establishment of mentoring programs to prepare females for entry into the labour force and entrepreneurship. Mentors could either be males or females, and potentially involve the successful and vibrant Indian diaspora abroad. Finally, ongoing education on a mass scale, including awareness raising, will be important to shake loose some of the traditional social mores that abound.
Dr. Anand Kulkarni is Deputy Director, Planning, Performance and Risk, Victoria University.
Views are the author’s entirely.
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