Progress on reaching gender parity has stalled and even gone backwards in the COVID-19 pandemic. Women have borne the brunt of the recession, widely dubbed the ‘shecession’, largely because they work in sectors that were most impacted, such as retail and hospitality.
It will now take more than 135 years to close the gender gap worldwide, up from 99 years in 2020, according to the World Economic Forum’s latest Global Gender Gap Report. So how can business, government and civil society come together to mitigate these impacts on women and build a more inclusive economy?
Women leaders can make a difference
Women like the IMF’s managing director Kristalina Georgieva have already taken leadership in the COVID-19 response, to bring in fiscal measures that can ensure the transitions that need to happen to help women, said Mohammed.
Issues like climate, energy and connectivity all matter to women and there is women’s leadership in all of this. “Women can rule the world”, we now have a broader perspective on what needs to happen in areas like human rights and services, to ensure better inclusion and equality all round.
Ensuring women’s equal leadership and participation, getting more women into decision making, leads to better social outcomes. Young women leaders have a can-do attitude and bring hope.
She added that more needs to happen at a local level, with a better use of domestic resources to “do things differently and see the co-benefits of working across sectors.” In some places, we could probably leapfrog, she added, for example the greater investment in connectivity when education began to shut down.
Policy changes and harnessing purchasing power
The pandemic recession has hit women harder than the 2009 financial crisis impacted male workers, said Richards. “If you lose your job in a recession, it’s harder to regain your earning power. The pandemic will affect women many years into the future, so we need to think carefully how to mitigate these effects so it doesn’t go down the generations.”
Greater diversity in the workforce makes good economic sense, said Jope. Women have great purchasing power, accounting for 75% of the purchases made of Unilever products.
The company has expanded its diversity and inclusion efforts throughout its value chain. He outlined four things that have worked:
1. Leadership from the top, making diversity a strategic priority.
2. Setting targets and holding leaders accountable.
3. Policies, which factor in that there are “many different ways of working and you don’t have to adhere to a 100-year-old stereotype.”
4. Shining a spotlight on unconscious bias in appointments over a 10-year period.
“Grand declarations from top don’t work. We need to stop admiring the problem and get to policy and managerial changes.”
Supporting women-owned SMEs
Unemployment figures for the last quarter in South Africa show unemployment among women at almost 50%, for the expanded definition (those available for work but not looking for a job), said Mabuza. “It’s unacceptable and unsustainable.” Many women own SMEs and she has seen women entrepreneurs who have had to take a step back, now shy to get back into the market.
Financial packages will help, but progress has been slowed by unrest in South Africa. There was a step-change in the vaccine roll-out after business started holding hands with the government, and this can work with equality too.
“Targets work because they are measurable.” Now 40% of government procurement must go to women-owned businesses, which will galvanize new energy in the markets.
Unilever spends a percentage of its budget with women-owned businesses, said Jope. “We can impact hundreds of thousands of women through our value chain, such as the Shakti programme helping women in rural India.”
Climate emergency and food systems
COP26 and action on the climate emergency has taught us the power of collaboration at a business level, said Richards.
The power of different task forces bringing together common frameworks and pooling collaboratively has shown we can make real change. The power of what we can do through our ecosystem shows we can come together on closing the gender gap.
Looking ahead to the UN General Assembly and the Food Systems Summit in September,Mohammed said we need a COVID response that’s more equitable and doesn’t put the burden on women.
Women play a central role in our food systems, and the investment opportunities for business are huge. As we reinstall supply and value chains, let’s think how to make them more resilient, because there will be another pandemic.