The covid-19 pandemic has deepened the multidimensional crisis with adverse effects on gender equality. Women have borne the brunt of the economic and social fallout of the pandemic due to pre-existing inequalities. As the data from the Covid-19 Global Gender Response Tracker (gender tracker henceforth) collected between March 2020 and August 2021 show, out of a total of 3,099 social protection and labour market measures adopted in response to the pandemic, only 12 per cent targeted women’s economic security and just 7 per cent provided support for growing care demands.
The gender response varied widely across regions and countries, reflecting differences in existing policy legacy, institutional capacity, and fiscal space. Europe, North America, Australia and New Zealand had the highest number of measures (494 measures), leading the response on unpaid care work. They were followed by Latin America and the Caribbean (414 measures) which largely focused on women’s economic security. Low-income countries in Africa and Asia introduced fewer gender-sensitive measures compared to other regions but nonetheless implemented some innovative policy interventions despite institutional and financial constraints.
The emergence of covid-19 not only required a rapid policy response but also affected the processes by which decisions regarding policy measures were made. To help address the quickly evolving crisis, governments rushed to create covid-19 task forces – special governance and advisory mechanisms to help coordinate the pandemic response. In this process, top decision-makers mainly relied on pre-existing male-dominated executive structures and networks, often without adequately consulting parliaments, civil society and other stakeholders. As a result, women have largely been absent in these bodies. This reflects pre-existing power gaps, patriarchal structures, discriminatory laws, and long-standing social norms biased against women in politics. As the gender tracker shows, of the total 262 task forces globally, women made up only 24 per cent of members and were completely missing in 10 per cent of all task forces. Women were also underrepresented in leadership positions, accounting for just 18 per cent of task force leads. As with gender-sensitive measures, women’s participation in task forces was highest in Europe, North America, Australia and New Zealand, followed by Latin America and the Caribbean.
What then contributes to a gender-sensitive response and women’s representation in covid-19 decision-making? Among the key enablers are strong democratic institutions and women’s parliamentary representation. Democratic institutions provide a conducive environment for channeling societal demands and holding decision-makers accountable. This creates space for gender equality advocates to shape government responses and enable women’s participation in decision-making positions.
Both a country’s (a) level of democracy and (b) women’s representation in national parliaments are closely associated, which has been reaffirmed in the pandemic context. Strength of democratic institutions and pre-existing women’s political representation were associated with the extent to which women participated in covid-19 task forces during the pandemic. Women’s participation in pandemic task forces was on average 16.6 percentage points higher in countries with higher female representation in national parliaments compared to those with low women’s representation. As shown in Figure 1, over 60 per cent of countries with higher women’s representation in national parliaments before covid-19 also had a high presence of women in their covid-19 task forces, but only 6 per cent of countries with low women’s participation in parliaments did. Vice versa, half of countries with low women’s representation in national parliaments also had a low share of women in covid-19 task forces, compared to only 16 per cent of those with higher women’s representation in parliaments. This implies that women’s greater representation in elected office before the pandemic increased their chances of participation in covid-19 response structures.
Figure 1 Proportion of Women in Covid-19 Task Forces by Female Representation in Parliament
Source: UN Women and UNDP (2022)
Finland exemplifies a relatively robust gender-sensitive policy response and balanced women’s representation in covid-19 decision-making, which can be largely attributed to the pre-established policy legacy, democratic governance structures and well-financed welfare systems. As my new paper demonstrates, during the pandemic Finland provided substantial support to families with emphasis on working parents, including parental leave and monthly childcare benefits. The policy response by the Finnish government has been reflected in financial expenditures. In 2020, its overall 2020 budget on covid-19 related measures amounted to €8.6 billon (3.6 per cent of GDP), and spending on families with children alone accounted for €7.3 billion (3 per cent of GDP). Finland’s overall expenditure on social protection in 2020 was €75.6 billion (32 per cent of GDP), ranking it amongst the highest spending countries during the pandemic.
Regarding women’s political participation, Finland has long enjoyed high levels of female representation in politics, as women have consistently held over 40 per cent of parliamentary seats since 2007. When the crisis hit, Finland established 10 covid-19 task forces in which women have made up on average 48 per cent of members and accounted for one third of task force leaders. Despite these efforts, the response has not been sufficiently gender-transformative. Notably, the support provided to working parents has not been commensurate with the amount of unpaid care and domestic workload fallen mainly on women, especially during school and childcare closure. In 2020, mothers took 90 per cent of all maternity, paternity and parental leave days, whereas out of nearly 42,000 recipients of child home allowances, only 6 per cent were male. This points to the persistently unequal intra-household distribution of unpaid care work even in countries like Finland, thereby constraining women’s participation in the economy.
Based on the analyses of the global and national policy responses to the covid-19 crisis, one of the key lessons that can be learnt is the importance of investing in a comprehensive social protection system, strengthening democratic institutions, and improving gender-balanced political participation. Countries like Finland that had already established these conditions were better able to respond to the pandemic and mitigate its most drastic impacts, including through a gender lens. Such approacesh can contribute to a more effective policy response and protection of the population against future crises.
About the author
Dr Esuna Dugarova is an expert in multidisciplinary research, analysis, and evaluation of public policy issues, including social protection, poverty reduction and gender equality, within the sustainable development agenda globally and in Eurasia particularly. She is a co-founder of the UNDP-UN Women COVID-19 Global Gender Response Tracker. Esuna has authored nearly 50 publications and holds a PhD in Asian Studies from Cambridge University. More info: esuna.info.