Notes from a panel session presentation at the Gender Lens Investment Summit 2021 in Pyrmont, New South Wales, Australia on 18 May 2021.

The COVID-19 pandemic has disproportionately affected women and girls. A global gender lens of COVID-19 shows startling inequalities that need to be recognized. In order to address these inequities, we need to recognize where we have come from and what work is left to do.

If we work together in alliances, cut down institutional barriers and harness technology, we can quickly act to make a difference in the long-term outcomes for girls and women (and their children) everywhere.

1. How does gender intersect with the COVID-19 pandemic?

COVID-19 has been a gendered pandemic, disproportionately affecting women and girls on several fronts. The effects of the pandemic have put back progress on Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 5 - Gender equality, which focuses on empowering women and girls, and several other SDGs that are directly related to it.

Women and girls have been disproportionately in situations with a higher exposure to COVID-19 globally. Global data reveals that 70 percent of frontline workers are women and girls (including midwives, nurses and community health workers)1. In these positions, infection rates are three times higher for women than for their male counterparts2. And yet, the global gender pay gap in the health sector is approximately 28 percent, which is higher than the overall gender pay gap at 16 percent3.

Man and a woman in masks talking

Female participation in the labor force has also hit record low levels in certain countries, severely impacted by the closures of schools and day care centres. For example, India has experienced its lowest female labour force participation rate for 30 years4 and the US has experienced its lowest for 33 years5. In the US, 2.3 million women have left labour force over the past year, as compared to 1.8 million men6.

There has also been a gendered impact of the pandemic on rates of poverty: there is an increasing number of people in poverty as a result of the pandemic. This has serious implications on SDG 1, which seeks to eradicate poverty in all its forms, everywhere.

According to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), when compared against original 2021 forecasts, an additional 47 million women and girls will be pushed into extreme poverty as a result of COVID-197. This means that 435 million women and girls will be living on less than $1.90 a day, reversing the positive downward trajectory for extreme poverty in women and girls prior to the pandemic8. The gender poverty gap is therefore expected to widen, especially in the 25 to 34-year-old age group9. In 2021, it is expected that for every 100 men living in poverty, there will be 118 women10. In 2030, this gap is expected to widen further to 121 women for every 100 men11.

Social infrastructure is also critical for gender equity: in 80 percent of households that lack onsite water, women and girls are responsible for collecting water for the household12. Not only does this reveal the gendered impacts of infrastructure and the intersection with SDG 6: Water and sanitation, but also shows the increased exposure and vulnerability of those women who lack this critical infrastructure and are collecting critical essentials.

SDG 4 Education, which seeks to close the socio-economic gaps in access to education, has been one of the most severely set back. School closures due to COVID-19 have impacted 91 percent of learners worldwide13 and are likely to result in many girls never returning to school. UNESCO estimates that 11 million girls and young women are at risk of dropping out of education in the next year14 due to the pandemic's economic impact alone. 130 million girls were already out of school, according to the agency15. The Malala Fund estimates that 20 million more secondary school-aged girls could remain out of the classroom long after the coronavirus pandemic has passed, based on experiences from the Ebola epidemic in Sierra Leone16.

There is also disparity on whether online learning has been able to occur. The growing digital divide between countries has become more pronounced, with an ActionAid survey of 1,219 women aged 18 to 30 in the urban areas of India, Ghana, Kenya and South Africa, showing that only about 22 percent of those who were studying said they were able to continue their education remotely17. This is likely to have extreme consequences on the development of our next generation of women, as just three months of missed schooling can result in 1.5 years of learning loss years later18. But girls lose more than education when schools are closed. They become increasingly at risk of sexual abuse, teen pregnancy, child marriage, forced labour, malnutrition, teen pregnancy, forced marriage and violence19.

A recent report indicates that two-thirds of poorer countries have decreased education budgets since COVID-19 began due to fiscal constraints, which are likely to increase the already high barriers to entry for girls wanting to access education20. This is likely to have severe consequences on both local and global economies, with a World Bank report released in partnership with the Malala Fund in 2018, showing that limited educational opportunities for women and girls who complete secondary school could cost the global economy between $15 trillion and $30 trillion21.

Indian girl working in the farm

2. Do pandemics always have a negative outcome for women?

A thoughtful look at history can teach us many lessons. Looking back can give us perspective about where we are now and where to go in the future.

If you look back at the Spanish flu pandemic in 1918 to 1920, there are some real similarities, as well as a real contrast to what’s happening today with COVID-19.

During the Spanish flu, there were between 20 and 100 million deaths globally – between 1 percent and 5 percent of the world’s population at the time22. Interestingly, the Spanish flu didn’t actually originate in Spain but it was called the Spanish flu because Spain was neutral in World War I (WWI) and therefore was the first to report in the news about it23. Other countries, similar to the beginning of COVID-19, did not want to alarm the public24 and suppressed the real case numbers.

The population curve for the flu is usually a U-shaped (with the youngest and most elderly particularly vulnerable), but for the Spanish flu it was a W-shape25. Men in the middle age groups were most vulnerable, while people over 60 were not impacted26. However the COVID-19 curve is J-shaped where vulnerability increases with age, especially over the age of 60. Similar to COVID-19, the Spanish flu came in waves, hit countries at different times, and resulted in lockdowns and the disinfection of public places27.

Similar to today, there were women and girls in frontline industries, and it was very much women and girls who were nursing patients that had the Spanish flu. In contrast to the COVID-19 pandemic though, the Spanish flu, as well as WWI, actually created opportunities for women in the workforce. Labour force participation increased by 25 percent in the US and women’s rights were advanced, with women starting to get the right to vote a couple of years after the pandemic28. Although women were not able to meet in groups, due to the Spanish flu, women found other ways of communicating (house to house) to push for their political rights.

So, the Spanish flu pandemic (combined with the impact of WWI) actually created opportunities for women to participate in the workforce and this progress assisted in getting their rights recognized. This contrasts with the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has set back progress and increased inequality.

Looking back at previous recessions is also interesting, as historically many have been referred to as ‘mancessions’, due to the significant impact they have had on industries such as construction and manufacturing in developed economies29. There has also been a tendency in certain countries for women to go back to work during recessions, in order to make up for the lost income of their partner30. So in this way, COVID-19 has actually been quite different in that it has disproportionately affected the sectors that female employees tend to dominate, such as hospitality31.

However, if we look at developing countries, the current trend is relatively consistent with previous recessions. In low and middle-income countries, women make up 60 to 80 percent of export manufacturing workers32. As such, when previous recessions like the 2008 Global Financial Crisis (GFC) have occurred and global demand for exports has shrunk, job losses have disproportionately affected these women, who are often already in low-paid, insecure work33. Similarly, previous recessions have also resulted in large numbers of female migrant domestic workers being forced to return home due to loss of work, just as we have seen throughout the COVID-19 pandemic34.

A common theme across countries has been that recessions tend to compound insecurity for vulnerable women. Women who are already in part-time, casual or informal work are less likely to have protections against the financial shocks created by a recession, and women who enter the labor market during a recession are more likely to engage in lower paid work or informal work with fewer protections35. To add to this, austerity measures taken in response to recessions tend to disproportionately affect women, while women’s jobs tend to take longer to recover after recessions, as government stimulus and strategies for recovery tend to focus on male-dominated sectors36.

3. What should be the priority at this point in time?

We need to work under the last sustainable development goal, SDG 17 - Strengthen implementation and partnerships.

It has been said many times that until the whole world is vaccinated, we are still in a pandemic. A pandemic, translated from Greek means pertaining to all people (‘pan’, all and ‘demos’, people). As Jorge Moreira da Silva, the Director of Development Co-operation at the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) states: "Beyond humanitarian and inequality concerns, the problem is that there is no such thing as a half-global recovery. A recovery in OECD countries will only last if all countries are healthy and stable37.

Two african girls writing

With this perspective, there are two critical areas to address: data and the geopolitical dimensions of vaccine distribution.

Data can allow for evidence-based policy making, but what data is collected, and whether population subgroups are identified is critical. For example, the historiography of the African American experience during the Spanish flu pandemic is very sparse and there are therefore significant gaps in our understanding of how race intersected with the effects of the pandemic38. Although big data and its associated analytic possibilities has accelerated since the Spanish flu, the gathering of data remains constricted under COVID-19. Only 37 percent of confirmed COVID-19 cases reported to the World Health Organization (WHO) can be disaggregated by sex and age39. As such, the gender numbers that we considered earlier, are actually an undercount. We need to know who is at most risk and where the greatest need is.

Vaccine distribution is also critical, and the geo-political dimensions are revealing. In Africa, for example, there are pledges for vaccines which would cover 20 percent of the population, but a 60 percent vaccination rate is needed for populations to reach herd immunity40. As Dr. Olatunbosun-Alakija from the Africa Vaccine Delivery Alliance points out, less than 100,000 people in Africa were vaccinated as of February 2021, while in the UK and the US, there were 12 million and 40 million people respectively vaccinated41. Africa imports 99 percent of its vaccines and has scarce capacity to manufacture its own vaccination products42. The pandemic has highlighted this inadequacy of the current system and the need to develop local manufacturing and production capacity in more regions, so that they can become less dependent on aid and imports.

SDG 10 - Reduce inequality within and among countries needs to be a critical dimension of the global response, or the delay will be costly. During the AIDS crisis in the 1990s, it took 7 years for antiretroviral treatments to reach the poorest countries, especially in Africa; and over 12 million people died as a result43.

In parallel with the amplification of vulnerabilities through the gendered COVID-19 pandemic, there has also been promising trends; notably, the acceleration in technology and working across boundaries.

There has been unprecedented escalation in the use of technology for problem solving. In Taiwan, for example, in the first COVID-19 wave, digital solutions were developed to track the supply and demand for masks using a software designed by the citizenry. In Pakistan, electronic passports have been developed to show vaccination status, which is then used to facilitate door-to-door engagement and advocacy.

Black and white people holding hands together

There has been cooperation across government, non-governmental organizations (NGO), investors and business to form problem solving coalitions and alliances, working across borders, sectors and different ways of working. This has included the sharing of data and research globally. For example, Kaggle44 has reviewed all the ‘grey’ literature on COVID-19 and made the analysis publicly available. While some key alliances have been formed to address vaccine distribution, including the WHO’s Access to COVID-19 Tools (ACT) accelerator with its COVAX initiative,45 others such as UNESCO’s Global Education Coalition46 and the World Economic Forum’s COVID Response Alliance for Social Entrepreneurs47 have also sought to find innovative ways to address the flow-on effects of the pandemic’s impact in the social sphere.

Implementing SDG 17 we need to work together, and we need to coordinate and cooperate across countries.

When we see the world as one world, we will see where the greatest need is globally at this point in time and where the greatest impact can be created by our combined efforts.

With research assistance provided by Nishtha Chadha, KPMG in Australia.

Get in touch

1 UN Women. (2020). From Insight to Action: Gender equality in the wake of COVID-19. gender-equality-in-the-wake-of-covid-19-en.pdf (unwomen.org)
2 UN Women. (2020). Spotlight on Gender, COVID-19 and the SDGs: Will the pandemic derail hard-won progress on gender equality?. spotlight-on-gender-covid-19-and-the-sdgs-en.pdf (unwomen.org)
3 This is an average of findings from 21 countries. Boniol, M., McIsaac, M., Xu, L., Wuliji, T., Diallo, K., & Campbell, J. (2019). Gender equity in the health workforce: Analysis of 104 countries. Health Workforce Working Paper 1, WHO. 19039_Gender equity in the health workforce_Working paper For Web.pdf (who.int); ILO. (2018). Global Wage Report 2018/19: What lies behind gender pay gaps. wcms_650568.pdf (ilo.org)
4 World Bank. (2021). Labor force participation rate, total (% of total population ages 15-64) (modeled ILO estimate) – India. Labor force participation rate, total (% of total population ages 15-64) (modeled ILO estimate) - India | Data (worldbank.org)
5 Connley, C. (2021, February 8). Women’s labor force participation rate hit a 33-year low in January, according to new analysis. CNBC. Women's labor force participation rate hit 33-year low in January 2021 (cnbc.com)
6 Ibid.
7 UN Women. (2020). From Insight to Action: Gender equality in the wake of COVID-19. gender-equality-in-the-wake-of-covid-19-en.pdf (unwomen.org)
8 Ibid.
9 Ibid.
10 Ibid.
11 Ibid.
12 Ibid.
13 UNESCO. (2020). 290 million students out of school due to COVID-19: UNESO releases first global numbers and mobilizes response. 290 million students out of school due to COVID-19: UNESCO releases first global numbers and mobilizes response
14 UNESCO. (2020). How many students are at risk of not returning to school? – Advocacy paper. UNESCO COVID-19 education response: how many students are at risk of not returning to school? Advocacy paper - UNESCO Digital Library
15 Ibid.
16 Malala Fund. (2020). Girls’ Education and COVID-19: What past shocks can teach us about mitigating the impact of pandemics. COVID19_GirlsEducation_corrected_071420.pdf (ctfassets.net)
17 ActionAid International. (2020). The impact of Covid-19 on young women. The impact of Covid-19 on young women | ActionAid International
18 Kaffenberger, M. (2020). Modeling the Long-Run Learning Impact of the COVID-19 Learning Shock: Actions to (More Than) Mitigate Less. RISE Insight Series. Modeling the Long-Run Learning Impact of the COVID-19 Learning Shock: Actions to (More Than) Mitigate Loss | RISE Programme
19 UNESCO. (2020). 290 million students out of school due to COVID-19: UNESO releases first global numbers and mobilizes response. 290 million students out of school due to COVID-19: UNESCO releases first global numbers and mobilizes response
20 UNESCO, World Bank. (2021). Education Finance Watch 2021. 375577eng.pdf (reliefweb.int)
21 Wodon, Q., Montenegro, C., Nguyen. H., & Onagoruwa, A. (2018). Missed opportunities: The high cost of not educating girls. Children’s Investment Fund Foundation, Global Partnership for Education, Malala Fund, World Bank. World Bank Document
22 Roser, M. (2020). The Spanish flu (1918-20): The global impact of the largest influenza pandemic in history. Our World in Data. The Spanish flu (1918-20): The global impact of the largest influenza pandemic in history - Our World in Data
23 Ibid.
24 Martini, M., Gazzaniga, V., Bragazzi, N.L., & Barberis, I. (2019). The Spanish Influenza Pandemic: a lesson from history 100 years after 1918. Journal of Preventive Medicine and Hygiene, 60(1), E64-E67. The Spanish Influenza Pandemic: a lesson from history 100 years after 1918 (nih.gov)
25 The middle age groups for men (15 – 24, 25-34 and 35-44) were most impacted. Noymer, A., Garenne, M. (2000). The 1918 Influenza Epidemic's Effects on Sex Differentials in Mortality in the United States. Population and Development Review, 26(3), 565-581. ; Martini, M., Gazzaniga, V., Bragazzi, N.L., & Barberis, I. (2019). The Spanish Influenza Pandemic: a lesson from history 100 years after 1918. Journal of Preventive Medicine and Hygiene, 60(1), E64-E67. The Spanish Influenza Pandemic: a lesson from history 100 years after 1918 (nih.gov)
26 Roser, M. (2020). The Spanish flu (1918-20): The global impact of the largest influenza pandemic in history. Our World in Data. The Spanish flu (1918-20): The global impact of the largest influenza pandemic in history - Our World in Data
27 Martini, M., Gazzaniga, V., Bragazzi, N.L., & Barberis, I. (2019). The Spanish Influenza Pandemic: a lesson from history 100 years after 1918. Journal of Preventive Medicine and Hygiene, 60(1), E64-E67. The Spanish Influenza Pandemic: a lesson from history 100 years after 1918 (nih.gov)
28 Blackburn, C.C., Parker, G.W., & Wendelbo, M., (2018, March 1). How the devastating 1918 flu pandemic helped advance US women’s rights. The Conversation. How the devastating 1918 flu pandemic helped advance US women's rights (theconversation.com)
29 Alon, T., Doepke, M., Olmstead-Rumsey, J., & Tertilt, M. (2020). This Time It’s Different: The role of Women’s Employment in a Pandemic Recession. Working Paper 27660. National Bureau of Economic Research. https://www.nber.org/system/files/working_papers/w27660/w27660.pdf ; ILO. (2010). Women in labour markets: Measuring progress and identifying challenges. https://www.ilo.org/wcmsp5/groups/public/---ed_emp/---emp_elm/---trends/documents/publication/wcms_123835.pdf
30 Gupta, A. (2020, March 31). Why This Economic Crisis Differs From the Last One for Women. New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/31/us/equal-pay-coronavirus-economic-impact.html
31 Alon, T., Doepke, M., Olmstead-Rumsey, J., & Tertilt, M. (2020). This Time It’s Different: The role of Women’s Employment in a Pandemic Recession. Working Paper 27660. National Bureau of Economic Research. https://www.nber.org/system/files/working_papers/w27660/w27660.pdf
32 UNAIDS. (2012). Impact of the global economic crisis on women, girls and gender. https://www.unaids.org/sites/default/files/media_asset/JC2368_impact-economic-crisis-women_en_0.pdf
33 ILO. (2009). Technical Note. Asia in the Global Economic Crisis: Impacts and Responses from a Gender Perspective. https://www.ilo.org/wcmsp5/groups/public/---asia/---ro-bangkok/documents/meetingdocument/wcms_101737.pdf ; UNAIDS. (2012). Impact of the global economic crisis on women, girls and gender. https://www.unaids.org/sites/default/files/media_asset/JC2368_impact-economic-crisis-women_en_0.pdf
34 Ibid.
35 ILO. (2010). Women in labour markets: Measuring progress and identifying challenges. https://www.ilo.org/wcmsp5/groups/public/---ed_emp/---emp_elm/---;trends/documents/publication/wcms_123835.pdf; UNAIDS. (2012). Impact of the global economic crisis on women, girls and gender. https://www.unaids.org/sites/default/files/media_asset/JC2368_impact-economic-crisis-women_en_0.pdf
36 Ibid.
37 Moreira da Silva, J. (2021). Global Crisis, Unequal Problems: If vaccines and recovery remain a developed country luxury, we will remain locked in crisis. OECD Forum Network. Global Crisis, Unequal Problems: If vaccines and recovery remain a developed country luxury, we will remain locked in crisis | The OECD Forum Network (oecd-forum.org)
38 Schlabach, E. (2019). The Influenza Epidemic and Jim Crow Public Health Policies and Practices in Chicago, 1917–1921. The Journal of African American History, 104(1), 31-58. The Influenza Epidemic and Jim Crow Public Health Policies and Practices in Chicago, 1917–1921 | The Journal of African American History: Vol 104, No 1 (uchicago.edu)
39 Bradshaw, S. (2021, March 5). COVID-19: A Man-Made Gender Disaster?. Australian Institute of International Affairs. COVID-19: A Man-Made Gender Disaster? - Australian Institute of International Affairs - Australian Institute of International Affairs
40 Proshare. (2021, March 7). Stakeholders discuss the Need to Finance the Access, Delivery and Uptake of COVID-19 Vaccines. Proshare. Stakeholders discuss the Need to Finance the Access, Delivery and Uptake of COVID-19 Vaccines (proshareng.com)
41 Olatunbosun-Alakija, A. (2021, February 8). The Haves and Have-Nots: The geopolitical dilemma of COVID vaccine equity. OECD Forum Network. The Haves and Have-Nots: The geopolitical dilemma of COVID vaccine equity | The OECD Forum Network (oecd-forum.org)
42 Proshare. (2021, March 7). Stakeholders discuss the Need to Finance the Access, Delivery and Uptake of COVID-19 Vaccines. Proshare. Stakeholders discuss the Need to Finance the Access, Delivery and Uptake of COVID-19 Vaccines (proshareng.com)
43 Ibid.
44 Kaggle. (2021). COVID-19 Open Research Dataset Challenge (CORD-19). COVID-19 Open Research Dataset Challenge (CORD-19) | Kaggle
45 WHO. (2021). COVAX: Working for global equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines. COVAX (who.int)
46 UNESCO. (2021). Global Education Coalition. Home - Global Education Coalition (unesco.org)
47 WEF. (2021). COVID Response Alliance for Social Entrepreneurs. Home > COVID Response Alliance for Social Entrepreneurs | World Economic Forum (weforum.org)