COVID has widened the gender gap: it will now take 135.6 years to close the gap worldwide

Week of 29 March 2021

COVID has widened the gender gap: it will now take 135.6 years to close the gap worldwide

The World Economic Forum’s 2021 Gender Gap Report is out, and it shows that we are falling behind on ensuring equal opportunity for men and women globally. The biggest reason is the COVID-19 pandemic and evolving labour market dynamics shaped by this global crisis. It will now take 135.6 years to close the gender gap worldwide, with the largest gaps in political empowerment. WEF outlines three key ways to recover previous gains and move ahead: investing further into the care sector and ensuring equitable care leave; proactively bridging occupational segregation by gender; and investing in re-skilling while embedding unbiased hiring and promotion practices.

The Gender Gap Report is published annually—this year in its 15th iteration—and “benchmarks the evolution of gender-based gaps among four key dimensions (Economic Participation and Opportunity, Educational Attainment, Health and Survival, and Political Empowerment) and tracks progress towards closing these gaps over time.”

The report benchmarks gender equality in 156 countries, scoring and ranking countries on a 0 to 100 scale based on the four criteria listed above. According to WEF, “scores can be interpreted as the distance to parity (i.e. the percentage of the gender gap that has been closed).”

Key findings for 2021

    • Global decline in parity from 2020 to 2021: “Globally, the average distance completed to parity is at 68%, a step back compared to 2020 (-0.6 percentage points). These figures are mainly driven by a decline in the performance of large countries. On its current trajectory, it will now take 135.6 years to close the gender gap worldwide.
    • Largest gaps in Political Empowerment: “Across the 156 countries covered by the index, women represent only 26.1% of some 35,500 parliament seats and just 22.6% of over 3,400 ministers worldwide. In 81 countries, there has never been a woman head of state, as of 15th January 2021. At the current rate of progress, the World Economic Forum estimates that it will take 145.5 years to attain gender parity in politics.
    • Economic Participation and Opportunity improving “marginally’: According to this year’s index results, 58% of this gap has been closed so far. “The gap has seen marginal improvement since the 2020 edition of the report and as a result we estimate that it will take another 267.6 years to close.
    • Two opposing trends shape slow progress on closing Economic Participation and Opportunity gap: “On one hand, the proportion of women among skilled professionals continues to increase, as does progress towards wage equality, albeit at a slower pace. On the other hand, overall income disparities are still only part-way towards being bridged and there is a persistent lack of women in leadership positions, with women representing just 27% of all manager positions.”
    • The pandemic is having an unseen effect on gaps: “[T]he data available for the 2021 edition of the report does not yet fully reflect the impact of the pandemic. Projections for a select number of countries show that gender gaps in labour force participation are wider since the outbreak of the pandemic. Globally, the economic gender gap may thus be between 1% and 4% wider than reported.”
    • Progress on education and health, with closed gap in sight: “In Educational Attainment, 95% of this gender gap has been closed globally, with 37 countries already at parity. However, the ‘last mile’ of progress is proceeding slowly. The index estimates that on its current trajectory, it will take another 14.2 years to completely close this gap. In Health and Survival, 96% of this gender gap has been closed, registering a marginal decline since last year (not due to COVID-19), and the time to close this gap remains undefined.”
    • COVID had a worse effect on women workers than on men workers: “Early projections from ILO suggest 5% of all employed women lost their jobs [as a result of the pandemic], compared with 3.9% of employed men. LinkedIn data further shows a marked decline of women’s hiring into leadership roles, creating a reversal of 1 to 2 years of progress across multiple industries,” especially in industries with higher participation of women such as the Consumer sector, Non-profits, and Media and Communication.
    • Unpaid labour is driving inequity: “Additionally, Ipsos data from January 2021 shows that a longer ‘double-shift’ of paid and unpaid work in a context of school closures and limited availability of care services have contributed to an overall increase of stress, anxiety around job insecurity and difficulty in maintaining work-life balance among women with children.”
    • “Jobs of tomorrow” are leaving women behind: “The COVID-19 crisis has also accelerated automation and digitalization, speeding up labour market disruption. Data points to significant challenges for gender parity in the future of jobs due to increasing occupational gender-segregation. Only two of the eight tracked “jobs of tomorrow” clusters (People & Culture and Content Production) have reached gender parity, while most show a severe underrepresentation of women.”


Key conclusions and ways ahead

    • COVID and labour market dynamics may “have a scarring effect”: “Through the combined effect of accelerated automation, the growing “double shift”, and other labour market dynamics such as occupational segregation, the pandemic is likely to have a scarring effect on future economic opportunities for women, risking inferior reemployment prospects and a persistent drop in income.”
    • How to tackle these challenges: “Gender-positive recovery policies and practices can tackle those potential challenges:
      • “First, the report recommends further investments into the care sector and into equitable access to care leave for men and women.”
      • “Second, policies and practices need to proactively focus on overcoming occupational segregation by gender.”
      • “Third, effective mid-career reskilling policies, combined with managerial practices, which embed sound, unbiased hiring and promotion practices, will pave the way for a more gender-equal future of work.”

Read the full report here: World Economic Forum, Global Gender Gap Report 2021 (March 2021)

“The COVID-19 pandemic has raised new barriers to building inclusive and prosperous economies and societies. Pre-existing gender gaps have amplified the crisis asymmetrically between men and women, even as women have been at the frontlines of managing the crisis as essential workers. The hardest hit sectors by lockdowns and rapid digitalization are those where women are more frequently employed. Combined with the additional pressures of providing care in the home, the crisis has halted progress toward gender parity in several economies and industries. Gender-sensitive recovery strategies will be critical in making up ground lost during 2020 to prevent long-term scarring in the labour market. Leaders have an unprecedented opportunity to build more resilient and gender-equal economies by investing in inclusive workplaces, creating more equitable care systems, advancing women’s rise to leadership positions, applying a gender lens to reskilling and redeployment and embedding gender parity into the future of work.”

Saadia Zahidi Managing Director and Head of the Centre for the New Economy and Society, World Economic Forum, Global Gender Gap Report 2021 (March 2021)