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What Do We Know About the Impact of Gender on the COVID-19 Pandemic?

Series | COVID-19 & response strategy #16


This is the sixteenth document in a series of discussion notes addressing fundamental questions about the COVID-19 crisis and response strategies. These documents are based on the best scientific information available and may be updated as new information comes to light.

Written by Sheila Fernández-Luis, Elena Marbán Castro, Leire Pajín Iraola, Belén Saavedra Cervera and Sara M. Soto González (ISGlobal), the document addresses the impact COVID-19 is having on women and proposals to close the gender gap.  

Disease outbreaks affect women and men differently and often worsen existing inequalities for women and girls. In countries with weaker social protection and health systems, where the informal sector accounts for a larger share of the overall economy, these situations of vulnerability are exacerbated. For example, during the recent Ebola virus outbreak in West Africa (2014-2016), the predominant role of women as caregivers within the family and as frontline health care workers disproportionately exposed them to the virus. Women also suffered indirect consequences of the epidemic, including increased maternal and neonatal mortality. During the 2015-2017 Zika epidemic in Latin America, the direct relationship between the virus and congenital malformations and other pregnancy-related problems was compounded by neglect of women’s sexual and reproductive health needs

In general, health and humanitarian crises disproportionately affect the most vulnerable groups: ethnic minorities, migrants, older adults, people with functional diversity or reduced mobility, homeless people and sex workers, among others. Moreover, these crises exacerbate existing gender inequalities and intersect with the vulnerabilities of the aforementioned groups. The negative gender impact of this type of emergency is especially notable, recurrent and complex, and therefore demands a specific analysis. In addition to epidemiological monitoring, it is essential to analyse the economic, psychological and social factors associated with the infection. The consequences of COVID-19 require a multidisciplinary analysis that takes into account the diversity of the consequences of the pandemic and considers long-term sequelae.

What Impact Is COVID-19 Having on Women?

Although the data analysed to date appear to show a higher mortality rate in men, COVID-19 is believed to have a larger economic and social impact on women. First, since women account for more than 70% of health care and social workers, they more exposed to infection. Moreover, according to a report by the International Labour Organisation (ILO), women tend to work in a segregated, lower-quality and more precarious labour market, so they have fewer economic resources to help them cope with the crisis. Job insecurity increases dramatically during crises, leading to loss of employment and social protection. Consequently, women working in more precarious sectors are especially vulnerable.

Second, since gender roles dictate that caregiving is almost exclusively a woman’s task, women bear most of the burden of the care system. In formal employment (health care, cleaning, social work, service industry, etc.) as well as in informal jobs (housework, caregiving, etc.), this responsibility falls mainly on women. Overall, it is estimated that women spend three times as much time as men on household activities and care. COVID-19 lockdown measures have intensified this burden, leading to a decrease in self-care and an increase in mental health problems. These measures have also limited women’s professional development and increased their risk of exclusion from work. For example, school closures and public neglect of care and education have led to a decrease in women’s formal working hours and, in many cases, an overload of unpaid work. It is therefore not surprising that early data from socioeconomic assessments show that women have endured a greater loss of income and employment, as well as greater job insecurity in the informal economy.

Third, probably the most devastating consequence of the COVID-19 lockdown has been the increase in cases of sexual, physical and psychological violence—reported or not—and the intensity of these incidents. Isolation during confinement has made it more difficult for women to report assaults and, consequently, to receive protection. This difficulty is heightened by the reduced frequency of contact with relatives and other outside contacts, an increase in the amount of time spent with the abuser, and tensions in the household arising from socioeconomic pressures, which in turn could lead to greater abuse of alcohol and other drugs. During the state of alarm in Spain, victims of gender violence submitted 29,700 requests for assistance—57.9% more than the entire previous year. During the same period, the number of calls to 016, Spain’s domestic violence helpline, rose by 41.4% and online consultations increased by 457.9% from 2019 levels.

Finally, there has been a clear imbalance of leadership roles in the response to the pandemic. Despite working on the frontlines of the care system, women are underrepresented in decision-making positions. One example is the emergency committee for COVID-19 assembled by the World Health Organisation (WHO), where women account for just 24% of members. The same is true in the political arena. According to the Inter-Parliamentary Union and the United Nations, only 10 of the 152 elected heads of state worldwide are women. Meanwhile, men make up 75% of members of parliament and account for 76% of appearances in mainstream media outlets. Even more evident is the unequal visibility given by the media to male and female experts. According to Women in Global Health, as of February 2020, for every three men quoted in media coverage of the coronavirus, only one woman had been quoted.

Proposals to Close the Gender Gap

Women’s vulnerability and inequality are exacerbated not only by pandemics but by some of the drastic measures taken to control the spread of disease. At the international level, the WHO, UN Women and other global health institutions such as Women in Global Health have published guides and reports to facilitate the adoption of social, health and economic measures with a feminist perspective. Measures taken to reopen society, transition to a “new normal” and prevent future crises must acknowledge the existence of a gender gap and attempt to reduce it and mitigate its impact

Measures that could be considered include the following:

Analysis and research

  • Draw on lessons learned. Actively seek out and critically read policy statements, impact studies, opinion articles and guides on this and other pandemics that include a gender perspective. Incorporate the lessons learned into policy responses to future outbreaks or other crises.
  • Disaggregate all data by sex and gender in crisis situations to avoid drawing partial or biased conclusions.
  • Systematically incorporate a gender perspective into all research projects, including mechanisms for monitoring and assessing the integration of sex and gender analysis into all stages of the research process.
  • Analyse a wide range of social variables to assess the “invisible” consequences of health crises (e.g. burden of care for dependent persons, episodes of gender violence and sexual abuse) as well as various economic indicators to better assess all the effects of the crisis and recovery trends.

Positive action measures and public policies

  • Further incorporate the gender perspective into the design of policies that address COVID-19 and future health crises and avoid taking steps that exacerbate existing inequalities. To do this, the various technical advisory and decision-making groups involved in the process must incorporate knowledge and experience of gender.
  • Guarantee that women are proportionally represented in both technical advisory and decision-making areas.
  • Actively create venues for debate and opinion-sharing with women who are experts in areas affected by the crisis.

Employment, work-life balance and social protection

Incorporate a gender perspective into the measures taken during the transition to the new normal and future policies to address socioeconomic crises, including positive action measures to reduce inequalities and specific mitigation strategies to address effects in all areas (health, social and economic). For this to be possible, economic policies and social protection programmes that support, empower and boost the independence of women must be implemented. Examples include the following:

  • Introduce measures to compensate for the dysfunctions of public services such as education and care, including corrective and compensatory measures in remote-work models that encourage co-responsibility for work-life balance and reduce the impact on women’s professional development.
  • Facilitate the regularisation, recognition and professionalisation of the dependent care system to improve working conditions in this sector.
  • Take steps to close the gender pay gap and reduce occupational segregation.
  • Ensure that plans for women’s economic empowerment are included in government stimulus packages for various sectors. Social protection benefits, welfare payments, and fiscal, social and employment promotion measures must take into account the specific vulnerabilities and difficulties that women face in gaining access to these forms of assistance.
  • Build alliances with the private sector to close the digital gap and provide women and young people with access to communication technologies to support academic continuity and educational advancement through distance learning.

Education in equality, awareness and gender violence

  • Introduce public policies and awareness campaigns like the United Nations HeForShe campaign, which aims to eliminate gender roles and stereotypes from all areas of society: education, politics, media, advertising, etc.
  • Establish special protocols for reporting, detecting and protecting women against gender-based violence in these contexts.
  • Strengthen programmes aimed at raising awareness and eradicating gender-based violence on the grounds that any aggression against women for being women is unjust, avoidable and worthy of condemnation. The United Nations Secretary-General has urged governments to make the prevention of violence against women a key part of their national response plans for COVID-19.
  • Promote and strengthen gender equality education programmes at all levels of society—schools, universities, working groups and associations—to encourage debate and spread knowledge regarding power dynamics within families and foster a more balanced appreciation of the importance of different jobs and roles in society. This requires a change in how we recognise and support unpaid reproductive and care work.