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1. Introduction

It has been well established that gender equality is both a social and human rights issue. In recent years, research has amply demonstrated that it also makes economic sense: according to one estimate, greater gender equality has the potential to add $13 trillion to global GDP over the next decade.1 In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic has made gender equality even more of an economic imperative. As economies struggle worldwide, there is an urgent need for policymakers to restore confidence, preserve financial stability and revive growth, aligning short-term solutions to medium- and long-term sustainable objectives. One of the greatest, but most overlooked, assets in solving these challenges is the empowerment of women.

The vast majority of women around the world want – and need – to work. And they already perform vital roles. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), women account for 70 per cent of workers in the health and social sector.2 Were it not for these workers, as well as women performing other essential jobs, it is impossible to imagine how countries would be navigating the COVID-19 crisis. Healthcare workers did not hesitate when the pandemic struck: they were at the forefront of the emergency response and remain so despite the harrowing work and the dangers of contamination for themselves and their families. Moreover, the pressures that the pandemic has placed on women are not confined to high-risk workplaces: when lockdowns have been imposed, women fortunate enough to be able to work from home have often faced additional extraordinary demands, such as having to home-school children and manage the household, all on top of doing their regular jobs.

Other women, many of whom are now out of work due to COVID-19, are eager to start their own businesses – not only to support their families but also to provide employment in their communities. Whether leading a country or village, starting and managing a business in the formal or informal economy, productively engaging in the workforce or overseeing household responsibilities (including budgeting, scheduling, cooking, raising children, caring for elders), women approach tasks with an entrepreneurial spirit. They know how to improvise and make the most out of the resources available. In today’s disruptive times, leaders and policymakers ignore women’s solution-driven innovations at their peril.

Given high levels of female employment in customer-facing roles,3 women’s jobs and livelihoods are more vulnerable to the economic fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic than are men’s. Conversely, improving women’s working opportunities and incomes – and the quality of jobs available – has the potential to dramatically boost the wider economic recovery.

While delivering the 18th Nelson Mandela Annual Lecture on 18 July 2020, UN Secretary-General António Guterres described inequality as an issue that ‘defines our time’ and risks ‘destroy[ing] our economies and societies’.4 Based on compelling evidence in recent years that advancing gender equality not only raises corporate profitability but also benefits society more widely, it is not too late to reverse the trend warned of by Secretary-General Guterres. However, action is required immediately to remove the barriers inhibiting women from entering and fully participating in employment and entrepreneurship. These barriers are not just limiting women’s rights and opportunities; they are severely limiting the recovery at present.

To address the challenges of COVID-19, and build resilience while ensuring the world becomes more gender-equal, the Chatham House Gender and Inclusive Growth Initiative assembled more than 80 global thought leaders from international organizations, the public and private sectors, the corporate world, NGOs and academia for a series of roundtables entitled ‘Beyond the Pandemic: Designing the Roadmap for a Gender Equal World’. Participants in these virtual events collectively developed a gender-inclusive action plan to enable states, the private sector and civil society to implement a faster, fairer and more sustainable economic recovery from the downturn associated with COVID-19.

The conclusion was very clear: now is the time to build resilience by significantly investing in social infrastructure (childcare, education and healthcare), which will boost employment, earnings, economic growth and gender equality.5 Such investment would immediately remove some of the barriers that have hindered women’s full participation in economic activity, and highlight for investors the ways in which the equitable participation of women is critical to a faster socio-economic recovery.

In the action plan that follows, emphasis has been put on policies, measures and ideas that have demonstrable potential and are immediately implementable in different geographies or business sectors, including in countries at varying levels of economic development.

1 Madgavkar, A., Krishnan, M., White, O., Mahajan, D. and Azcue, X. (2020), ‘COVID-19 and gender equality: Countering the regressive effects’, McKinsey & Company, 15 July 2020, https://www.mckinsey.com/featured-insights/future-of-work/covid-19-and-…ts?cid=eml-web.
2 Boniol, M., McIsaac, M., Xu, L., Wuliji, T., Diallo, K. and Campbell, J. (eds) (2019), Gender equity in the health workforce: Analysis of 104 countries, working paper, Geneva: World Health Organization, https://www.who.int/hrh/resources/gender_equity-health_workforce_analysis/en/.
3 Such as accommodation, food services and more generally tourism, retail and other services, including public administration, the arts and recreation.
4 United Nations Secretary-General (2020), ‘Secretary-General’s Nelson Mandela Lecture: “Tackling the Inequality Pandemic: A New Social Contract for a New Era” [as delivered]’, 18 July 2020, https://www.un.org/sg/en/content/sg/statement/2020-07-18/secretary-gene…0%9D-delivered.
5 Sochet, L. (2019), ‘The Child Care Crisis Is Keeping Women Out of the Workforce’, Center for American Progress, 28 March 2019, https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/early-childhood/reports/2019/03/28/467488/child-care-crisis-keeping-women-workforce/.