Participants from a virtual event series of roundtables have 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.
3. Where Change Can Happen Now – Examples
Each of the examples in this section was contributed by one or more of the thought leaders who participated in the roundtables. The interventions listed here are not intended to be exhaustive. Rather, the aim has been to identify effective programmes or policies which, in the experience of the relevant roundtable participant(s), can be customized to meet a variety of social, geographic and sector needs in respect of the recovery from COVID-19. The list is intended to provide ideas for boosting both developed and developing economies by bringing women in all their diversity into the labour force.
1. Invest in social infrastructure and family-friendly policies
Affordable, quality and professionalized childcare and long-term care
- According to an International Labour Organization (ILO) macroeconomic simulation, doubling investments in the care economy in order to meet the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2030 would create 269 million new jobs compared to 2015 levels.
- While free or subsidized childcare programmes are in operation in many parts of the world, a successful initiative in Québec, Canada has served as a blueprint for a number of innovative interventions around the world. The initiative was launched more than 20 years ago. It has not only raised the workforce participation rate of women aged 26–44 to 86 per cent but has also succeeded in paying for itself. The increased tax revenue collected from working women, combined with a corresponding reduction in the number of families receiving social benefits, more than covers the costs of the programme – in fact, there is even a net gain in government savings.
- Tackling Childcare: The Business Case for Employer-Supported Childcare, a report published by the International Finance Corporation (IFC), highlights 10 case studies from around the world to demonstrate the value of employees, employers and communities working collaboratively to boost economic prosperity for all stakeholders.
Work–life balance policies to promote shared responsibility for care work
- The EU 2019 Directive on Work-life Balance for Parents and Carers and the OECD’s Toolkit for Mainstreaming and Implementing Gender Equality propose actionable policies and strategies which make paid work compatible with family responsibilities by promoting co-responsibility. In addition, the OECD Toolkit shows more specifically how such policies have been implemented in Sweden and New Zealand.
- In April 2020 ‘The List’ – developed by an industry advocacy group/collective bringing together advertising, marketing and media leaders in the US – celebrated the ‘Ten Companies that Get Family Leave Right’. The family leave criteria can be customized to meet the customs and cultures of companies worldwide.
- The pandemic has made flexible remote working the norm rather than the exception. On the positive side, ‘flexiwork’ has lost the stigma that it once had when almost exclusively requested by women. When women are unable to take advantage of teleworking, however, it is important to understand why this is the case in order to find the appropriate solution. Is it because of insufficient infrastructure/technology (e.g. lack of access to broadband, digital devices, etc.), or insufficient digital skills training and/or literacy? Is it a combination of both? Or is it a question of safety? Once the reasons are identified, they can be addressed through a portfolio of solutions, especially for problems involving infrastructure or digital skills. The question of safety (see next paragraph) is more difficult to solve.
- For many women, the workplace provides a safe environment, whereas moving the workplace in effect to the home may present serious threats to personal safety. The sharp increase in domestic violence reported during the pandemic makes it critical to apply existing rules protecting women and children more stringently, and to develop new ones if necessary to hold to account those responsible for abuse. For example, Futures Without Violence, a US non-profit, and SafeLives, a UK charity, have extensive lists of resources for those experiencing domestic violence, whether during the COVID-19 crisis or beyond. Nevertheless, the increased demand for services to those experiencing or at risk of domestic violence during lockdowns left many of the institutions and organizations that would normally step in to protect women incapable of doing so. While instituting vital public health measures to fight the pandemic, governments around the world failed to assess the possible devastating consequences of home isolation on households. Governments must put in place measures to efficiently combat domestic violence and protect victims, both during a crisis such as the COVID-19 pandemic and in normal circumstances.
Accessible, affordable, quality healthcare
- Countries such as Ireland, Cyprus and South Africa are fast-tracking universal health reforms designed not only to address current needs and challenges but also to protect against future pandemics.
- While global universal healthcare does not yet exist worldwide, government programmes such as the US Affordable Care Act can reduce ‘job lock’ (a reluctance to change jobs because of fear of losing employee benefits), thus indirectly bolstering entrepreneurship by providing the peace of mind that comes with health insurance coverage.
- COVID-19 has created massive disruption in the insurance industry. Private companies, particularly in emerging markets, are finding that they need to transform their business models to address the weaknesses exposed in national healthcare systems. In Egypt, for example, AXA is expanding its range of services, with a particular focus on protections for micro- and small business owners and their families. The insurer is also working to build coalitions between governments and the private sector to cover the diverse and massive risks associated with pandemics, in much the same way as natural disasters are covered.
Social and income protection
- Even before the pandemic, the need for all countries to invest in a minimum level of social protection was urgent. A landmark 2011 report by the International Labour Organization (ILO) found that investing in social protection systems pays off in the short term by mitigating crises, and in the long term by nurturing human development and productivity. COVID-19 has shown that in most countries the administration and design of social safety nets, the operation of the tax system and access to housing, for instance, are inadequate for supporting diverse segments of the women’s population during a crisis. Adequate social protection responses will have to reconsider how societies conceptualize work and value care and other essential services, as employment in these sectors currently offers limited or no social protection and relies on market wages.
- Proposals for moving towards a universal basic income or a minimum guaranteed income to overcome the devastating economic effects of the pandemic have been presented by a number of organizations, including the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC). In a report entitled The social challenge in times of COVID-19, ECLAC proposes immediate implementation of an emergency ‘basic income’, with the possibility of keeping such an income in place over the longer term – depending on each country’s situation – given the understanding that overcoming the pandemic will take time.
- Hawaii’s Department of Human Services has created a ‘Feminist Economic Recovery Plan for COVID-19’, which recommends two simple and immediate protective actions:
- Banning rent increases for six months; and
- Providing ICT technologies and smartphones (with unlimited data plans) to poor families, so that they can access educational and economic opportunities and make online applications for public assistance.
- Protection of women workers in the informal economy requires not only enhancement of relevant ‘hard’ laws, but also awareness-raising in the international sphere so that the development of ‘soft laws’ in the form of international principles, declarations and guidelines can be increased. Examples include adding a gender lens to the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, and to the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises.
2. Accelerate advances in women’s workforce competencies through professional and vocational education
Skilling, reskilling and upskilling
- Barefoot College International, a Tilonia, India-based, not-for-profit social enterprise, developed a rural community training programme to support the installation and maintenance of solar power systems in villages around the world. The ‘Solar Mamas’ scheme targets illiterate or semi-literate older women, using sign language and colour codes to provide instructions on wiring, installing and repairing solar systems. Students communicate across regions and countries via the ‘Barefoot Tablet’, a specially designed device that functions as a cross between a mobile phone and a textbook, featuring speech-to-text and low-bandwidth capabilities. Over the past 10 years, the programme has enabled women to install solar systems in more than 18,000 houses in 93 countries. It has had the added benefit of reducing kerosene use and thus carbon emissions.In August 2020, 13 lead women engineers who had been trained at Barefoot College in Zanzibar, Tanzania were recognized by the president of Zanzibar for their excellent work in installing solar lighting in 950 rural households. The president, Ali Mohamed Shein, has directed government authorities to employ the women. Today, the Tanzanian Solar Mamas are also being trained to produce face masks to mitigate the spread of COVID-19.
- In the UK, the mayor of London is allocating £9 million from the city’s adult education budget to launch the Skills for Londoners COVID-19 Response Fund. This initiative is designed to respond to the needs of London’s adult learners in light of the educational challenges posed by the COVID-19 epidemic. The fund aims to ensure that Londoners can continue to access learning opportunities while classroom settings are closed, by supporting education providers to expand and enhance their online services and equipping them to reach learners at risk of digital exclusion. The fund will allow students to:
- Develop skills necessary to take advantage of new employment opportunities;
- Gain confidence in digital skills as online working and learning increase; and
- Benefit from the wider social and economic gains from participation in learning.
- Initiatives that offer women seniors an alternative to retirement have been implemented in various countries. These capitalize on the experience accumulated by women over their working lives, and are built on the principle that experience is both a currency and a competitive advantage. Programmes such the Intergenerational Incubator in Iota, Japan seek to leverage experience across generations in boosting individual self-reliance and economies locally and globally. The Intergenerational Incubator programme is underpinned by the assumption that entrepreneurship is a mindset, and that no one is too old to be an entrepreneur.
3. Invest in the development of women-owned businesses in all countries
Equitable and inclusive procurement
- The World Bank estimates the public procurement market to be worth the equivalent of approximately one-fifth of global GDP. Regrettably, according to the International Trade Centre (ITC), a joint agency of the United Nations and the World Trade Organization (WTO), women entrepreneurs have access to only 1 per cent of this market. There is an opportunity for governments to increase the number and value of procurement contracts offered to women-owned businesses, for example by establishing transparent quotas for such work. This was the approach taken by ChileCompra, a public agency supervised by Chile’s Ministry of Finance. Realizing that inclusive public procurement represented a unique tool for making progress on several of the SDGs – notably SDG 1 (poverty reduction), SDG 5 (gender equality), SDG 8 (economic growth) and SDG 10 (reduced inequalities) – ChileCompra developed a comprehensive action plan to redesign its public procurement criteria to include social impact. As a result, the proportion of women-owned businesses receiving public procurement funds rose from 21.9 per cent in 2013 to 27.4 per cent in 2017, corresponding to an increase of US$300 million in business.
- South Africa’s president, Cyril Ramaphosa, announced a number of policy changes to advance women’s equality as the country celebrated Women’s Day on 9 August 2020. Top of his list was setting a 40 per cent minimum procurement target for public entities to source goods and services from women-owned businesses. In addition, he committed to making financial services more accessible and affordable to women, as well as to fostering female ownership of assets such as land.
- Private sector corporations are taking steps to ensure that they are increasing their sourcing from women-owned businesses. This can include making commitments to spend a fixed amount on sourcing from women-owned enterprises in emerging markets. It can also involve working with partners around the world to identify potential women-owned firms, or building capacity at such firms by providing them with access to education, mentoring and training.
Business, financial and digital literacy
- Learning entrepreneurship from ideation to business launch is key to economic self-reliance and should be a standard part of the curriculum in schools – the earlier it is taught, the better. One tool of particular interest is the Innovation Sandbox, which applies design thinking and technologies such as blockchain to build innovative concepts and solutions.
- The teaching of entrepreneurship is another essential component to empowering the workers of the future, both female and male. One successful programme in the US is Lemonade Day. It helps young people (from the age of 10) to understand what it takes to start a business of their own. With a curriculum designed to teach business skills, responsibility, financial literacy, goal-setting, teamwork, advertising and marketing, the programme works with schools, a variety of local community organizations such as Girl Scouts and boys’ and girls’ clubs, and local businesses to help young people build and operate a lemonade stand. Each year, cities establish one day as ‘Lemonade Day’ to support the programme. More than 1 million young people in the US, Canada and Bermuda have taken part since its founding in 2007.
- Peace Through Business is a business training and mentorship programme for women entrepreneurs in Afghanistan and Rwanda. Operated by the Institute for Economic Empowerment of Women (IEEW), a US non-profit, the programme has three major components: in-country education, leadership development, and a mentorship scheme known as ‘Pay It Forward’. According to the IEEW, these components ‘combine to create a continuing program to educate women, promote their business and leadership skills, build a strong public policy agenda in the women’s business community, and to help build stable democracies’. The programme’s impact is amplified through partnerships with private corporations such as EY, which provides volunteers who support women entrepreneurs in developing skills in financial literacy, accounting and business strategy.
- The Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship (NFTE) is a global educational non-profit focused on bringing the power of entrepreneurship to young people in low-income communities. Since its founding more than 30 years ago, NFTE has educated more than a million young people worldwide. Its programmes (in-person and online) operate in 25 states across the US and in 10 other countries. This year, NFTE has announced a new direction that will involve customizing its curriculum for entrepreneurs or would-be entrepreneurs aged 55+.
- A good example of a company providing access to information for entrepreneurs is Goldman Sachs. The bank put all of its training materials online for free to help the 95–97 per cent of women-owned businesses in its ‘10,000 Small Businesses’ programme that are negatively affected by COVID-19.
- As highlighted by the successful Girls with Impact programme, educational benefits from support for ‘STEM’ skills (science, technology, engineering, maths) may be enhanced by expanding the model to ‘STEEM’ – i.e., including an extra ‘E’ for entrepreneurship. Lockdowns and related home-working/home-schooling measures in response to COVID-19 have underlined the efficacy of virtual learning opportunities. Girls with Impact teaches girls aged 11–18 financial literacy, business skills and entrepreneurship through online programmes, including introductory innovation and entrepreneurship workshops and multi-week ‘mini-MBA’ courses – all supported by virtual coaches and mentors from the business world. Girls also learn that entrepreneurship is about more than creating a business; it is a mindset for life and work.
Access to ITC and digital tools/platforms to support financial inclusion and e-commerce
- In India, technology is being harnessed in the informal sector to benefit women. This is an issue of particular importance considering that an estimated 94 per cent of Indian women work in the informal economy. The Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA), active in western Gujarat, is collaborating with Airbnb to train women from villages how to host guests and list their homes on the short-term home/room rental service. The initiative has become a source of income and independence for women living in rural villages, as the listing provides employment for women and girls in the travel and tourism sector. This has both social and economic benefits: old traditions and cultures are being revived to engage and entertain guests; and new skills – including languages, digital commerce, e-retailing and data analytics – are building self-reliance among the women and girls.
- In Egypt, technology and mobile telecommunication companies, in collaboration with the Egyptian Banks Company, have made significant advances in financial inclusion by creating secure cash wallets for millions of people. As a result, Egyptian women can now use their mobile phones to pay bills, send or transfer money, deposit or withdraw cash from any ATM, make payments to select merchants and access a number of government services. Most of all, the collaboration creates further opportunities for unbanked Egyptians to join the financial mainstream and increase their economic mobility.
- Standard Chartered bank, discussing some of the opportunities created by instant-payment schemes, highlights the government-led ‘Digital India’ initiative and the ways in which this intersects with India’s Unified Payments Interface (UPI) to facilitate real-time, cash-free money transfers. The initiative is an example of how mobile money is enabling banks to expand their consumer bases, and empowering consumers and owners of small or micro-businesses – especially in emerging markets where many are still unbanked – to take advantage of economic opportunities.
- A project initially focused on India involved a partnership between three non-profit social enterprises (Barefoot College International, Fundación Capital and Dimagi) and Federico II University Naples (Apple Developer Academy) to develop a financial literacy and inclusion curriculum. The programme will prepare users of a transactional digital technology application that is expected to reach 25,000 women in India in the next three years. The B.Barefoot app suite was created with illiterate and semi-literate women in mind, and its designers consulted potential users to ensure that the end product provided appropriate solutions. Field-testing was conducted with 1,800 women, with a first-time user success rate of 98 per cent. Given the impact of the COVID-19 crisis, a series of learning and knowledge trees have been developed using virtual assistants and chatbots as well as an interactive voice response (IVR) platform, to support the financial resilience of those most affected by the economic downturn. Further development plans include testing a similar set of applications within the rural agriculture sector over the coming year and reaching out to other parts of the world.
Innovative financing and business support mechanisms
- A World Bank programme in Jordan increases access to finance for micro-businesses and SMEs. The $70 million line of credit is designed to help scale up new and existing businesses, 73 per cent of which are managed by women.
- The technology around crypto currencies offers a potentially transformative tool for empowering marginalized economic actors, democratizing lending and amortizing risk across a broader network of individuals. US legislators, for instance, have been assessing the opportunities potentially offered by Blockchain in helping women – 42 per cent of whom worldwide still lack access to banks – to take advantage of banking services.
- The Innovative Small and Medium Enterprises (iSME) project for early-stage SME finance, launched by the World Bank in Lebanon in 2019, focused on providing access to funding for women-owned businesses. As of August 2019, the $10.23 million fund had secured $25.47 million in co-financing. In turn, 60 grantees leveraged their iSME funding to raise a total of $13.1 million at a leverage ratio of 5.3.
- A World Bank project in Nigeria targets micro-businesses and SMEs to provide development finance using eligible financial intermediaries and credit guarantees. The scheme is supported by a new wholesale Development Finance Institution (DFI), and also provides technical assistance and support with capacity-building. As of May 2019, the Development Bank of Nigeria had disbursed $243.7 million through banks and microfinance banks, reaching nearly 50,000 borrowers (70 per cent of whom were women).
- In Bangladesh, the Access to Finance for Women SMEs Project is designed to address a $2.8 billion financing gap that currently leaves 60 per cent of the financing needs of women-owned SMEs unmet. The project seeks to overcome women’s lack of collateral by establishing credit guarantees to help women entrepreneurs sustain and grow their businesses.
- Due to a lack of collateral, women in developing countries are often unable to obtain bank loans to run and scale up their businesses. In an effort to counter this problem, Mastercard and Unilever worked together on a pilot scheme, combining distribution data from Unilever and analysis by Mastercard, to develop an alternative metric for loan eligibility among shop owners. Rather than relying on collateral or a traditional credit history to evaluate potential borrowers, the scheme was designed to assess the financial activity of each shop based on the amount of inventory it had bought from Unilever over time (the scheme covered 15,000 small shops in Kenya, the vast majority owned and run by women). The objective was to build historical data to allow women to be included in the financial system. On the basis of the data collected, banks were able to make micro-credit eligibility recommendations, even though the women had no collateral. Sales in the shops that received micro-credit thanks to this pilot scheme increased by 20 per cent within a few months.
- In Vanuatu, tourism is one of the sectors hardest hit by the coronavirus crisis, with women (50 per cent of whom are in the informal sector) having seen their incomes reduced to zero since the country’s borders closed in March 2020. In an innovative collaboration, the formal and informal sectors are successfully joining forces to apply pressure on the government to create policies to help revive the tourism industry, a key driver of economic prosperity for the country.
- In Sri Lanka, the Lanka Impact Investing Network (LIIN) has developed a comprehensive programme called ‘Emerging Women’ to encourage entrepreneurial women and create a more inclusive labour force. It has created an ecosystem to support women social entrepreneurs through education, access to finance and impact investment, as well as coaching and mentoring. LIIN also has a reality TV show, Ath Pavura, which connects investors and social entrepreneurs.
- Prior to the pandemic, women of colour had one of the highest rates of starting new businesses in the US. Like other small businesses, these start-ups were hit hard by COVID-19. However, unlike other entrepreneurs, women of colour are typically underserved by traditional banks and so had less access to the rescue funds managed by those banks. Fortunately, the Community Development Financial Institutions (CDFIs) stepped in to extend loans and grants, ensuring equitable financing to help women and other underserved entrepreneurs striving to keep their businesses afloat.
One of the roundtables in the series focused on rethinking social and cultural norms.
On the path to gender parity, social and gender norms are the most difficult to change because they are tied to individual and social identity. Rooted in cultural beliefs and expected behaviours, they start with early socialization and then become internalized and automatic. They are entrenched in institutions and, even worse, part of an insidious power dynamic that reinforces the norms. The winners are invested in maintaining the status quo because they do not want to give up their power, and the powerless embody an unconscious bias whereby it is easier to conform to a norm than to challenge it.
Everyone has a role to play in challenging assumptions and stereotypes and asking the uncomfortable questions. This is a very powerful first step that families, the education system, communities, companies and governments can take towards debunking harmful assumptions and negative stereotypes, including those around gender. Some governments and companies have, for example, held effective workshops for managers on unconscious gender and other biases. The simple fact of being aware and having that conversation has proven very powerful.
Media can also change norms and perceptions through advertising campaigns. As an example, when Procter & Gamble asked, ‘Is laundry only a woman’s job?’ with its ‘#Share the Load’ campaign in India – something that no brand had asked before – it created a huge debate. The campaign has been running for five years and has positively influenced the mindsets of millions of men (and women). The result is that attitudes are shifting, from 79 per cent of men in 2015 who thought laundry was only a woman’s job to 41 per cent in 2019.