Betting on women's leadership as we recover from COVID-19

March 8, 2021

This year, International Women’s Day shines the spotlight on women’s leadership and the need for gender equality in a post COVID-19 world. Surely the pace of reform is too slow, and we know that the pandemic is threatening to push us back into the kitchen and even further away from the board room. Even before the pandemic, women’s leadership statistics were at best “disappointing”. Despite being 25 years out from the adoption of the Beijing Platform for Action, women still only account for 25 percent of the world’s parliamentarians and less than seven percent of heads of state. When it comes to economic decision-making and financial power, in other words the stuff that really counts, the sad reality is that women comprise a miniscule number of the top brass in the corporate world--only seven percent of the Fortune 500 CEOs are women. Their earning potential remains well below that of their male colleagues, with a gender pay gap averaging 20 percent. Juxtapose this with women’s education: In nearly all regions, women make up a higher level of tertiary graduates, yet despite this, continue to lag behind men when it comes to leadership in nearly all professions.
 COVID-19 threatens to reverse years of progress for gender equality and women’s leadership. Women who carried a disproportionate share of unpaid care work in the home, estimated at three times as much as men, are now also having to manage household hygiene, homeschool their children, while also sustaining their livelihoods. This, in a context where women account for more than 54 percent of overall job losses while accounting for only 39 percent of formal employment.
And everywhere in the world more and more women experience violence in their homes, on the streets and in the workplace. The pandemic has only intensified this shadow pandemic of violence against women, in every region and cultural context. It is estimated there are at least 15 million cases of gender-based violence for every month of lockdown. Staying safe while feeding and educating one’s family is no small challenge. While right now women may not have the time to put towards professional or political advancement, I would argue that betting on women’s leadership is the best way for us to propel our nations out of this pandemic and this requires concrete policies and action.
Even before the pandemic the World Economic Forum argued that closing the gender gap in economic participation by 25 percent by 2025 could increase global GDP by US$5.3 trillion. We now know that companies with more gender-balanced boards and stronger female leadership report higher returns on equity, sales and invested capital. Look no further than New Zealand, Taiwan, Germany, Norway, and some of the small island states led by women such as Barbados, Aruba, and Sint Maarten, to see how adept women political leaders are managing the crisis. A recent article by the Harvard Business review showed that confirmed COVID-19 deaths in the first half year of 2020 were six times lower in countries led by women.
The world is also counting on a group of outstanding women to steer our global economic recovery, with Janet Yellen heading the US Treasury; Kristalina Georgieva, Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund and Christine Lagarde, President of the European Central Bank and Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, recently appointed to lead the World Trade Organization.
Imagine how much better off we would be if we had equal participation of women in all leadership positions and across all sectors and an equal sharing of the burden of care in the household. This would mean more women in non-traditional sectors such as policing, engineering, in executive management in the public service and private companies and as business owners and investors.
Realizing this dream will require governments,  private companies and individuals working together. It will require rapid changes in discriminatory laws and practices that deny women’s basic equal rights, From decisions concerning their own body, to those effecting their economic rights. It would also mean policies that reduce the care burden on women, eliminate discrimination in tax and fiscal policy, and a radical increase in investments to ensure services to enable women to realize the right to feel safe in their home, on public transport, in public spaces and in the workplace. Here in Latin America and the Caribbean, where 39 percent of households are headed by a woman and 26 percent are single-parent households headed by women, policies that enable women to safely re-enter the workforce are also the vital antidotes to preventing families from sliding back into poverty while safeguarding economic recovery.
The Beijing Platform for Action continues to provide the blueprint for what needs to be done. Twenty-five years later, as the world contemplates its way out of the dire situation COVID-19 has put us in, we should finally put the resources down to close gender gaps. Let us look no further than to the women who have shown incredible resilience and skill in managing households while standing at the frontline of the pandemic. Let us hope they are not left behind when some level of normalcy returns, and our economies start roaring.