The impact of COVID-19 on gender equality

May 4, 2020

The pandemic will have a disproportionately negative effect on employment opportunities for women compared to men.

Note: This blog is part of Lustig, N. & Tommasi, M. (2020). El COVID-19 y la protección social de los grupos pobres y vulnerables. UNDP. (Forthcoming)

In a recent paper, Alon, Doepke, Olmstead-Rumsey, and Tertilt (2020)* discuss how the current economic downturn caused by COVID-19 will affect gender inequality in the labor market, in both the short and long run. In this regard, the authors explore data on the distribution of women, men, and couples across different occupations in the United States, as well as time-use data and division of labor in housework.

In the short term, the authors predict that the pandemic will have a disproportionately negative effect on employment opportunities for women compared to men.[1] At least two factors suggest that the effects of this crisis on women vis-à-vis men are very likely to be different from those of other economic downturns. Firstly, previous recessions, such as the recent 2008-2009 crisis, have affected men's employment much more severely than women's employment. One of the reasons is that relatively more men work in sectors heavily affected by a "standard" downturn (such as manufacturing and construction), while women's employment is concentrated in less cyclical sectors (such as health and education)[2]. However, COVID-19 is different from other crises. On the one hand, it has a big negative impact on service occupations with high female employment shares, such as restaurants and hotels. On the other hand, it has a great impact on occupations where it is more difficult to adopt telecommuting (or remote work).

Secondly, an even more important factor for differential impacts on women and men is that, in the course of the pandemic, most countries have decided to close schools and day-care facilities, which has dramatically increased the need for childcare. In addition, grandparent-provided childcare is now discouraged within this context, due to the higher mortality rate for the elderly; and, given social distancing measures, sharing childcare with neighbors and friends is very limited. Therefore, most families have no choice but to take care of their children themselves. Based on the existing distribution of childcare responsibilities in most families, mothers are likely to do more of these tasks than fathers. And it is expected that, in particular, single mothers, who frequently find themselves in a disadvantaged economic position, will be the most affected.

What differential effects can be expected between men and women in the labor market in Latin America? To explore them, one possibility would be to study the distribution of occupations by gender and the characteristics of workers based on data from surveys or administrative sources. It is also expected that there will be distinct effects according to the socio-economic characteristics of women. On the one hand, the occupations that are most easily adaptable to work from home or to do telecommuting are probably those that require greater skills (or higher education), and thus low-skilled women will be the most affected, since they usually belong to more vulnerable economic groups. On the other hand, the help of grandparents (or relatives) in childcare is probably more necessary in the lower social strata, where women have limited options to delegate childcare. Additionally, isolation measures will certainly affect families with young children more, since their care requires greater dedication than in the case of adolescents. Finally, workers in the informal sector are probably more affected by the crisis and, in turn, are the least protected by the State. Furthermore, this sector usually consists of a higher proportion of women than men. These factors could indicate not only that women will be more affected than men in their job opportunities but, moreover, within that group, low-skilled women from lower strata who belong to the informal labor market and / or are younger, will likely be more exposed to and affected by this crisis.

On the other hand, in order to measure the effect of the crisis on single mothers in the region, one could also use survey data or standardized tests that contain questionnaires about the socio-economic environment of students (for instance, in Argentina, the “Aprender” or ‘Learning’ tests). This information was useful for analyzing household composition and estimating the percentage of single-parent families.

Despite this gloomy outlook, Alon et al. (2020) consider that COVID-19 may bring about certain changes that have the potential to reduce gender inequality in the labor market in the long term. In this regard, they identify two channels through which this pandemic could accelerate a shift in social norms and expectations.

The first, through more flexible work arrangements. For the first time, many companies are adopting work-from-home and telecommuting on a large scale. It is likely that, through “learning by doing”, some of these changes will persist over time. Consequently, workers will gain flexibility. Since mothers currently bear a greater burden when combining work with childcare, they will surely benefit relatively more from these changes than men[3].

The second, through changes in the division of labor at home and in family models. While in many cases mothers will be responsible for most of the additional childcare (and schooling at home) during the crisis, there will also be a sizable fraction of families where role models will be reversed. Many fathers will work from home during the crisis and, at the same time, undertake childcare responsibilities. Therefore, they will also experience an increase in the number of hours they devote to childcare. This increased exposure is likely to have some persistent effect on future contributions to childcare.

In particular, the greatest impact on the division of labor is expected to happen in couples where fathers have temporarily turned into the primary childcare provider. This could be the case of couples where both parents work, and where the father can or is forced to do so from home during the crisis, while the mother continues to work outside the home (for example, in the health sector). The literature that studies the effect of policies bringing about a similar change (such as different forms of paternity leave) suggest that such reallocation of tasks within the household often has persistent effects on gender roles and the division of labor (see for instance, Farré & González 2019, and Tamm 2019). Therefore, these changes are expected to push social norms towards greater gender equality in providing childcare and doing housework.


* This blog is based on notes by Alon, Doepke, Olmstead-Rumsey & Tertilt, 2020.


Alon, Titan, Doepke, Matthias, Olmstead-Rumsey, Jane, & Michelle Tertilt. 2020. “The Impact of COVID-19 on Gender Equality”. National Bureau of Economic Research, No. w26947.

Coskun, Sena, & Husnu Dalgic. 2020. “The Emergence of Procyclical Fertility: The Role of Gender Differences in Employment Risk.” CRC TR 224, Discussion Paper Series No. 142.

Davis, Steven J., & Till von Wachter. 2011. “Recessions and the costs of job loss.” Brookings Papers on Economic Activity, No. 2:1–72.

Farré, Lídia, & Libertad González. 2019. “Does Paternity Leave Reduce Fertility?” Journal of Public Economics 172:52–66.

Goldin, Claudia. 2010. “How to achieve gender equality.” The Milken Institute Review, pp. 24–33.

Stevens, Ann Huff. 1997. “Persistent effects of job displacement: The importance of multiple job losses.” Journal of Labor Economics 15 (1): 165–188.

Tamm, Marcus. 2019. “Fathers’ parental leave-taking, childcare involvement and labor market participation.” Labour Economics 59:184–197.

[1] It is important to mention that the effects of this shock will possibly last longer than the epidemic itself. Much of the literature states that income losses caused by job losses are very persistent (e.g. see Stevens 1997) and much more severe when they occur in recessive contexts (Davis & von Wachter 2011).

[2] These facts are documented in a recent paper by Coskun and Dalgic (2020). For instance, the authors find that in the "public employment" and "education and health services" sectors, employment is countercyclical. In the United States, these two sectors account for 40 percent of women’s employment, but only 20 percent of men’s employment. Conversely, the highly cyclical sectors of "Industry", "Construction" and "Trade, Transport" account for 46 percent of male, but only 24 percent of female employment.

[3] Goldin (2010) points out that one of the main reasons for the gender pay gap is the lack of flexibility in work arrangements and work schedules, particularly in the financial and business services area.