The scale of human suffering experienced during the COVID-19 pandemic has been grievous and calamitous on all levels. As with most crises, women have been subjected to exacerbated hardships due to existing gender inequalities in the workplace.
According to a report published in January by the International Labour Organization, global female employment suffered a 5 percent fall in 2020, or 64 million lost jobs, versus 3.9 percent for men. Women also received less unemployment support in some countries, in comparison to men. Many experts have sounded the alarm on the potential dire consequences of the exodus of women from the workforce and its impact in reversing years of progress achieved in this area.
The pandemic has revealed just how much our economy has underestimated and devalued the time, effort and sacrifices women give up to provide care for their families. In fact, an average of 75 percent of the world’s total unpaid care work, including childcare or caring for the elderly, is handled by women. In the Middle East and North Africa region, this figure goes up to 80 or 90 percent. Yet few interventions have been directed at helping them reconcile paid employment and unpaid care work since the onset of the pandemic.
Each day, women are losing potential earnings, savings and pensions — all of which will have dire implications for their financial security in the future. In order to recover years of progress attained in women’s employment, policymakers must urgently invest in a suite of family-friendly policies or risk significant economic losses and social distress in the future. Research by the McKinsey Global Institute estimates a global GDP loss of $1 trillion by 2030 if no action is taken to counter the pandemic’s regressive effects on working women. On the other hand, implementing necessary interventions to advance gender equality could yield an additional $13 trillion to the global economy by 2030.
Family friendly policies are a win-win situation for everyone involved, from working parents, children, the elderly and employers, to communities and the economy in general. Thus, it is vital that policymakers introduce a suite of interventions that enable families to flourish economically and thrive socially. A growing body of evidence is revealing the many gains of family friendly policies, such as ensuring financial security, reducing poverty rates, boosting productivity, reducing costs associated with families’ public assistance programs, improving well-being, reducing stress levels and retaining productive, experienced working women in the labor market.
Family friendly workplace policies come in many forms. For example, employers could empower women to opt for flexible working arrangements, remote work or part-time employment as a way to achieve work-life balance. Interestingly, the pandemic has spurred many prominent businesses, such as Facebook, Twitter, Microsoft, Skillshare and Unilever, to switch to long-term remote work. Moreover, employees should be able to avail themselves of different kinds of leave according to their needs, such as maternity, paternity or parental leave, childcare leave and family medical leave. Many companies also offer generous employee and family health benefits, such as health insurance and discounted memberships at fitness or wellness centers for employees, their spouses and children.
Furthermore, investment in universal, affordable and quality childcare and early education services for children with working mothers yields an estimated minimum of a 7 percent return to society. Several studies have pointed out the benefits for children of providing universal childcare services, such as improved learning outcomes, better health, reduced school drop-out rates and higher earnings as adults. Universal childcare also gives working women the flexibility in balancing their work responsibilities while being active, supportive mothers as well.
Family-friendly policies also extend to designing a social protection system that supports working women during dire times. Support can take the form of unemployment benefits, cash transfers for low-income families, housing grants and child allowances. This ensures that working women are not left in a precarious situation whereby their well-being and those under their care are compromised in any way. Additionally, governments need to ensure that minimum wage levels are set for women so that they have enough to support their families, including their ability to pay for food, education and childcare.
The COVID-19 pandemic has shed light on the importance of family-friendly labor policies that address the modern working woman’s needs for reconciling paid work and unpaid care work. By investing in a package of family-friendly policies, women can play a bigger role in society, enabling them to contribute to the economy and reap a plethora of benefits for everyone. It is not too late for nations to change the narrative surrounding working women and prove that gender parity is a powerful driver of economic success and societal wellbeing.
- Sara Al-Mulla is an Emirati civil servant with an interest in human development policy and children’s literature. She can be contacted at www.amorelicious.com.
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