The Covid-19 pandemic has been catastrophic to working women all over the world, mainly due to the existing gender inequalities in the workplace. According to a recent report published by the International Labour Organization, women lost 64 million jobs during the pandemic, which is a 5 per cent total loss versus 3.9 per cent for men.
Whilst countries rushed to provide necessary unemployment support to affected segments, in some countries, women received less support in comparison to men. Experts are sounding the alarm on the potential ominous consequences of women’s exit from the workforce, reversing decades of progress achieved in this field.
Across the globe, working women have had to deliver essential care work themselves due to lockdowns, school closures, and suspension of childcare services. Duties include caring for infants and toddlers, helping school-age children with distance learning, or caring for a family member who is disabled or chronically ill.
The absence of support services have made it extremely difficult for working women to reconcile full-time work and care work. Single mothers have been especially vulnerable during this period due to them shouldering most of the care burden themselves.
The pandemic has exposed the lack of support systems for working women who have to give up so much time and effort to care for their families. Interestingly, an average of 75 per cent of the world’s total unpaid-care work, including childcare or caring for an elderly, is managed by women.
In the Middle East and North Africa region, in particular, this figure rises to 80 to 90 per cent. It is evident that the lack of adequate support systems have burdened working women during the enforced lockdowns, to the point of forcing them to permanently exit the workforce.
Women have a lot to lose out in the long-run if proper family-friendly policies are absent. Every day, they are losing potential earnings, savings, and pensions, which could hinder their financial security and risk significant economic losses and social distress in the near future.
Win-win situation for all
Research conducted by the McKinsey Global Institute argues that if no action is taken to reverse the regressive effects on working women, the global economy could face a global GDP loss of $1 trillion by 2030. Alternatively, introducing crucial family-friendly policies could potentially yield an additional $13 trillion to the global economy by 2030.
Indeed, it can be argued that family-friendly policies bring forth a win-win situation for all parties involved, from working parents and their children or elderly parents to employers and society. Thus, it is imperative that governments design policies that enable families to thrive, both economically and socially.
Much evidence supports the benefits of establishing family-friendly policies in workplaces, such as safeguarding financial security, decreasing poverty rates, enhancing productivity, reducing costs associated with families’ public assistance programs, improving well-being, reducing stress levels, and retaining productive, experienced working women in the workforce.
Many companies regularly compete with the title of being family-friendly or crowned as best companies for working mothers. There are many established family-friendly policies in companies, such as flexible working arrangements, remote work, or part-time employment as a way to achieve work-life balance.
In fact, the pandemic has prompted many renowned multinationals to allow long-term remote working, such as Facebook, Twitter, Microsoft, Skillshare, and Unilever. Moreover, employees are allowed to take different kinds of leaves, such as maternity, paternity or parental leave, childcare leave, and family medical leave. Offering health insurance to employees and their families is also considered a best practice in many companies.
Perhaps one of the most important services for working mothers is access to universal, affordable, and quality childcare and early education. This option enables working women to reconcile work responsibilities whilst being nurturing, present mothers as well.
Higher earnings as adults
Evidence shows that investment in such policies yields a minimum of 7 per cent return to society. Additionally, research points out the numerous benefits for children who have access to quality childcare and early education, such as better learning outcomes, better health, fewer school dropouts, and higher earnings as adults.
Furthermore, social protection systems need to cater to families, and in particular working women, that go through hardships. There are different support measures that need to be offered, such as unemployment benefits, cash transfers for low-income families, housing grants, and child allowances.
Such measures will ensure that working women are given adequate support so they do not fall in precarious situations that compromise their well-being or those under their care. On another note, policymakers need to prioritise equal pay and adequate minimum income levels for women to ensure they have enough to fall back on and be able to pay for essentials, such as food, education, health care, and childcare.
The Covid-19 pandemic has emphasised the need for family-friendly labour policies that support modern working women in their dual responsibilities of paid work and unpaid care work. Globally, family-friendly policies have enabled women to reconcile their contributions to the economy whilst caring for their loved ones.
It is high time that nations realise the massive economic and social benefits they could reap from investing in family-friendly policies. After all, gender parity has the power to pave a brighter future for all involved.
Sara Al-Mulla is an Emirati civil servant with an interest in human development policy and literature