by Kathleen Sherwin and Divya Mathew*
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the World Economic Forum estimated that it would take almost 100 years to close the global gender gap. Today, more than a year since the emergence of COVID-19 and days before the Generation Equality Forum (GEF), hard-won gains for gender equality are at risk of rollback due to the disproportionate burden that girls and women have experienced throughout the pandemic.
In addition to concerning increases in gender-based violence and disruptions in access to sexual and reproductive health services, the pandemic’s global economic crisis is swiftly altering women’s economic participation. Before the pandemic, experts stated that narrowing the global gender gap in work made business sense, and would boost global GDP growth. A reversal of progress on gender equality is economically costly. Companies cannot afford to ignore that women’s jobs have been 1.8 times more vulnerable to this crisis than men’s jobs largely because of existing gender inequalities. All around the world, women are experiencing higher rates of unemployment due to job losses or leaving work to manage childcare.
To truly deliver health, well-being, and dignity for all and build back better from the COVID-19 pandemic, girls and women must be front and centre in emergency responses and also in social and economic recovery efforts. The private sector is a powerful partner in advancing gender equality, due to its distinctive position as a catalyst and role model for change. Without private-sector engagement, gender equality, which is instrumental to realizing the Sustainable Development Goals, will not be achieved.
This is why the results of a first-of-its-kind public opinion survey on gender equality, led by Women Deliver and Focus 2030, are more important than ever. The 17-country survey, representing half of the world’s population, reveals that the majority of the global public not only overwhelmingly supports gender equality, but that they expect leaders – political and in business – to take meaningful action to bridge the gender divide. In fact, a fifth of survey respondents said they would boycott or support a company based on the company’s views on gender equality, highlighting that it is both a human rights and economic imperative. The survey findings hold a very clear message that the private sector has a leading role to play in advancing gender equality now, during the COVID-19 pandemic, and beyond.
For the first time, the priorities and perceptions of citizens, especially those who are too often excluded from decision-making processes, can be at the forefront of the gender equality conversation. A stronger understanding of public views can equip private-sector leaders, who are positioned to work across sectors and issue areas and lead public communications and marketing campaigns, with evidence to push for bigger and bolder commitments and accelerate action across the six themes of the GEF.
The following are some of the top recommendations for private-sector action based on survey responses:
1. Making real progress on equal pay and narrowing the gender gap in the workplace
Achieving equal pay was the most popular measure championed by respondents across all 17 countries to achieve progress on economic justice and rights. “Unpaid care, domestic work, and parental responsibilities between men and women” was also cited as the top cause for gender inequality. The private sector can lead women’s economic empowerment by implementing policies that resolve pay inequality in the workplace and help eliminate broader gender disparities in the workplace, such as providing guaranteed parental leave and childcare.
2. Preventing violence and sexual harassment in the workplace and online
This was the most popular measure championed by respondents across the 17 countries to achieve progress on economic justice and rights. As of 2020, 50 economies still do not have legislation protecting employees from sexual harassment. The private sector can establish its own policies and ensure their implementation, and utilize resources to shift norms through public communications and marketing campaigns. In addition, 39% of respondents reported feeling at risk, or knowing someone who feels at risk, of assault or sexual harassment online. As key stakeholders in the digital communications industry, the private sector could make a significant impact on inhibiting cyber-violence at large.
3. Ensuring girls and women are equipped to meet the challenges of tomorrow through access to education and job opportunities in STEM
Many respondents prioritized promoting the training and hiring of women in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) and for jobs related to climate change. Further, “different employment opportunities between women and men” was selected as either the top or second-most reason for gender inequality by respondents in 11 of the 17 countries. It is estimated that by 2030, between 40 million and 160 million women globally may need to transition between occupations, often into higher-skilled roles, to ensure they are not left behind in the age of automation. The private sector is instrumental in ensuring women are represented in these industries.
4. Improving access to accurate online sexual education and sexual health services
Survey respondents selected better access to sexual health services and increased access to information, including comprehensive sexuality education, as top actions. The private sector plays a key role in healthcare delivery, as the leader of global health supply chains, and can invest in technology to deliver better online services.
The upcoming GEF offers a critical opportunity for the private sector to team up across sectors, invest in and leverage gender-disaggregated data, apply a gender lens to all COVID-19 response and recovery efforts, and lead in commitments to bold actions to get the world back on track to achieve gender equality. It will be critical for the private sector to strengthen these commitments by ensuring that they are matched with financing and accountability mechanisms, like the GEF Commitment Maker. Through these recommendations, the private sector can drive real and meaningful change. Gender equality benefits all of us and achieving it will take all of us – and the private sector can lead the way.
*Interim President/CEO, Women Deliver and Senior Manager, Policy & Advocacy, Women Deliver
**first published in: www.weforum.org