The wait for gender parity just got a generation longer

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the world was already facing a lengthy runway to reach gender parity: 99.5 years. But the harm disproportionately inflicted on women during the crisis means that the wait is now a generation longer, totaling 135.6 years, according to a new report from the World Economic Forum.

Women’s concentration in industries hurt most by COVID-19 lockdowns and the caregiving demands of the pandemic, which has shuttered schools and day-care centers, have stalled progress toward gender parity in several large economies and industries over the past year. WEF estimates that 5% of women have lost their jobs during the pandemic, versus 3.9% of men, and it cites separate research from LinkedIn that shows women are being hired more slowly in some industries as the job market recovers.

Iceland is the most gender-equal country in the world for the 12th time, followed by Finland, Norway, New Zealand, and Sweden. Of the Group of Seven countries, France was ranked highest at No. 16, followed by the U.K. and Canada at Nos. 23 and 24, respectively. The U.S. moved up 23 spots to No. 30, Italy jumped 13 spots to No. 63, and Japan climbed one notch to No. 120.

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WEF’s Global Gender Gap Report, now in its 15th year, calculates gender equality across 156 countries based on four subindexes: economic participation and opportunity, educational attainment, health and survival, and political empowerment.

Men and women have nearly reached parity in education and health worldwide, but the gender gaps in the economy and politics have proven especially stubborn.

The gender discrepancy in economic participation and opportunity, unchanged from the last year, is a function of women’s relatively low labor participation rate—53% versus men’s 80%, based on the latest available data—and the dearth of women in senior and managerial positions. Women remain scarce at the highest corporate levels even in the most advanced economies. Women account for just 42% of top roles in the U.S., 37% in the U.K., 35% in France, 27% in Italy, and 15% in Japan.

The pandemic hasn’t helped.

Women were already working a longer proverbial “double-shift”—professional work during the day, caregiving duties at night—than men, but remote schooling and closed care facilities have demanded that women carry out even more labor at home, the WEF report says. The longer double shift has resulted in reduced working hours for women, reversed the gains in women in leadership positions, and led to more women dropping out from the labor force.

Women’s political empowerment, meanwhile, slid backward in 2020 by 2.4 percentage points. They remain woefully underrepresented among parliamentarians and ministers, accounting for 26% and 23% of such positions globally.

WEF recommends that countries respond to the pandemic’s disastrous effects on women by prioritizing investment in the care sector and equitable access to caregiving leave for both working men and women.

“The pandemic has fundamentally impacted gender equality in both the workplace and the home, rolling back years of progress,” Saadia Zahidi, WEF managing director, said in a statement. “If we want a dynamic future economy, it is vital for women to be represented in the jobs of tomorrow.”

All told, the WEF report puts a fine point on a lesson that’s well-learned by now: that the pandemic hasn’t just highlighted inequalities, it’s exploited them.

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