Commentary by Guyonne Kalb, University of Melbourne. Co-Chair of TF6. Originally published on ISPI’s website

Over the past few decades, most developed countries have made substantial progress in increasing female labour force participation supported by policies assisting families to combine family responsibilities and work. Northern European countries are ahead in terms of family-friendly policies, and this is reflected in female labour force participation, which is higher in these countries, especially for women with children. In many countries there remains a large difference in how paid employment and caring roles are shared between genders, but generally speaking there is continuing progress.

Progress has been made, but still not enough

However, it is not just the family-friendly policies that are important. Despite large differences in terms of family-friendly policies, most developed countries assign equal importance and equal rights to men and women. Domestic violence is a crime, and although that still does not prevent women from being much more likely to be a victim of this crime, women can go to police or support organisations and their complaint will be taken seriously. Equal pay for the same work is enshrined in law (e.g. the Workplace Gender Equality Act 2012 in Australia), and although in practice women are earning on average less than men in most countries, they can make a case based on this law (which female soccer players in Australia did successfully in 2019). Sexual harassment and bullying are sackable offences in the office, and most employers have a process for employees to lodge complaints and for complaints to be investigated by an independent party. Although again not perfect, and women are still the ones most likely to suffer the negative consequences in harassment cases, improvements in awareness have provided women with a recourse of action, and women are less likely to suffer in silence today than they once were. An example of this is the #MeToo movement which has unveiled several high profile offenders, and women have sought justice against sexual abusers and harassers.

It is all these policies combined that are important when seeking to reach equality in the labour market, and family-friendly policies will not do much good when the other policies are not in place or not properly enforced. What governments, employers and male partners do every day is going to affect women’s outcomes in the labour market. Providing women equal access to the labour market can only work when men have equal access to the family-friendly policies in their workplaces that enable workers to balance work and family, so that caring roles can be more equally shared; and when men are actually making use of this access.

The impact of COVID-19 on gender inequalities

COVID-19 has (had) a disproportionate impact on women, with the employment in female-dominated occupations (such as services) more affected than employment in male-dominated occupations (such as construction). E.g. in Australia, women were considerably more affected than men: they were nearly 2 percentage points more likely to lose employment at the height of the lockdown and in a second lockdown in Victoria (one of the Australian states), women were nearly 3 percentage points more likely to lose employment and slower to recover when the economy re-opened. In the Netherlands, female non-essential workers are found to experience a 1 to 1.5 percentage point larger reduction in employment and working hours compared to male non-essential workers but there is little difference by gender for essential workers. In addition, the closing of childcare centres and schools has also affected women (who do the lion share of the caring tasks) more than men, with working from home complicated by the simultaneous childcaring and home-schooling. However, interestingly in some countries it has also had the result of involving men (now working from home in large numbers) more in the day-to-day caring tasks. As such, COVID-19 may also be a catalyst for change in gender roles, but the question is whether this larger involvement of men in caring roles will persist when life turns back to “normal”.

The picture for developing countries is much bleaker, and COVID-19 has made a bad situation worse. The gap between genders has remained much larger in developing countries, and has probably received much less attention than in developed countries. Partly this may be because many men are not doing well either, or because a famine, war or unrest is going on, the effects of which are now compounded by COVID-19. In unstable circumstances, it is often women and children that are suffering the most as they are most vulnerable and physically less strong. However, even in stable circumstances, in those countries where women do not have equal rights to men, and where male family members determine what a woman can and cannot do, achieving empowerment in the labour market may seem an unachievable goal.

Acting now through the G20

However, it is useful to remember that in developed countries, the road to more equality between genders has been a long one. In the early 1900s, women in the UK were not allowed to vote, which led to the suffragette movement, and over several decades in the 20th century changes improving gender equality were introduced bit by bit, and changes are still ongoing now. We cannot expect to change things overnight, but we should not wait to start change; it is likely to take a long time, so the time to start is now. How change can be best achieved should be informed by the thinking of women (and men) in the relevant developing countries; each country will be different and may need a different approach. Their ideas and suggestions should provide the G20 with tools to develop appropriate policies to support women everywhere in starting to make a change towards more empowerment in life, after which empowerment in the labour market is likely to follow (as it did in many developed countries).

As women make up around half of the world’s population and are often still the primary carer of the next generation, their wellbeing and success are crucial to the global economy now and into the future. A focus on policies and actions seeking to empower women and reduce inequalities faced by women is therefore well within the purview of the G20.