Covid-19 pandemic has pushed gender parity back a generation: WEF

Managing Director of the World Economic Forum, Saadia Zahidi discusses the detrimental effects of the Covid-19 pandemic on the gender gap.

SINGAPORE - The global spread of Covid-19 has pushed back gender parity by a generation, says a new report by the World Economic Forum (WEF) released on Wednesday (March 31).

Based on current trends, it will take the world 135.6 years to close the gap, against 99.5 years envisaged before the pandemic.

While much progress has been made in terms of health and education, women continue to face economic hurdles amid workplace challenges, while their political participation remains inadequate, says the report.

WEF has been tracking gender gap issues for the past 15 years.

Europe reported the most progress in the Global Gender Gap Report 2021 and North America followed next.

East Asia and the Pacific region also reported much improvement, with countries having narrowed gender gaps on three of the four sub-indexes - economic, education and health. But the political gender gap remained significant.

South Asia emerged as the second-lowest performer, with its overall score suggesting that it will take the sub-continent 195.4 years to close the gender gap. The region was followed by Sub-Saharan Africa, which includes the Middle-east and the North Africa.

Iceland emerged as the top country for the 12th year. Finland, Norway, New Zealand and Sweden ranked next.

Singapore ranked 53 among 156 countries reviewed. There has been a marked improvement in the Republic's rank and score over 2006's performance, data from the report showed.

But the impact of the pandemic on women everywhere has been telling, said WEF.

"With school closures in many parts of the world, the care responsibility in the home has tended to fall on women, particularly working women, and so they've ended up facing a double shift," said WEF managing director Saadia Zahidi, who anchored the report.

Along with that, the pandemic and increasing digitalisation translated into several shutdowns in the retail and consumer sector, which has been a huge employer of women. It's been a "double-hit" for women, she said.

A separate report by Moody's Investor Service on Wednesday said the pandemic had stalled the trend of more women joining the workforce across advanced economies.

The ratings agency said this would have implications for both economic and fiscal strength of economies.

Ms Zahidi warned that some of the shifts might be permanent.

"If the impact of the pandemic continues as it is and we simply remain quite passive in our reaction when it comes to gender equality, then yes, we could see some permanent scarring in the labour market. We could see some permanent loss of the gains that were made in the last decade or so in terms of women's presence in the workplace," said Ms Zahidi.

However, there are reasons to be more hopeful, she added.

Many economies have provided a lot of fiscal stimuli to support small and medium-sized businesses. This can go some way in helping to reskill and upskill workers and allow them to retain jobs. But a lot of work needs to be done to "hardwire gender parity into the future", she told The Straits Times during a Zoom interview.

"Where there is better care infrastructure, where everybody has equal opportunities, where there are opportunities for everyone to rise to positions of leadership, those countries also tend to be the ones that meet the needs of all of society, whether it's on politics, whether it's on business, but overall, there is a sort of return on investment when there is greater gender equality," she said.