Without women there can be no recovery from COVID-19

Decades of progress could now be reversed. 2021 needs to be the year of gender equality.

One year into the COVID-19 pandemic, I am grateful. Unlike millions of people around the world, a healthy and stable social and economic support system has got me through this past 12 months. But I think I speak for many when I admit that it’s been challenging, nonetheless.

As a full-time working and independent woman, I have been working, cooking, and home-schooling two children, all at once. It’s left me feeling mentally and physically exhausted and wondering if I should give up my job to manage demands at home.

The pandemic and its impact have upended my work and home life and fuelled new conflicts. At home, I have had to defend “my” work hours and the “importance” of my job. I’ve found myself fighting for every minute and hour to preserve a sense of financial independence.

What saved me – in particular my mental health, and the job that I cherish – was an understanding employer and husband. But reading about the experiences of other women in similar situations, I have found myself to be an exception.

We have come a long way in the fight for gender equality. But I am worried about what is yet to come for us.


The impact of COVID-19 on women’s work

Women, as we all know, have been hit hard by the pandemic. Although women make up 39 per cent of the global workforce, they account for 54 per cent of overall job losses. Women’s unpaid workloads have risen, gender-based violence has increased, and access to sexual and reproductive health have become compromised.

A recent report by UN Women revealed that the pandemic will push 96 million people into extreme poverty by 2021, the majority of whom will be women and girls.

25 years since the launch of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, its ambitious vision for gender equality and parity remains unfulfilled. As the President of the UN General Assembly noted on the 25th anniversary of the Fourth World Conference on Women: “No country has fully achieved gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls.”

Not one single country in the world.

In fact, there’s even a risk that the limited progress that the Beijing Declaration has helped achieve could now go into reverse.

The pandemic and gender equality

The first wave of the pandemic put gender equality under enormous pressure. Let me give you some concrete examples. In Germany, around 27 per cent of mothers were forced to reduce their working hours due to day-care and school closures; among fathers, it was only 16 per cent.

In the United Kingdom, mothers were 1.5 times more likely than fathers to have either quit their job or lost it. In the United States, four times more women than men dropped out of the labour force in September 2020, with Black and Latina women, and women with disabilities, hardest hit.

In developing economies, 70 per cent of women are employed in the informal labour market. These women depend on public space and social interactions, which are now limited. In Liberia, for example, 85% of daily market traders are women – many of whom are unable to perform their jobs due to pandemic-related restrictions.


An image from the opening of the 64th Session of Commission on Status of Women

A group photo of participants at the opening meeting of the Sixty-fourth Session of the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW). Member States adopted a Political Declaration in which they pledged to step up action to fully implement the landmark Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action on gender equality, agreed 25 years ago. Credit: UN Photo/Loey Felipe.


We risk losing a generation of female workers – and leaders

Decades of advances in gender equality are at risk of being diminished if economic and social recovery is not centred on helping those who are impacted the most. Simply put, recovery from the pandemic depends on placing gender equality at the centre of any global and national COVID-19 recovery policy.

The impacts of COVID-19 on the female workforce have been studied extensively over the past year. But these impacts will be felt for generations to come. The recession has forced millions of women out of work and pushed millions into poverty and will likely widen the pay gap – further perpetuating the conditions that drove women out of the workplace.

What’s more alarming is that we risk losing a generation of female leaders.  COVID-19 has taught us a valuable lesson: countries governed by a female leader have often outperformed those led by men in mitigating COVID-19. When women are part of decision making, they have a clear impact on public health and the economy. Their presence leads to more inclusive, sustainable and democratic policies that benefit everyone.

That’s why I wasn’t surprised when UN Secretary-General António Guterres nominated gender equality as a top priority for 2021 priority and advocated taking “greater targeted measures to overcome the approaches and attitudes that deny women their rights”.

This is a good start. But it’s not enough.

The United Nations needs to put its words into action

Blocking or hindering women’s access to leadership positions affects progress for everyone. In my five years in New York, I became increasingly frustrated by the organisation’s lack of representation. Of the 193 UN Member States, only 59 have missions headed by women.

Looking at the five permanent Security Council members, only the UK and USA are represented at the UN by female ambassadors. China, France and Russia have never had a female UN Ambassador since the creation of the UN 75 years ago.

In my home country, Germany, even under Chancellor Angela Merkel only 15.6 per cent of ambassadors in 2018 were women. Despite Germany’s strong voice for women rights, it also declined to nominate its first ever female Ambassador to the UN during its last Security Council membership.

UN Member States need to provide women and girls with the same privileges as their male counterparts: equal rights to education, equal rights to job opportunities, equal rights to pay and equal rights to childcare.

And equal rights to top positions.

Will you make space for us?

The UN also needs progressive policies that pave the way for future female leaders at home and at the country level. The UN Women High-Level Task Force on Financing for Gender Equality found that in 2017 only two per cent of UN development system expenditures were allocated to work on gender equality and empowerment of women. Two per cent, out of a total budget of USD 36.4 billion.

In a 2020 Dag Hammarskjöld Foundation report, The Art of UN Leadership: Framing What’s Blue, I wrote that despite recent efforts to appoint women to Assistant Secretary-General and Under Secretary-General positions, the UN has shown little improvement in terms of gender equality in mid-level management, which carries a heavy leadership burden.

More needs to be done to provide women with opportunities at UN Headquarters and outside duty stations. Making workplaces more family friendly and catering to women’s needs will help incentivize women to apply for these positions.

Women have for centuries stood in the shadows of men. For too long we have taken a back seat. We need equal rights, and equal representation in top organizations and governments. More political will and action. But we also need men to step aside. For progress. For society at large.

Shirley Chisholm once said, “If they don’t give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair”.

So, I ask my male counterparts: Will you make space for us?


Veronika Tywuschik-Sohlström By Veronika Tywuschik-Sohlström

Veronika Tywuschik-Sohlström is a Programme Manager at the Foundation, covering the financing, form and functions of the UN development system, and UN leadership. Previously, Veronika worked for several international foundations and projects including the Friedrich Ebert Foundation; the European Centre for Development Policy Management; the European Commission’s TradeCom Facility; and for PARTICIP, coordinating the European Commission’s Results Oriented Monitoring System for the Western Balkan region and the European Institute of Peace. She also conducts short-term assignments for the UN Secretariat, United Nations Multi-Partner Trust Fund Office and UNDP.