Coronavirus sheds light on gender divide

Hakim Hayat

Early indications from COVID-19 research, as well as evidence collected from past epidemics, suggest that women on average are likely to suffer greater economic and social impact during the coronavirus crisis, according to the Strategy and Partnership Director at the Economic Research Institute for ASEAN and East Asia (ERIA) Giulia Ajmone Marsan and Director of Communications at the ERIA Lydia Ruddy.

In their joint report, Marsan and Ruddy said several reasons can be attributed to the findings: women represent the majority of health and social workers, which are the high-risk categories due to significantly higher exposure to the coronavirus; school closures induced by lockdowns automatically translate to extra burdens for women responsible for childcare; and domestic violence, which affects women primarily, has increased due to lockdown measures in both developed and developing countries.

In addition, women, especially those in developing countries, are more likely to face adverse economic impacts during the pandemic as they represent the majority of part-time and temporary workers – jobs that are most at risk in times of layoffs.

In many developing countries, the report said, women make up a large portion of the informal economy, and informal workers are more affected by the lockdown as in most cases, they cannot telework and are less protected by social safety nets and recovery plans that typically cover formal workers.

Furthermore, female entrepreneurs face more difficulty in accessing credit, which is fundamental for the survival of firms in times of economic downturn.

According to the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor 2018, more than 60 million women across Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) member states operate businesses, with the majority being small and medium enterprises (SMEs).

However, the report said, there is a critical and often overlooked reason women may suffer more, not only now, but also during the post-pandemic economic recovery phase: the lack of women’s participation in the digital economy.

“The COVID-19 emergency is catalysing the shift towards digital economies. This can be seen as offering a silver lining, that is, e-commerce is practical and ideal in times of social distancing, new convenient online services are being developed, online teaching and learning can help to regenerate skills of workers in ASEAN economies,” Marsan and Ruddy said.

They added that the post-pandemic transformation will most likely generate a higher demand for more digitally-related jobs and skills, which has the potential of becoming an even greater source of inequality.

“Those that are able to develop and activate the necessary digital skills will succeed, and those that don’t will suffer,” they said.

As a group, women fall under the category of those lacking digital access and skills. On average, women use and access digital technology less often than men. For example, the proportion of women using the Internet was 48 per cent in 2019 against 58 per cent of men globally, according to data from the International Telecommunication Union at the United Nations (UN).

In the Asia Pacific, the gap has been growing steadily over the last few years. Some countries in Southeast Asia exhibit even greater gender disparities, as recently shown in reports from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC).

According to Marsan and Ruddy, women also lag behind men when it comes to technological aptitude.

“Digital skills can be acquired during all education cycles, and will become more necessary to access higher education levels and professional jobs,” they said. “Today, a tiny percentage of women in both developed and developing countries access and complete tertiary education programmes in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).”

Meanwhile, the World Economic Forum (WEF) reported only three per cent of graduates from information and communications technology (ICT) educational programmes around the world are women, five per cent for courses in mathematics and statistics, and eight per cent in engineering, manufacturing and construction.

These skills, the ERIA report said, are often at the basis of tasks that are becoming key in the so-called Fourth Industrial Revolution: problem solving skills, the ability to develop, adapt and supervise machine algorithms, digital interfacing capabilities, and the ability to deal with robotics and automation. The combination of these skills is becoming increasingly important to allow all workers to participate and excel in the digital economy.

As part of the COVID-19 recovery plans, the ERIA experts said officials may consider concrete actions to ensure a more inclusive digital economy.

“Policies and programmes can be revamped to empower women to attain the necessary tools and remove barriers that inhibit full participation in a new digital world that is unfolding,” they said. “We recognise that there are examples of programmes and policies in Southeast Asia to address the gender gap. However, they are still relatively limited and do not create widespread change.”

Thus, they added, “what we are advocating is a more widespread and concerted set of activities specifically incorporated into the COVID-19 recovery plans”.

At the national level, Marsan and Ruddy urged ASEAN to consider addressing “the specific characteristics of women-led businesses and girls’ education opportunities when developing COVID-19 recovery plans to make sure they get the same opportunities as men”.

The experts believed that ASEAN member states have a unique opportunity to address gender gap in the digital economy by tapping into “all of their resources to chart the courage through COVID-19 recovery in a manner that facilitates a smooth transition to the Fourth Industrial Revolution”.

“Women make up 50 per cent of the potential resources in terms of skilled workforce. Let us make sure that they are a part of it,” Marsan and Ruddy concluded.