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Industries post-COVID-19: A gender-responsive approach to global economic recovery

Industries post-COVID-19: A gender-responsive approach to global economic recovery


Woman wearing a face mask at a bus station in Bogotá, Colombia, 28 April 2020. (Image: Ernesto Tereñes via iStock Photo)

Industries post-COVID-19: A gender-responsive approach to global economic recovery


Women’s specific needs and potential as leaders and agents of change must be considered for COVID-19 mitigation and recovery measures.

By Cecilia Ugaz Estrada, Müge Dolun, Carmen Schuber and Nicolas Schmidt

May 2020

What most crises have in common is that they hit the most vulnerable and marginalized populations—among which women are disproportionally represented—the hardest. The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on women, especially those facing multiple forms of discrimination related to poverty, race or disability, is increasingly being documented. As reported in the UN Secretary General’s Policy Brief: The Impact of COVID-19 on Women, and captured widely through media reports, women and girls globally suffer more from the socio-economic impacts of COVID-19, simply by virtue of their gender.

In addition to the immediate concerns related to increases in unpaid care work, domestic violence and exposure to the weaknesses of the healthcare system, the pandemic’s long-term economic repercussions are also likely to disproportionately affect women’s productive lives compared to men’s. The specific needs and contributions of women as workers, business owners and entrepreneurs must be better understood and addressed when developing measures to reactivate the economy. All aspects – from accessing financial rescue packages, credit and unemployment benefits to removing barriers for women to perform higher-skilled and better-paid jobs – should be considered for the economic recovery to be effective, inclusive and sustainable.

The impact of COVID-19 on women workers and entrepreneurs in the manufacturing sector

The manufacturing sector has been one of the hardest hit by the COVID-19 outbreak and ensuing containment measures. Around the world, most manufacturing industries were not considered essential economic activities, the notable exception being food processing, thus businesses were forced to close or reduce their activity. Cuts in payments, order cancellations, shortages in the supply of inputs and raw materials, and restricted transport modalities along global value chains (GVCs) have undermined production and brought factories to a standstill.

Millions around the world have become unemployed because businesses had to close or severely restrict their operations, leaving especially those in low-skill and low-income positions, many of which are held by women, in situations of even higher economic distress.1

Workers in a textile factory. (Image: Idealistock via iStock Photo)

Self-employed and informal workers, who are often suppliers of manufacturing firms, have also been forced to halt their activities, thus undermining their livelihoods and leaving them with little or no social protection to fall back on. Women working in the informal economy are overrepresented in sectors hardest hit by the crisis (42 per cent compared to 32 per cent of men). The situation is particularly acute in lower and upper middle-income countries, where 56 per cent of women work in high-risk sectors compared to 39 per cent of men.2

The unequal participation of women and men in different branches of manufacturing further differentiate their vulnerability during the crisis and in its aftermath. For example, preliminary information shows that the textile and apparel branches are among those with the highest sales losses due to the initial shock and the ensuing lockdown brought about by the pandemic. Yet, at the same time, this is one of the branches showing higher rates of women’s employment. While women constitute 39 per cent of the workers in the manufacturing sector overall3, in the textile and apparel branches – a sector characterized by low wages, long working hours and significant gender pay gaps45, they represent up to 75 per cent of total employment6. Also, export firms in these branches have the highest representation of women-owned and/or women-managed businesses in a sample of firms in developing countries.7

Deeply-rooted structural gender inequalities result in unequal access to infrastructure, productive resources and procurement opportunities for women entrepreneurs. Discriminatory property and inheritance laws inhibit women’s access to credit and financial products and services. In 2019, 115 out of 190 economies had at least one gender-based legal restriction on women’s employment and entrepreneurship in place.8 The finance gap among micro-, small and medium enterprises (MSMEs) reflects this phenomenon; despite their smaller average size, women-owned businesses account for a disproportionate share of the finance gap.9 Women entrepreneurs are also disproportionately represented at the micro, small and medium level, and women-owned businesses tend to be concentrated in sectors with lower profit margins than men.