COVID-19 to reverse women’s empowerment progress to 2017 levels


The progress made globally to improve women’s empowerment over the past decade is likely to be reduced to 2017 levels by the end of 2021, according to a new report released by consulting firm PwC.

PwC’s annual Women in Work Index has found that the damage from COVID-19, as well as government response and recovery policies, are disproportionately being felt by women.

The index measures female economic empowerment across 33 Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries.

The report has found significant progress in women’s empowerment in economic activities over the past nine years. This trend is expected to fall due to economic disruptions resulting from COVID-19.

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PwC’s index is estimated to fall 2.1 points between 2019 and 2021. The Index will not begin to recover until 2022, where it should gain back 0.8 points. 

In order to undo the damage caused by COVID-19 to women in work – even by 2030, progress towards gender equality needs to be twice as fast as its historical rate.

Bhushan Sethi, joint global leader, people and organisation at PwC, said: “The setbacks that we are experiencing with COVID-19 in terms of the workforce tell a worrisome story. While the impacts are being felt by everyone across the globe, we are seeing women exiting the workforce at a faster rate than men.”

Unemployment and job losses

Between 2019 and 2020, the annual OECD unemployment rate increased by 1.7% points for women (from 5.7% in 2019 to 7.4% in 2020), according to the index.

In the US, the female unemployment rate increased sharply from 4% in March 2020 to 16% in April 2020. The female unemployment rate stayed high for the remainder of 2020, ending the year in December 2020 at 6.7%, 3% points higher than in December 2019.

In the UK, the full impact of job losses from COVID-19 is yet to be realised due to job retention schemes, but furlough data shows that women are at greater risk of losing their jobs when these schemes come to an end. Between July and October 2020, a total of 15.3 million jobs were furloughed in the UK. For furloughed jobs for which gender was known, 52% of these were women’s jobs, despite women only making up 48% of the workforce.

OECD countries and women empowerment

Amongst all OECD countries, Iceland leads in terms of progress in women’s empowerment in the work industry. The country continues to hold the top spot on the Index. It is a consistent strong performer in female labour force participation (84%), has a small participation rate gap (5%), and even smaller female unemployment rate (3%).  

Greece saw the largest increase in terms of Index score between 2018 and 2019, driven by improvement in all labour market indicators except for the share of full-time female employees. On the contrary, Portugal experienced the largest decline in Index score between 2018 and 2019 due to a widening of its gender pay gap by 5 percentage points.

New Zealand and Slovenia both increased their rankings on the Index by one position. New Zealand saw an upward trend across all five indicators and has risen by 5 spots on the Index over the course of nine years. Government policy and a history of female representation in political institutions have helped to drive these gains. Slovenia’s improvement was driven by a fall in the participation rate gap and in female unemployment, as well as an increase in the share of full-time female employment. 

If OECD countries increased their rates of female employment to match Sweden’s (consistently the top performer), the gain to GDP would be over $6 trillion per annum. The US, with one of the highest female unemployment rates, is expected to gain the most – as much as $1.7 trillion per annum.