Op-Ed: A time to stand together and build a more gender-equal tomorrow

7 May 2020
ITC News

The very word "pandemic" means "pertaining to all people" (pan-demos). But the economic earthquake unleashed by COVID-19 is not affecting all people in the same way. Access to resources, geography, age, even ethnicity, complicate the picture. Perhaps the starkest division is that between men and women.

Evidence is emerging that the pandemic is increasing financial stress on women and girls. Across the world, women earn on average 20% less than men. Women are also less likely to own or lead a company - in the European Union, only one in five in exporting companies are owned, led or managed by women. They are also more likely to work cash-in-hand and off-the-books - and even more so in developing countries. For instance, closed borders and travel restrictions have hit countless women in Africa who trade informally between states.

And as past economic downturns have shown, women-owned businesses are less likely to receive support. Women more likely to bear the brunt of job losses, and women have more difficulty getting paid work after the crisis.

This does not have to happen. We can grasp the crisis as an opportunity to accelerate women's economic empowerment for a fairer world. But how?

Time for new skills

To help women-owned businesses, producers and workers survive the crisis, we must equip them with the skills and knowledge they need.

Small businesses need market information about the shifting dynamics in demand and global supply chains. They need advice on how to retool existing capabilities and cash-flow management. Farmers, for instance, could diversify from a non-essential cash crop to subsistence crops that can be sold on domestic markets and contribute to food security.

Gender-smart procurement

Both public and private market players ought to include gender equality targets for cost centres such as procurement spending and wage bills.

In 2018, 12% of global GDP was spent on government procurement. We can expect this to remain an important market as governments step in to assist the pandemic-hit parts of their economies. Similarly, lead firms in such sectors as agriculture and healthcare - where demand remains steady and which employ proportionally higher numbers of women - can provide the conditions for a more level playing field.

Targeted interventions to give women entrepreneurs access to information and tender opportunities, adjust financial requirements and shorten payment terms are critical to the survival of businesses. Such first steps toward a comprehensive approach to gender-smart procurement and inclusive value-chain development will be crucial in the long run.

Women's digital potential

In sub-Saharan Africa, where women are 13% less likely to own a mobile phone and 41% less likely to use mobile internet, the digital gender divide risks exacerbating the economic divide between men and women. But all over the world, we've seen how the restrictions to physical movement designed to halt the spread of coronavirus are turbo-charging the transition to a digital economy.

Women who are already skilled entrepreneurs need access to devices and services that will help them and their businesses perform increasingly digitized business processes, and access financial services and markets.

With the support of partners, including UPS, Visa, Maersk and Working Capital Associates, the International Trade Centre is running webinars for women entrepreneurs on how to cope with COVID-19.

Gender-focused support

Many countries have announced support measures to support their country's businesses and industries during the pandemic. Still, most developing countries will struggle to set up emergency funding programmes for small companies to provide grants, loans and tax relief, redundancy disbursements and sick pay.

Successful funding arrangements will likely use foreign aid or government expenditure to spur rapid, effective private financing targeted at businesses that reduce the effect of the crisis on women and their families. Such companies could, in turn, rebound and grow as new models with equal pay, management representation and high performance. The pandemic could be a crucial opportunity to iron out inequality in countries with weak or non-existent social safety nets that disproportionately affect women.

Crisis as opportunity

There is much about the post COVID19 world we cannot predict. But there is a lot that we can plan for and influence.

Although trade has increased job opportunities and incomes for many women, most women around the world are confined to part-time, low-paying, low-skilled and labour-intensive work. Regrettably, this is also the norm in countries where the gender gap is narrow.

Let's not go back to the norm.

Instead, let's turn COVID-19 response into a chance to shape a new tomorrow when women stand on an equal footing in trade and business. This includes implementing the Buenos Aires Declaration on Women and Trade, which provides a blueprint to remove barriers to, and foster, women's economic empowerment. This would not only make our economies more resilient and equitable for all but will also make us better prepared to tackle the next crisis.