The “She-cession”: COVID-19’s Economic Impact on Women

As part of She’s Right’s participation in 16 days of activism to end violence against women, each piece will be dedicated to a woman who has lost her life due to gender-based violence. This article is dedicated to Jessielee Booth, killed by a man and found on 14th February 2020, at the age of 30.

By Patrick McTague.
Edited by Jessica Sutton.

COVID-19 has impacted all our lives. Here in New Zealand, our government has taken the necessary steps to return us to a somewhat normal life. Yes, there is still a wariness that the virus could return at any time, and there is little to no international travel, but those are easy trade-offs for relative normalcy. However, we must remember that this normalcy has come at a cost. Of the 11,000 jobs lost attributed directly to COVID-19 in the June quarter, women’s jobs accounted for 10,000.[1] This economic cost to women is magnified in areas of the world where the virus is not under control. The bigger the impact of COVID-19, the bigger the gender equality gap grows. The bigger the “she-cession”.[2]

The hardest hit industries globally have mostly had a majority-female workforce. In New Zealand, these were retail, hospitality, and tourism.[3] Around the world, industries such as domestic and caring work and the informal employment market added to these.[4] Throughout the pandemic, women have been 1.8 times more likely to lose their job than men globally.[5] And every job lost by a woman, when a man keeps his, widens the gender pay gap. Before the pandemic, this pay gap was around 16% globally and looked like it was slowly closing,[6] even with a global backlash to recent gains in equality. It is unclear what the extent of the damage to the wage gap will be due to this increased female unemployment, but it is almost certain that women will lose some of these hard-fought gains. As female unemployment increases at a faster rate than men’s, the gender wage gap widens and a gender-equal world gets further out of reach.

Not only have women lost their jobs at higher rates, closed schools and childcare centres have meant women picking up even more unpaid domestic labour. Before the pandemic, women performed on average 2.4 times the domestic labour of men every day.[7] With children at home, their care has become a full-time job and history shows that in a crisis, women are far more likely to pick up this burden than men.[8] Increased unemployment tends to favour men in relationships as they typically fall back to “traditional” gender roles. UN Women have found that “unemployed men are favored more heavily in the hiring process when jobs are scarce”,[9] and so women are more likely to pick up additional domestic work such as daytime childcare.

Where women have kept their jobs, they are more likely to work significantly longer hours between both domestic and paid work to maintain childcare.[10] Meanwhile, judging by established patterns, men are more likely to continue their daily lives as normal without picking up the additional burden. These extended hours will impact women’s physical and mental health as the stress of the workload becomes overwhelming. This creates new costs in the long-term as women are forced to address added health issues.[11] These burdens are also serving to drive women out of the workforce even where their jobs have survived the pandemic.[12]

And it is not only adult women that are suffering due to the economic conditions of the pandemic. In lower socio-economic environments older girls in a family can often be required to leave school to help with additional domestic care.[13] This leaves girls less educated and less able to reach high paying jobs in adulthood, leading to greater gender inequality for entire generations.

Economic independence is the cornerstone of women’s equality. Without this, women are beholden to the men in their lives for support. This gives men power over women, creates a subservient relationship, and lays the path to abuse. One of the biggest gains of second-wave feminism was women being able to own property, get a loan or a credit card, and manage their own finances. Until that was possible, women were completely reliant on men, making their independence unachievable in most circumstances. Along with the ability to freely divorce their husbands, these gains are what have given women the power to take control of their own destinies. With COVID-19 increasing the rate of intimate partner violence around the world, it’s imperative that women can maintain their financial independence to avoid dependence and give them the economic power to leave.

Rebuilding an economy after a crisis like COVID-19 is always a difficult process. It takes massive government investment and often involves some austerity measures. In New Zealand, we thankfully have a government who have so far ruled out austerity and are focusing on investment. But are they focusing on the right investment? The government has released plans to upskill people in apprenticeships and invest in large-scale construction projects. However, construction still involves industries dominated by men that are traditionally difficult for women to enter. Yes, women can enter trades, and the opportunity should be available for every woman who wants to take it. It is important for women to gain equality in these industries. But focusing on construction alone, when there are many female-dominated industries that could use investment as well, shows a lack of gender analysis from our government that continues to cost women dearly.

Given that 91% of COVID-19 job losses in this country were from women, the government should be investing more resources in female-friendly industries. Take this opportunity to invest in higher pay for teachers, decrease class sizes and increase demand. Create additional funding for women in STEM to encourage entry into the fastest growing industries where the doors are already open for them. Expand universal childcare to allow mothers the time to retrain or invest in their careers that they need. Yes, construction and other “shovel-ready” projects are important, and yes, investment in those projects will strengthen our economy. But building our economy with investment in industries that statistically benefit men and not investing the same or more for women will not create a sustainable economy. It will reinforce patriarchy and deepen the financial inequality that many women already experience. Governments need to think critically about gender inequality, and incorporate solutions now, to achieve outcomes that are truly equitable for everyone.


[1] https://www.tvnz.co.nz/one-news/new-zealand/ninety-per-cent-kiwis-lost-jobs-during-covid-19-pandemic-women-data-shows

[2] https://www.nytimes.com/2020/05/09/us/unemployment-coronavirus-women.html

[3] https://www.careers.govt.nz/job-hunting/whats-happening-in-the-job-market/covid-19-and-the-labour-market/

[4] https://www.unwomen.org/en/news/stories/2020/9/feature-covid-19-economic-impacts-on-women

[5] https://www.mckinsey.com/featured-insights/future-of-work/covid-19-and-gender-equality-countering-the-regressive-effects#

[6] https://www.ilo.org/wcmsp5/groups/public/—dgreports/—dcomm/—publ/documents/publication/wcms_650553.pdf

[7] https://www.unwomen.org/en/news/stories/2020/9/feature-covid-19-economic-impacts-on-women

[8] https://www.unwomen.org/-/media/headquarters/attachments/sections/library/publications/2014/theglobaleconomiccrisisandgenderequality-en%20pdf.pdf?la=en

[9] https://www.unwomen.org/en/news/stories/2020/9/feature-covid-19-economic-impacts-on-women

[10] https://www.nytimes.com/2020/09/26/world/covid-women-childcare-equality.html

[11] https://interactive.unwomen.org/multimedia/explainer/unpaidcare/en/index.html

[12] https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2020/10/22/coronavirus-women-leaving-jobs-droves-amid-child-care-crisis/3727447001/

[13] https://www.unwomen.org/-/media/headquarters/attachments/sections/library/publications/2019/progress-of-the-worlds-women-2019-2020-en.pdf?la=en&vs=3512


Photo by Kat Yukawa on Unsplash

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