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'32 years of progress…vanished in less than a year': 5 ways the pandemic affected gender equity in 2020

"While the pandemic turned up the intensity of gender and racial inequity...this grim situation doesn’t have to become our nation’s economic future," says gender economist Katica Roy in this op-ed for Know Your Value.
Gender economist and the CEO and founder of Denver-based Pipeline, Katica Roy.
Gender economist and the CEO and founder of Denver-based Pipeline, Katica Roy.Courtesy of Pipeline

Covid-19 has wreaked havoc on the notion of gender equity. Thirty-two years of progress toward gender equity in the labor markets and 22 years of progress toward gender pay equity have all but vanished in less than a year.

As a breadwinner mom, CEO of a startup, and primary caregiver of my terminally-ill mom, I know first-hand the hardships women are facing right now—whether it be as caretakers burning both ends of the stick, as entrepreneurs looking to raise capital, or as mothers navigating a workplace that does not value them equitably.

While the pandemic turned up the intensity of gender and racial inequity, this grim situation doesn’t have to become our nation’s economic future. It starts with understanding the data behind how the pandemic influenced racial and gender equity. Because by understanding the data of where we are now, we can establish a trajectory toward where we want to be in the future.

Here are five ways Covid-19 impacted gender equity

1. Educational attainment

Prior to the pandemic, countries around the world were making swift progress toward gender parity in educational attainment. By the end of 2019, 134 countries had closed approximately 93 percent of their gender gaps in educational attainment and 36 countries had achieved full parity.

Unsurprisingly, the coronavirus pandemic stunted forward momentum toward parity in educational attainment. The pandemic and its economic fallout took 743 million girls out of their classrooms in 2020. An additional 20 million girls are at risk of permanently dropping out of school after the pandemic passes.

While we still have many unknowns to navigate with regards to the virus, we need to keep a careful eye on the data to ensure rates of education enrollment and degree attainment return to pre-pandemic levels. We cannot let short-term interruptions to learning impact long-term educational opportunities, especially because educational attainment is the number one driver of intersectional gender equity.

2. Women on the political stage

While numerous variables impacted how entities responded to the pandemic, one key factor played a role in determining a country’s success rate at containing the disease: the presence of women in national leadership. Female-led countries (including Finland, Iceland, Norway, Germany, and New Zealand) suffered half the number of coronavirus deaths compared to male-led countries.

Researchers from the University of Liverpool and University of Reading analyzed 194 countries and found that female heads of state took more proactive, decisive and coordinated measures to deal with Covid-19 than male heads of state.

As female policymakers earned praise around the world for their handling of the global pandemic, women in the U.S. took to the political scene in force. The number of women running for House and Senate seats in 2020 increased by 21 percent this past election season. And an unprecedented 60 women (18 women of color) ran for a spot in the US Senate and a record 583 women (248 women of color) ran for a spot in the House.

3. The evolution of the glass ceiling

The barriers that stand in the way of truly breaking the glass ceiling became increasingly less burdensome in the decade leading up to the pandemic. But apart from June’s Supreme Court ruling that extended workplace protections to LGBTQ+ individuals, the fallout of Covid-19 reversed many of the hard-won gains from the previous decade.

Take, for instance, the 153 percent increase in unpaid labor that women shouldered during the pandemic. This massive shift in caregiving responsibility squeezed women out of the paid labor force at a clip four times the rate of men.

The economic impact of women leaving the labor force concerns all of us, especially the growing number of households who depend on breadwinner moms for their economic security.

In fact, 40 percent of U.S. households with children are headed by a breadwinner mom, and that number jumps to 51 percent for Black households. Worse, the average Black breadwinner mom earns a mere 44 cents for every dollar earned by a White breadwinner dad.

The pay gap doesn’t bode well for the eight million Black children who depend on mom for their physical and economic security. Nor does it bode well for the economy at large. American families would miss out on $8.7 billion in wages annually even if only 1 percent of mothers permanently left the workforce.

4. Voting rights

Systemic injustice emerged as one of the defining lessons of 2020. Just as the pandemic took a disproportionate toll on people of color, so too did voting requirements disproportionately block non-White voters from casting their ballots. August’s commemoration of the centennial of the 19th Amendment was a bittersweet reminder that the great experiment of American democracy is still being tested. We have yet to achieve full enfranchisement and cannot rest on our laurels until we do.

The 100th anniversary of the amendment that increased suffrage for predominately white women did not guarantee suffrage for all women. And to this day, widespread voter suppression tactics (many tracing back to the 2013 Shelby County v. Holder Supreme Court ruling) surgically block access to the ballot box for many people of color.

These tactics include strict voter ID requirements, under-funding of precincts and felony disenfranchisement. And while the myriad techniques used to deter the vote differ in size and scope, they have the same effect. Collectively, they chip away at the foundation of a democracy that derives its strength from the plurality of the people it claims to represent. We can’t set-it-and-forget-it when it comes to democracy and must continue working to ensure all Americans can make their voice heard through the ballot box.

5. The Equal Rights Amendment

Last year, I predicted that the 38th state would ratify the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA). My prediction came true in January 2020 when Virginia became that 38th state.

As I wrote about earlier this year, the ERA matters for our economic recovery as well as progress as a nation. The events of 2020 have demonstrated why. Between the pandemic, renewed calls for racial justice, and an economic downturn followed by what is shaping up to be an inequitable recovery, it’s time we guarantee gender equity in our Constitution.

Only 24 percent of countries worldwide operate without a constitutional provision for gender equity. The U.S. is among that 24 percent, and the ERA could change that. Everyone benefits when women have full and equal access to economic life. We need to add the ERA to our Constitution to expedite economic recovery and lessen the likelihood of it being inequitable.

A vision for a post-pandemic USA

As we move bravely into 2021, let’s remember that we hold the keys to our economic recovery. We don’t have to accept the status quo, sub-optimal conditions we find ourselves in now. With the right data and determination, we can choose to rebuild our economy with inclusivity at the core. The question is, will we?

For more information on these five intersectional gender equity trends (plus five others), access the 2021 Gender Retrospective report. The report also provides a data-driven roadmap that highlights the steps private and public sector leaders can take to move toward intersectional gender equity post-pandemic.

Katica Roy is a gender economist and the CEO and founder of Denver-based Pipeline, an award-winning SaaS company that leverages artificial intelligence to identify and drive economic gains through gender equity. Pipeline launched the first gender equity app on Salesforce's AppExchange. The Pipeline platform was named one of TIME Magazine’s Best Inventions of 2019 and Fast Company’s 2020 World’s Most Innovative Companies.