Women were hit hard last year. They’ll also be the key to rebuilding economies post COVID-19

Around the world, women were decimated by the events of the last year. But they will also be the key to rebuilding. 

Today is International Women’s Day. The United Nations theme for it is, fittingly, “Women in leadership: Achieving an equal future in a COVID-19 world,” as the typical celebration of women’s achievements and contributions ring more hollow this year. I’ve written several times about the disproportionate impact the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic have had on women, especially women of color. 

The statistics and data are startling. Women around the globe have largely borne the brunt of the impact from the pandemic. Female-owned small businesses tend to be smaller and had to pause operations. Domestic workers couldn’t go to work and had no health insurance if they did get sick. More than 70% of health care workers are female, and they found themselves on the front lines, but still made less than their male counterparts. 

As the world starts to recover and move forward from the health and economic crises, leaders and policy makers would do well to put women at the forefront of recovery. 

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With previous recessions and economic blows, not much consideration has been given to how recovery efforts would affect men and women differently. That can’t be the case this time. 

In an op-ed for Bloomberg, Melinda Gates and David Malpass argue that women are key to global economic recovery. They point out the economic weight that women carry in low and middle income countries. When more women are able to work, economies grow stronger.  

Companies with increased leadership opportunities for women have been shown to increase in organizational effectiveness and growth, and companies with three or more women in senior positions score higher in organizational performance

Educating women and girls has also identified as one of the most effective ways to reverse trends of poverty and disease. 

Even with previous efforts, things before the pandemic weren’t where they needed to be. In 2018 there were still 104 economies that prohibited women from working certain jobs and 18 that allowed husbands to stop their wives from working. 

And all around the world, the gender pay gap is a persisting problem. 

Moving forward, we must look to create a new normal that fully includes and celebrates the power of women. 

There have been significant rollbacks on women’s economic progress, but a few key efforts could turn things around and improve the global economy. Gates and Malpass point to increased digitized government systems to work with the private sector, removing gender barriers on entrepreneurship by financing women-owned businesses and ensuring education for girls at least through secondary school. 

These three changes would not only lift women’s economic status, but could lift entire communities and nations out of poverty. A 2003 study from UNESCO found a country’s long-term economic growth increased by 3.7% for every year the average years of school increased. 

While these changes may seem more appropriate for underdeveloped countries, the United States isn’t without room for improvement. The gender pay gap is also present here, and we also lack flexible child care options and paid maternity leave. 

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Women in America may have equal opportunity for schooling, but many desirable professions are still dominated by men, largely due to societal expectations about women’s ability and leadership, lack of mentoring and sexual harassment issues. 

It’s hard to know what the future holds or what things will be like when another health or economic crisis rolls around. There will indubitably be other issues to face and adjustments the world must make, but one of the clearest from this most recent experience is the need to lift and include women more fully. 

When women are able to fully participate in all parts of society, progress occurs for all. None of us want to relive the events and crushing mental load of the last year, and avoiding that in the future means changing the status quo. 

A future that is more equitable, sustainable and prepared is one where women all over the world are present when decisions are being made.