WEF: Covid sets gender equality back entire generation

Pandemic adds 36 years to time it will take to close gap between sexes, new report finds

Masked girl to protect herself from Covid 19 virus in public area
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The coronavirus pandemic pushed back gender parity by a generation, according to a new report.

Instead of waiting 99.5 years for equality between genders, women will now have to wait 135.6 years with progress stalling in several large economies and industries, the World Economic Forum's Global Gender Gap Report 2021 found.

The UAE bucked this trend, however, and was among the five most improved countries, having shot up 48 places since the 2020 report.

Covid-19's harmful effect on gender parity is in part the result of women being employed in sectors hardest hit by lockdowns and often being the primary caregivers at home, a task made more arduous by schools being closed for much of the past year.

A more surprising contributor to the 2021 deterioration is the widening political gap in several large countries.

Women still hold only 26.1 per cent of parliamentary seats and 22.6 per cent of ministerial positions worldwide.

The WEF estimates that on this trajectory, the political gender gap will take 145.5 years to close compared with the 95 years estimated in 2020 – nearly a 50 per cent increase.

The economic gender gap provides only slightly better news. While more women are in skilled professions, income and managerial disparities endure.

More auspiciously, gender gaps in health and education are nearly closed, the report found, predicting it will take 14.2 years to close the education gap.

Although the UN body Unicef this year said that the pandemic jeopardised the education of 20 million girls worldwide, the report said that 37 countries had reached educational gender parity.

A report by another UN body, Unesco, warned of years of lost learning because of a lack of pandemic stimulus spending on education.

The pandemic has fundamentally impacted gender equality in both the workplace and the home, rolling back years of progress

Education received just 0.8 per cent of the global economic packages designed to mitigate the pandemic, and two thirds of the world’s poorest countries reduced their first post-Covid education budget, compared with one third of the world's richest countries.

If the WEF report’s findings on the educational gender gap can be disputed, most aspects are less contentious.

“The pandemic has fundamentally impacted gender equality in the workplace and the home, rolling back years of progress.” said Saadia Zahidi, WEF managing director.

“If we want a dynamic future economy, it is vital for women to be represented in the jobs of tomorrow.“

The labour market has long been a turbid area for gender parity, with women wading rather than waltzing towards equality.

International Labour Organisation data showed that women lost jobs at a rate of 5 per cent during the pandemic, compared with 3.9 per cent among men. LinkedIn data indicated women are being hired at a slower rate across numerous industries.

Compounding the problem, an Ipsos survey suggested that when care homes closed, housework, child care and elderly care responsibilities fell disproportionately on women, contributing to higher levels of stress and lower levels of productivity.

The global gender gap 2021: best and worst performers

Iceland is the most gender-equal country in the world.

Here is the list of the top 10 according to the 2021 report:


Western Europe is the best-performing region and has improved, with 77.6 per cent of its overall gender gap now closed. At this rate, it will take 52.1 years to close fully, the WEF estimates.

North America is the most-improving region, with 76.4 per cent of the gender gap closed, a rate that would lead to parity in 61.5 years.

Of the worst performers, sub-Saharan Africa is making slow progress, although the report cites Namibia and Rwanda as honourable outliers.

South Asia is the second poorest performer with 62.3 per cent of its gender gap closed.

The Middle East and Africa continue to have the largest gender gap with 39.1 per cent yet to be closed. While there was a slight improvement, the report calls the progress slow, with just 31 per cent of women taking part in the labour force.

UAE confounds overall Middle East performance

The UAE is very much a regional bellwether, and is among the five most improved countries in the entire index.

It performed particularly admirably in political empowerment and economic participation indices.

In the former it ranked 24, a huge leap up the rankings from 2006 when it was ranked 112. In the latter, it ranked 72, another big stride from its 2006 position of 101.

For the third consecutive year the UAE leads all other Arab countries.

Four ways to decrease gender parity gap according to the WEF

1. Further investment in the care sector and equitable access to care leave for working men and women.

2. Policies and practices that proactively focus on overcoming occupational segregation by gender.

3. Effective mid-career skills-development policies for women.

4. Managerial practices that embed sound, unbiased hiring and promotion practices.

“Now, more than ever, it is crucial to focus leadership attention, commit to firm targets and mobilise resources,” Ms Zahidi said.

“This is the moment to embed gender parity by design into the pandemic recovery.”