Before the coronavirus, the World Economic Forum estimated that it would take a century before women worldwide would reach gender parity. Now, as the world lurches toward recovery, the WEF’s latest report finds that it will take another generation — an additional 36 years — before women are on equal footing as men.
The annual report, now in its 15th year, looks at equality across 156 different countries in four different categories: economic participation and opportunity, political power, educational attainment and health, and survival. Globally, gaps in education and health are nearly closed, the WEF found, meaning that inequality was driven by a lack of political and economic power.
The WEF estimates it would take 267.6 years to close the world’s gender economic gap, while reaching gender equity in politics would take 145.5 years.
To put it another way, if current trends hold, no one alive today will see economic or political gender parity in their lifetime.
“We hope that this report will serve as a call to action to leaders to embed gender parity as a central goal of our policies and practices to manage the post-pandemic recovery, to the benefit of our economies and our societies,” wrote WEF managing director Saadia Zahidi in the report.
In a news release, the WEF noted that a number of factors drove women into further economic precarity during the pandemic, including “the growing ‘double shift’ of work and care,” which pushed women in many countries, including the United States, out of the workforce. Long-standing occupation segregation also played a role. Women were overrepresented in industries severely disrupted by the pandemic, including retail and hospitality.
There are also concerning signs that the economy won’t simply snap back once the pandemic is done. A substantial share of women work in jobs that are at high risk for automation, while also being underrepresented in fast-growing “jobs of tomorrow,” the report notes.
“Women aren’t well represented in the majority of fast-growing roles, which means we are storing up even bigger gender representation problems as we emerge from the pandemic,” Sue Duke, head of global public policy at LinkedIn, noted in the WEF’s statement.
The report is a reminder of all the work that lays ahead in ensuring gender equity, both in the United States and globally, said Jocelyn Frye, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress.
“Women continue to bear the brunt of some of our economic problems, and we need to rethink how we’re going to focus [on recovery] if we’re really going to bring women along with everybody else,” she said.
Frye noted that many of the countries that sat atop the list in terms of equity — Iceland, Finland, Norway and New Zealand, for example — all have robust policies that promote economic participation among women, such as paid sick leave.
It’s also noteworthy that a country’s wealth doesn’t correlate to greater gender equality, observed Michelle Holder, an associate professor of economics at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.
None of the countries in the G-7, the group of countries with the largest economies in the world, cracked the Top 10 of the WEF’s equality rankings, even though they are presumably the most advanced, she said. The United States ranks 30th in gender equality, behind many of its peers, as well as countries with much higher rates of poverty.
That is in part because the United States already had deep economic inequality before the pandemic, especially on racial and gender lines: Women of color are overrepresented in minimum wage jobs, for example, and a lack of generational wealth makes even temporary financial precarity more costly.
Just as concerning, Holder said, was that no Asian, Middle Eastern or Latin American country landed in the Top 10 in terms of equity.
Holder also pointed to the report’s emphasis on “labor market scarring” — the long-term effects of women leaving the labor force en masse.
“The predominant narrative in this country about recovering from the pandemic has been, well, as soon as we get the virus under control, our economy will bounce back,” Holder said. “That narrative is false.”
That’s because when covid rates go down, women who left the workforce will not be simply slotted back into their original jobs, some of which have been permanently lost.
When someone loses or leaves a job, it affects their wages going forward. It could feed into employer skepticism when looking at their work histories, impacting their ability to get hired or compensated at rates equal to men, Holder said.
Kristen Broady, an economics fellow at the Brookings Institution, sees political empowerment and economic empowerment as closely connected.
Globally, women hold just 26.1 percent of all parliamentary seats, and 22.6 percent of all ministerial positions, the WEF found.
“Having [political] representation means, for women, that there’s people who are more likely to understand child-care issues or needing sick leave for various reasons that women experience, that men don’t,” Broady said. But there are sizable barriers for political representation, especially among women of color, she added, and people with greater financial capital tend to have greater political power, as voters and candidates.
Broady agreed that the gaps would persist, and possibly worsen, after the pandemic ends.
She pointed out that based on data from the Bureau of Labor and Statistics, nearly 1 in 4 women in the United States work in jobs at high risk of being automated, including cashiers, salespeople, administrative workers and receptionists.
A smaller share, 15 percent, worked in jobs with a low risk of being automated, such as education and nursing.
Overall, the WEF’s latest findings highlight two key lessons of the pandemic in the United States, Frye said.
“We need to support caregiving. And two, that the essential workers that we rely on to sort of keep our country afloat are disproportionately women and women of color in particular, and we need to do better by them.”