How has COVID-19 made women’s economic justice more important and urgent than ever?
I would say that it’s always been important but we just didn’t realise how important it really was. It’s good to have a sense of urgency and a sense of priority about it now because once you understand the problem – and the harm that it does – I think it’s morally incumbent that you take action. The way the pandemic hit women harder is very specifically tied to the fact that we all have the same economic system working against us. That includes women clustering in certain industries that were more susceptible to the contagion. As a result, women around the world felt the impact first and will feel it the longest. Then there’s the whole problem of childcare, which is potentially putting some women back in a place of vulnerability that they haven’t been in for 50 years. The pandemic will eventually end and we have to think about the fact that the whole thing is going to come slamming down again, and possibly worse, we will possibly have lost progress.
What’s the priority when it comes to tackling the structural causes of economic injustice?
The failure of governments to provide universal, affordable, high-quality childcare is part of a structural inequity that is very old. I think that what happened back in the 70’s when women in Western countries started entering the workforce in very steep numbers, was that many governments did not take the question of providing childcare seriously. They thought that a woman’s place was in the home and so the government did not owe them this sort of support. The problem is that the world has changed a lot in 50 years and now women basically fuel those economies. If women went back to the kitchen, those economies would crash and probably never recover. Yet this issue just sat there with the same laws and the same bad attitudes. Now the pandemic has shone a light on this issue. We need to stop thinking of childcare as a luxury for individuals and start thinking of it as economic infrastructure.
Where are you seeing the most progressive approaches to women’s economic justice?
Women’s economic empowerment programming can often have a very local focus or emphasis on a particular innovation that prevents you looking at the bigger picture. The message that this is a structural issue makes the job seem too big and too negative. However, some donors are starting not only to recognise structural inequality but to tackle it. There’s quite a lot of work that I have been involved in at the World Bank that is trying to work at a systemic level. With companies, there’s a risk that women’s economic empowerment gets lost under the umbrella of “sustainability” and that funds are prioritised for climate change. However, I honestly think that companies, especially ones with global supply chains, are in many ways better positioned to make long lasting structural change than the rest of us.
Building Forward: how can we ensure that economic recovery from COVID-19 works with and for women?
COVID-19 recovery could work for women if the contribution that women make to national economies and the cost of women’s economic exclusion are better recognised. This requires advocacy to decision makers that women’s economic justice is not something they can afford to ignore. The other thing I’m hopeful about, perhaps overly optimistically so, is that childcare will take more of a prominent place in government policy, because it’s very clear that this is the main barrier to women’s economic participation and, though there are many barriers, the childcare barrier is the one that affects every area of women’s economic participation and affects women in every country. It’s the one thing we can do to help the most women, everywhere.
For more information
You might also be interested in the following publications:
- Building Forward: Creating a more equitable, gender-just, inclusive and sustainable world
- She Told Us So: Filling the Data Gap to Build Back Equal
- COVID-19 could condemn women to decades of poverty: Implications of the COVID-19 pandemic on women’s and girls’ economic justice and rights
Linda Scott is an internationally renowned expert on women’s economic development and Emeritus DP World Professor for Entrepreneurship and Innovation at the University of Oxford. She is the founder of the Power Shift Forum for Women in the World Economy, founder of the Global Business Coalition for Women’s Economic Empowerment and frequent consultant to the World Bank Group on gender economics. You can hear more from Linda on Twitter @ProfLindaScott.