Progress for women in work could be back at 2017 levels by the end of 2021 as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic.

This is according to analysis conducted for PwC’s annual Women in Work Index, which measures female economic empowerment across 33 Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries.

The evidence emerging globally is that the damage from Covid-19 and government response and recovery policies, is disproportionately being felt by women.

For nine years, countries across the OECD made consistent gains towards women’s economic empowerment. However, due to Covid-19 this trend will now be reversed, with the Index estimated to fall 2.1 points between 2019 and 2021. The Index will not begin to recover until 2022, where it should gain back 0.8 points.

In order to undo the damage caused by COVID-19 to women in work – even by 2030, progress towards gender equality needs to be twice as fast as its historical rate.

Bhushan Sethi, joint global leader: people and organisation at PwC, comments: “The setbacks that we are experiencing with Covid-19 in terms of the workforce tell a worrisome story. While the impacts are being felt by everyone across the globe, we are seeing women exiting the workforce at a faster rate than men.

“Women carry a heavier burden than men of unpaid care and domestic work. This has increased during the pandemic, and it is limiting women’s time and options to contribute to the economy.

“In the labour market, more women work in hard-hit human contact-intensive service sectors – such as accommodation and food services, and retail trade. With social distancing and lockdowns, these sectors have seen unprecedented job losses.”

Between 2019 and 2020, the annual OECD unemployment rate increased by 1,7 percentage points for women (from 5,7% in 2019 to 7,4% in 2020).

In the US, the female unemployment rate increased sharply from 4% in March 2020 to 16% in April 2020. The female unemployment rate stayed high for the remainder of 2020, ending the year in December 2020 at 6,7%, 3 percentage points higher than in December 2019.

In the UK, the full impact of job losses from Covid-19 is yet to be realised due to job retention schemes, but furlough data shows that women are at greater risk of losing their jobs when these schemes come to an end. Between July and October 2020, a total of 15,3-million jobs were furloughed in the UK. For furloughed jobs for which gender was known, 52% of these were women’s jobs, despite women only making up 48% of the workforce.

Anastacia Tshesane, transformation, diversity and inclusion Leader for PwC Southern Africa, says: “International Women’s Day 2021 is an opportunity for us to consider and reflect on how women in the workplace have been affected by the economic conditions and changes brought on by Covid-19.

“The pace of progress towards gender equality across the African continent was slow to begin with and Covid-19 threatens to reverse the important gains that have been made in the last decade. It is clear that negative impacts of the pandemic are disproportionately being felt by women and that the full impact of the pandemic on women in work is still to be realised.

“It is imperative, however, that governments, businesses and other stakeholders take steps to address this.”

Lullu Krugel, chief economist at PwC Strategy&, adds: “Although PwC’s study focuses primarily on women in OECD countries, there are similar patterns in South Africa, where women are largely bearing the brunt of unemployment as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic.

“The Covid-19 pandemic has disrupted hundreds of thousands of women’s lives, as well as putting a damper on years of progress around gender equality. This is largely due to the economic sectors that women work in, which have little incentives and protective measures when it comes to unemployment.

“The resulting economic fallout has not only disrupted sectors with a larger share of female employment, but it has also increased the existing inequalities of unpaid care and domestic work shouldered by women. If action is not taken to address these challenges, there’s a risk that more women will leave or reduce their participation in the labour market permanently, reversing progress towards gender equality and stunting economic growth.

“Improving female participation in the labour market will have a significant impact on the economy. There are huge benefits from getting more women in productive, well paid jobs.”

Before COVID-19 hit, women on average spent six more hours than men on unpaid childcare every week (according to research by UN Women). During Covid-19, women have taken on an even greater share and now spend 7,7 more hours per week on unpaid childcare than men – this ‘second shift’ equates to 31,5 hours per week – almost as much an extra full-time job.

This increase in unpaid labour has already reduced women’s contribution to the economy. If this extra burden lasts, it will cause more women to leave the labour market permanently, reversing progress towards gender equality and reducing productivity in the economy.

While some women may choose to leave the workforce temporarily due to Covid-19 with the intention to return post-pandemic, research shows that career breaks have long-term impacts on women’s labour market prospects, and women will return to lower paid and lower skilled positions.