25th Sep 2023

Leaving women behind in labour leads to economic loss

  • Some sectors where women are overrepresented, such as hospitality and care, saw far greater job losses than others during the Covid-19 pandemic (Photo:
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We tend to think of gender equality as a human rights issue. But it has a significant economic impact as well.

"It's important, especially in times of crisis, that we look at the benefits of gender equality," Carlien Scheele, the director of the European Institute for Gender Equality (EIGE), an EU agency, told EUobserver recently.

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  • Carlien Scheele, Director of the European Institute for Gender Equality (Photo: European Commission)

Scheele argued that gender equality "is part of the solution" when it comes to dealing with the multiple crises the EU is facing.

But progress has been painstakingly slow in achieving parity between men and women.

Gender equality will be achieved in over 60 years at the current pace, EIGE said back in 2020, based on data from the 27 member states, which the agency compiles in an annual index monitoring the progress of gender equality.

"If it will take us another 60 years to achieve gender equality, it means that inequality will continue to hurt people, and [it will hurt] the way also our economies thrive," the EIGE director said.

"It's not only a human rights and women's rights issue, but it's also an economic issue. Economies are hurt," Scheele argued.

Improving gender equality in the EU would lead to an increase in GDP per capita by 6.1 to 9.6 percent by 2050, which amounts to €1.95 to €3.15 trillion, according to an EIGE study.

It would also create an additional 10.5 million jobs in 2050, which would benefit both women and men, the EIGE study showed.

New jobs filled up by women are particularly important as they help reduce poverty. Women are more often affected by poverty than men because of lower employment and smaller salaries.

"We know that in the European Union, we have many inactive women at the moment, and this has been aggravated also by the Covid pandemic. Women lost their jobs or gave up their jobs, because they had to take care of dependents children at home," Scheele said.

"Personally, I think it's such a shame," the EIGE director said.

More unpaid work

The estimated GDP impact of gender equality or inequality vary among member states. In countries where there is a lot of room for improvement, the increase could be as high as 12 percent of GDP by 2050, EIGE estimated.

The 2017 study highlighted Lithuania, Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Croatia, Italy, Belgium, Portugal, Bulgaria and Greece, where improved gender equality could have a high economic impact.

"It's an investment in economies. It benefits the economy positively if women participate in the labor markets, so we can increase our GDPs, we can create more jobs," Scheele said.

Some sectors where women are overrepresented, such as hospitality and care, saw far greater job losses than others during the Covid-19 pandemic, a study by Eurofound, an EU agency focusing on improving the living and working conditions, found in 2022.

And the pandemic has reinforced gender roles, while the increased need for unpaid care created more excess working time for women.

Among employed individuals, women's total weekly working time (when paid and unpaid work are combined) exceeded that of men by over 7 hours in the EU. When those who are compared are full-time employed with children, women's total weekly working time exceeded men's by almost 19 hours, Eurofound has shown.

All of this has meant that women had been more likely than men to report a deterioration in their general health, and have experienced higher levels of depression, lower levels of optimism about the future, and higher rates of being at risk of poverty or social exclusion.

Slow recovery

Scheele said that "it's important that governments are held accountable for the implementation of gender mainstreaming and also gender equality efforts and improvements."

"It comes with commitment and political will, that's very important," she said, adding that also resources are needed.

EIGE is working on a study on what extent the EU member states' Covid-19 recovery plans included gender equality, which will come out later this year.

Revealing some of the preliminary findings, Scheele said recovery plans "helped cushion the worse blows" economically, and they also helped reduce the gender income gap among working age population.

But gender equality was not a specific requirement, unlike climate action or digital transition, to take into account when putting together the national plans to allocate the €800bn available in EU funding, and it shows.

"An improvement will be to have clear requirements and indicators," she said, otherwise governments "might forget" to integrate gender equality in their economic plans.

"If we want the situation on gender equality to improve, we need to invest in skills, people, programmes," she added.

Scheele argued that no matter the crisis at hand, gender equality cannot come second.

"What strikes me is that in times of crisis, people tend to say, let's put gender equality aside. Let's now first talk about the important issues, we have a crisis that we need to solve," she said.

Governments want to respond to citizens' needs, but citizens are also women and men, she said.

"It's of utmost importance that whatever crisis we have, whatever policies we design, whatever legislation we launch, whatever projects we undertake, both at national, but also at EU level, that we look at the impact of those policies, and that we really look into where they answer the needs of women and men, boys and girls," Scheele said.

Gender equality still 60 years away, warns study

A new report on gender equality in the EU makes it clear: improved gender equality in decision-making is the main driver of progress in the EU. And most progress so far is due to outliers Sweden, Denmark and France.

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From a human point of view GDP is not a great measure. Yet it's been the economic dogma for decades now. But what should we use then? This is what we'll be exploring (among other things) in Growth Week.

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