A woman in a cotton thread factory in Brazil. (AP)

A woman in a cotton thread factory in Brazil. (AP)

Setbacks and Steps Forward: The Pandemic’s Impact on Women in Latin America

By Chase Harrison and Carin Zissis

As AS/COA marks 10 years of its Women’s Hemispheric Network, we look at the pandemic’s economic effect on women and why Latin America may be poised to make progress.

We’ve heard it before: the pandemic has taken a heavy toll on women, sparking what’s been dubbed a “shecession” as roughly 54 million women around the world lost their jobs last year. And the road to recovery is proving unequal, as well. While the International Labor Organization (ILO) forecasts that men’s employment levels will hit pre-pandemic levels by the end of 2021, 13 million fewer women will be employed compared to in 2019. Overall, women will be 25 percent less likely than men to have a job.

Women also face gaps in job quality, per the ILO. They’re more likely to hold health and social work jobs, roles where they frequently have to put their lives on the line amid the coronavirus crisis. The pandemic also meant more demands for care at home, where women have an outsized burden that can force them to cut or give up paid employment for unpaid household work. They are more likely to be informally employed, less likely to have access to remote work, and—given all the aforementioned challenges—face higher levels of exhaustion and stress. On top of all that, women are less likely to have a voice in forging solutions: worldwide, they made up less than a quarter of COVID-19 task force members.

If the global view looks dim, it’s even more dire in the Americas, where in 2020 women’s employment dropped by 9.4 percent, far more than the 4.2 percent worldwide average and making it the region where women’s workforce participation took the hardest hit.

But all of this grim news doesn’t mean there aren’t paths forward. As AS/COA marks the tenth anniversary of its Women’s Hemispheric Network with an October 21 conference, we explore the pandemic’s impact on women’s workforce participation in Latin America, as well as steps that can be taken to regain ground to advance both women and society as a whole.

A step back in Latin America

Latin American and Caribbean women have long faced obstacles to entering and advancing in the region’s labor market. Still, there’s been progress. Workforce participation rose from 36 percent in 1988 to 52 percent three decades later, boosting gender equality and alleviating poverty.

Then came Covid. A World Bank survey of 13 Latin American and Caribbean countries found that women were 44 percent more likely to suffer job losses than male workers when the pandemic hit, given that women disproportionately work in fields hit hard by the pandemic, ranging from retail to tourism to education.

Moreover, the job losses were more severe in the informal sector, where women in the region are more likely than men to be employed. Overall, 126 million women in Latin America hold informal jobs and, in countries such as Bolivia, Guatemala, and Peru, 8 in 10 women work in such jobs. Out of the 24 million jobs lost between February and September 2020 in the region, only 3 million were formal posts.

All of this threatens to turn back the clock more than a dozen years, warns the UN Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean. Even as women regain jobs, they’re expected to close out the year at workforce participation levels on par with those of 2008.

Taking up policies with a gender perspective

While the numbers are stark, the need to try and staunch the economic pain for women was not lost on regional officials, who implemented a range of policies in an attempt to counter the effects of lockdowns. In every Latin American country, they included measures that adopted a gender lens, and worked to remedy the pandemic’s disproportionate impact on women and girls. Of the 475 Latin American aid measures logged by United Nations Development Programme by March, 268—roughly 56 percent—were categorized as gender sensitive.

The majority of these policies addressed gender-based violence, which was exacerbated by the pandemic as women more often found themselves trapped at home amid lockdowns. Fewer policies, however, focused on women’s economic wellbeing. Those that did tended to either expand or create income transfer programs that prioritized women.

Less common social protection measures dealt with labor market concerns. The most common ones subsidized wages and provided support to entrepreneurs and the self-employed, with priority given to women. Two countries, Chile and Colombia, had policies to help facilitate women returning to work. Only five countries implemented policies focused on domestic workers, a particularly vulnerable sector in which more than three-quarters of people are informally employed and 93 percent are women. Policies for domestic workers included Mexico providing financial support, Argentina offering paid leave, and Peru advancing labor rights.

Several countries focused on supporting sectors with a higher participation of women, such as education, social services, retail, and tourism. Measures in this area included special pools of financing for tourism in Colombia and the Dominican Republic, financial assistance to educational institutions in Uruguay, and aid to family businesses in Mexico.

An opportunity to step forward

What made the difference between how responsive a country’s public policy was toward gender? It may come down to having more women in office, given that having more equal gender representation is linked to changing discriminatory legislation and investing in the kind of social services that can enable women to join or remain in the workforce.

In that case, Latin America and the Caribbean has a leg up on other regions: at 32.4 percent, the Americas is the region that leads the world when it comes to women’s representation in legislatures, per the Inter-Parliamentary Union. While that figure includes the United States, which saw a record number of women become lawmakers in the 2020 elections, its rate of 27 percent representation lags the rest of the hemisphere. Still, gender parity differs across the region, with women occupying half of the lower house seats in Mexico, while Brazil lags at 15 percent.

Globally, female leaders in top offices were lauded for their pandemic response. At the local level, a recent Brazilian study found that municipalities with female mayors had more robust pandemic responses and fewer deaths. Governments with ministries and institutions dedicated to women and children tend to have stronger gender measures.

On the pandemic front, to see the results of women in leadership, one can look toward Argentina, a country where a number of women occupy top government roles with a specific focus on advancing women’s rights. The country implemented more gender-sensitive Covid policy measures than any other country in Latin America. The 26 measures included policies that provided cash transfers to low-income households, encouraged hiring of women, and involved emergency payments to domestic workers.