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How Women Are Fighting to Recover their Economic Strength Lost to the Pandemic

Bloomberg Línea spoke with leaders from the public, private and civil society sectors in search of a regional overview of the efforts.

The World Economic Forum estimated that it will take another generation to close the global gender gap.

Bloomberg Línea — At a time when the gender gap in Latin America’s socioeconomic spheres was at the center of public debate, the Covid-19 pandemic disproportionately impacted women throughout the region.

According to a report by the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), Latin America already had the highest growth rate in the world for women’s labor force participation. This proportion reached 58% in 2019 compared to 52% in 2000, a rate that the bank says was unprecedented and would have equaled 69% in the United States by 2055. However, the bank points out, the pandemic caused a setback of at least a decade in this indicator.

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The Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC), for its part, considers that the setback is greater after the fact that in 2020 “there was an overwhelming exit of women from the labor force, who, because they had to meet the demands of care in their homes, did not resume their job search”.

It is estimated, according to the report, “that the unemployment rate for women reached 12% in 2020, a percentage that would rise to 22.2% assuming the same labor participation rate for women in 2019”.

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But, at the same time, there is also no shortage of initiatives aimed at countering the trend. And in a series of 12 interviews across the region, Bloomberg Línea spoke with women leading these efforts from the public, private, and civil society sectors.

A stronger impact than in the rest of the world

For Gabriela Bucher, executive director of Oxfam, the impact of the pandemic in Latin America has been disproportionate compared to the rest of the world. And it has not only affected health, but also the social sphere and the economy.

“We have 20% of the world’s mortality despite having 8.3% of the world’s population, 20% of the cases and 32% of the deaths,” she said, emphasizing that these figures played a central role in the 7.7% drop in regional Gross Domestic Product (GDP).

“It is more than catastrophic and much stronger than in other regions of the world (...) economic inequality is also gender inequality and inequality in racial and ethnic issues, thus we know that there is a disproportionate impact” on these groups, she said.

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According to the Covid-19 Labor Market Observatory of the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), more than 31 million jobs were lost in Latin America and the Caribbean during the pandemic. But in relative terms, women have lost more jobs than men and are taking longer to recover them, especially in Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Mexico, Peru and Paraguay.

According to the IDB's Covid-19 Labor Market Observatory, more than 31 million jobs were lost in Latin America and the Caribbean during the pandemic.dfd

According to McKinsey & Company data, globally, women’s jobs are 1.8 times more vulnerable to this health crisis than men’s jobs. And, although women represent 39% of employment, 54% of the total job losses have been female.

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Maria-Noel Vaeza, director of UN Women for the Americas and the Caribbean, said that one of the biggest problems that the health crisis brought to light and exacerbated was that care work is not recognized.

“There has to be an awareness of the need to redistribute household chores and reduce them so that women can have enough time to attend to other economic, political or leisure activities. It is not possible that women continue to have 3.5 times or 4 times more responsibility in unpaid care tasks than men,” she said.

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Along the same lines, the National Director of Economy and Gender of the Ministry of Economy of Argentina, Mercedes D’Alessandro, assured that “the great gender policy” in the country “is investment in care infrastructure”.

The Argentine state stood out at a regional level during the pandemic for implementing the greatest number of measures with a gender perspective, according to an index prepared by UN Women. The index shows that of its 43 measures taken by the end of July, 26 had this characteristic. In August 2020, the country was at the top of the global ranking. Currently, when contrasting the figures with those of the rest of the region, Costa Rica shows the same number, while Chile and Colombia have taken 25.

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D’Alessandro assured that care must be central to advance with structural changes and indicated that in this framework the government is carrying out a project to build 300 Child Development Centers between 2021 and 2022.

The plan seeks to “reduce the poverty gap in terms of time available for other activities and expand the availability of comprehensive care spaces for the protection of children’s rights at an early age, with the mission of achieving a fairer distribution of care tasks”.

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The official also remarked on the importance of direct transfers such as the Universal Child Allowance (AUH) and the Alimentar Card (which grant a monthly amount of money and charge a plastic to purchase food, respectively). She indicated that the decision was made that “the AUH should fall on the woman of the household”, so 94% of those who receive it are women.

“It is a bit complex because those incomes are for boys and girls. But the truth is that women who have them in care have greater obstacles to seek employment, to work full time. And having this income that guarantees them at least to feed them at home every day obviously has a positive impact in terms of gender,” she said.

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There must be an awareness of the need to redistribute household chores and reduce them so that women can have enough time to attend to other activities.

María-Noel Vaeza, UN Women Director for the Americas and the Caribbean

In Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro’s government spent 557 billion reais from the beginning of the pandemic until June (US$107.1 billion), according to Poder360plata. A relevant part of that amount (293 billion during 2020 and 27 billion until July 2021) was used to grant direct transfers through the Auxílio Emergencial program.

But the government has not made the gender approach a priority. And that is where organizations like Central Única das Favelas (Single Center of the Favelas, Cufa) come in, which through its Mães da Favela (Mothers of the Favela) project has distributed 296.2 million reais (almost US$57 million) to help the women who inhabit these impoverished neighborhoods.

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Central Única das Favelas, through its Mães da Favela project, distributes food to mothers in need.dfd

Specifically, Mães da Favela distributes food or money it receives from various private partners, including the mining company Vale and the multimedia company Rede Globo. According to Data Favela, a partnership between Cufa, the Data Popular institute and Locomotiva, there are 5.2 million mothers in Brazilian favelas. 72% of them are primarily responsible for providing for their families.

Meanwhile in Venezuela, there are three measures with a gender perspective registered by the UN Women index, by far the lowest figure in South America. And in the face of the economic, social and health collapse that the country has been experiencing for years, in the vast majority of cases the only source of help comes from civil society organizations.

One of them is the Center for Justice and Peace (Cepaz), which through the Cash program has delivered money or food to women in the parish of La Dolorita, east of Caracas. According to the organization, its objective is that women “do not depend exclusively on the food box delivered by the government-run Local Supply and Production Committees (CLAP)”.

This way, the beneficiaries are the ones who buy their food and take charge of the decisions that affect their lives, Cepaz explains on its website. The organization’s lawyer and advocacy officer, Sara Fernandez, told Bloomberg Línea that the program transcends cash and food transfers. “We have continued to serve women inside and outside of La Dolorita, delivering menstrual cups and donations, doing trainings, legal clinics and psycho-legal attention,” she explained.

In January 2021, President Nicolás Maduro admitted that poverty had grown in Venezuela during 2020: general poverty up to 17% and extreme poverty up to 4%. However, the country’s leading universities found in their 2020 Living Conditions Survey that 96% of Venezuelan households were in poverty and 79% in extreme poverty.

Other organizations, such as Aliadas en Cadena, seek to address medium and long-term challenges with training programs for vulnerable women in human rights, information and communication technologies and employability skills, in addition to providing psychosocial support. Yomara Balzán, the organization’s general manager, said that when the pandemic struck, they adapted their programs to the virtual environment in order to continue with the training processes.

Balzán indicated that during the pandemic 432 women have graduated from her program, of which the majority (72%) are in productive activity, mainly in sectors such as services, production and gastronomy. In addition, with the almost 100 “forochats” (forum chats) they organized during 2020 alone, while adapting the programs, they reached almost 30,000 people.

In Mexico, the Asociación Mexicana de Mujeres Jefas de Empresa A.C. (Mexican Association of Women Heads of Businesses or AMMJE as it´s Spanish initials) is at the forefront of this effort. Sonia Garza, president of the Association, highlighted its importance by pointing out that according to the Mexican statistics institute (INEGI), 84% of the people who lost their jobs during the pandemic were women.

AMMJE has focused on “a substantial issue for the growth and empowerment of women, training,” she explained. Through a collaboration with the social and commerce network Lady Multitask and Google Developers, it developed a “training platform for women entrepreneurs and businesswomen on business and empowerment issues”. It is free and consists of modules such as ‘Migrating your business to digital’ and ‘Microbusiness’. She also mentioned an alliance with Mercado Libre to generate a strategy to “face the confinement and allow women entrepreneurs to deliver their products in time and form” and that “the pandemic does not decapitalize their businesses”.

Within the corporate ecosystem, the approaches have been as diverse as the companies that comprise it. But the company Aequales, which according to its website provides “tools for closing gender gaps in the workplace in Latin America”, illustrates through its own measurements the progress (or lack thereof) of numerous companies in the region.

It does so mainly through the Par ranking, which since 2014 scores participating companies based on indicators such as organizational culture, management of objectives, talent and organizational structure. Taking these variables into account, it rewards the most equitable companies and disseminates the good practices they have been carrying out.

Aequales provides tools for companies to close gender gaps in the workplace in Latin America.dfd

Andrea de la Piedra, CEO of Aequales, agreed that during the pandemic, the number of hours of work at home increased, which implied more efforts on the part of women in caregiving roles. This is why they decided to adapt their measurements to determine what companies were doing to counteract the additional work hours during this period, said De la Piedra.

The ranking found that nearly 83% of the companies analyzed recognized caregiving as a central issue in crisis management. But nearly 30% had not estimated how demanding it would be for their teams. In addition, it identified that 67% of the participating companies began to evaluate the extra care burden on their employees and 39% adapted the way they measure performance to “dispense with any indicators of attendance and time, challenge gender stereotypes and rethink the way they measure productivity, as well as ensure differentiated measures for caregivers.”

The Par diagnostic also found that 19% of the organizations prioritized remote work for nursing mothers and fathers with children under one year old, even when their leaves ended. While 18% granted paid leave to meet specific care needs and only 5% extended maternity leave.

De la Piedra highlighted “four pillars” observed among the leading companies in the ranking:

  • The creation of a gender equity and diversity committee.
  • Generate an action plan to have a diversity strategy.
  • Having gender quotas (“they are perhaps somewhat controversial, but what they do is speed up the processes”).
  • And the creation of gender equity public policies.

“Those companies that measure themselves and have been working on the issue have a 25% higher return on their assets. They are more profitable, they are more innovative, they have a higher retention. This has a direct financial impact and has shown us that it is not only good because of the importance of taking care of the talent, the team, the inclusive spaces, but also because of the economic return,” said De la Piedra.

A transgenerational challenge

Not only working women were affected by the pandemic, but also those of school age. Paula Coto, executive director of Chicas en Tecnología, an organization that works to reduce the gender gap through free technology and entrepreneurship courses for high school girls throughout the region, analyzed the main educational challenges that the pandemic brought with it, and how they can exacerbate the prevailing inequality.

Coto said that, although the pandemic reinforced the use of technological devices, it also highlighted the differences in access to the Internet and devices that persist in Latin America.

Chicas en Tecnologíadfd

She explained that adolescent girls in the region were one of the groups hardest hit by the restrictions imposed by the pandemic, in this case, by the suspension of face-to-face classes. Many faced the possibility of not being able to continue their schooling because of the economic impact of the crisis on their families or because of the need to carry out care work at home. In Mexico alone, according to Bloomberg, an estimated 1.8 million students did not return to classes for the 2020-2021 school year due to financial hardship or Covid-19 related reasons.

A Unicef report further revealed that as of June 30, in 18 countries and territories in Latin America and the Caribbean, 101 million children and adolescents were still affected by school closures. Meanwhile, the International Labor Organization (ILO) estimates that due to this school interruption, the number of child laborers could increase by 9 million by the end of 2022 worldwide, despite the progress made in recent years. In the region, according to the organization, 33% of the 8.2 million minors between the ages of 5 and 17 who work are girls.

“There is evidence that the fact that distance education is not possible in some corners has already caused a very large dropout rate. We made a projection with ECLAC that close to 300,000 children are at risk of dropping out of school and entering child labor, which would be a tragedy,” said Vinícius Pinheiro, ILO regional director for Latin America and the Caribbean, while speaking with Bloomberg Línea.

It is important that young women are involved not only as users, but also as creators of technological solutions, since these will be the jobs of the future.

Paula Coto, executive director of Chicas en Tecnología

But academic disruptions and possible school dropouts not only have social repercussions, but also long-term economic impacts. A Bloomberg article cites that the World Bank estimates that the suspension of schooling could translate into US$1.7 trillion in lost future income in the region.

Despite the negative consequences of the crisis, for the director of Chicas en Tecnología the pandemic was an opportunity to extend its work from Argentina to 17 other countries, including Peru, Colombia, Chile, Mexico, and thus reinforce the importance of women having access to basic education, technology education and digital devices, a combination that will allow them to train, discover new careers and in the future be able to take advantage of the opportunities of a labor market hungry for professional skills in technology.

“It is important that young women are involved not only as users, but also as creators of technological solutions, given that these will be the jobs of the future,” explained Coto.

Women in political positions in Chile are also focusing their work for equity in the future, especially considering that the country has begun the drafting of a new Magna Carta with the first parity Constituent Assembly in history.

Mónica Zalaquett, Minister of Women and Gender Equity of the Chilean government, highlighted the advance of female participation by recalling that, due to the gender quota, “women had to leave to achieve parity with men”. “So I think that here a paradigm was broken that there were no women because there were no spaces” for them, she said.

For the minister, achieving a constituent assembly with equality is fundamental because the Constitution will now have “incorporated the vision, the contribution and the view of 50% of the Chilean population, who are women”.

Two constituent assembly women expressed themselves along the same lines: Bessy Gallardo, from the Apruebo List, and Ramona Reyes, from the Socialist Party.

For Gallardo, the political participation of women in Chile will be one of the Assembly’s main challenges. In Congress, she said, women only have 17% of the seats and political parties carry more men than women on their lists. “That is why we in the Constituent Assembly are teaching that there can be parity in the public arena”.

Gallardo explained that, although gender equity in the drafting of a new Magna Carta will allow the situation of women in the country to begin to change, the challenges will not end there. “Without good subsequent laws, the Constitution is not going to be of any use and will be a dead letter. We need laws and to educate society, private enterprise, the media and the State to equalize opportunities for all”.

For the Assembly woman it will be fundamental to establish “legal bases” to guarantee laws of salary equity, safe and free abortion, access to non-sexist education, and gender quotas in companies as well as in State entities. “Gender laws serve to balance the playing field until one day we no longer need them and we can repeal them because the work in society will be done,” she said.

For her part, Reyes agreed that in Chile there is a “pending debt” with all women in relation to spaces for political participation, reproductive health measures and the overload of domestic roles. “We hope that in this new Constitution, which for the first time will be drafted with parity, a view from the perspective of women can be guaranteed and that equality will be enshrined in it,” she said.

She also stressed that the increase in women’s care work in the pandemic is key to demonstrate that it is urgent for the State to “recognize” their importance for the “economy of the country”.

Outlook for the future

Looking ahead to the series of challenges left by the pandemic, Maria-Noel Vaeza of UN Women and Gabriela Bucher of Oxfam gave their perspectives on how to address them and which ones to focus on.

“Economic inequality is also gender inequality”

Gabriela Bucher

Noel-Vaeza said it will be critical for financial agencies to invest in women. “It is good business because we have shown that when we invest in women we have profits of up to 25% more and because the market value of these women-led companies is up to 40% more,” she said.

Bucher, meanwhile, highlighted the key issue of establishing and enforcing the payment of corporate taxes. “Economic inequality is also gender inequality,” she said. Therefore, he mentioned as a priority “to be able to tax great wealth, companies and really reduce or eliminate tax erosion and evasion”.

“Some situations are extremely discouraging and the figures speak for themselves, but at the same time our message is one of hope and possibility,” she said. Although she assured that changes are taking place that “mean that we are not going back to how the situation was before, which was unsustainable. Now we have an opportunity to have the political will to change and rethink the economic model in favor of equality”.