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Women in Work Index 2021

The impact of COVID-19 on women in work


The Women in Work Index 2021 is brought to you using the capability of Strategy&, PwC's strategy consulting business.

International Women’s Day 2021 is an opportunity for us to celebrate the successes that women have achieved in the workplace.

But the pace of progress towards gender equality across the OECD remains slow. And COVID-19 threatens to reverse the important gains that have been made in the last decade, as the negative impacts of the pandemic are disproportionately being felt by women.

If nothing is done to directly address the impact of the pandemic on women or to tackle pre-existing gender inequalities in care, more women will leave the workforce permanently. The damage could take years to repair. Our analysis finds that even at double the rate of historical progress, the OECD will not catch up to its pre-pandemic equality growth path until 2030.

There is a huge prize to be gained from accelerating progress: our Index shows increasing female employment rates across the OECD could boost OECD Gross Domestic Product (GDP) by US$6 trillion, while closing the gender pay gap could boost OECD GDP by US$2 trillion.

We encourage women and men around the world to #ChooseToChallenge inequalities and gender biases towards women and work.

Explore the key findings from the research below and find out more about what governments and organisations can do to improve outcomes for women in work, and support a sustainable and inclusive economic recovery from COVID-19. You can also explore the Women in Work Index results at a country level using our interactive data tool.

If you have any questions about our research, please do not hesitate to get in touch.

Ł48bn Annual boost to the UK economy from increasing the proportion of women in work.

Key findings

Before the pandemic, gradual progress was being made across the OECD to advance gender equality in work.

  • In 2019, Iceland and Sweden retained their place as the top two performing OECD countries on the Women in Work Index, with New Zealand moving into third place.
  • The UK’s position was 16th (out of 33) on the Index, with growth from 2018 to 2019 above the OECD average.
  • Luxembourg has made the greatest improvement in its ranking since 2000, while the United States has seen the largest decline.
Which are the top OECD countries for women's economic empowerment? Iceland, Sweden, New Zealand
Which are the top UK regions and nations for women's economic empowerment? South West, Scotland, Northern Ireland.

Progress for women across the UK was not evenly distributed across regions, and for the first time regional inequalities increased

  • The South West, Scotland and Northern Ireland are the top performing UK regions in this year’s Index.
  • Meanwhile, the North West, North East, West Midlands, and Yorkshire and the Humber scored lower than the UK average, and exhibited lower than average annual growth. Women in these regions experience higher than average unemployment rates.
  • The East Midlands has shown the largest absolute and relative improvement in its Index score from 2018 to 2019.

How is COVID-19 affecting women in work?

Women’s jobs are being disproportionately impacted by COVID-19 because of existing gender inequalities in society, and the disruptive impact of the pandemic on service sectors with high levels of female employment.

The unemployment rate rose across the OECD in 2020, with women losing their jobs at a faster rate than men.

COVID-19 is also amplifying the unequal burden of unpaid care and domestic work carried by women. Caring responsibilities have already caused more women than men to exit the workforce. The longer this higher care burden on women lasts, the more likely women are to leave the labour market permanently - not only reversing progress towards gender equality, but also stunting economic growth.

Graph: Share of furloughed jobs vs share of female workers by industry in the UK, October 2020

The full impact of COVID-19 on women in work has not yet been realised. If no action is taken, the pandemic will reverse the progress made by the OECD towards gender parity in the workplace, with the Women in Work Index estimated to fall in 2020 and 2021.

It may not be possible to fully repair this damage, or ‘catch up’ to the path towards gender equality that existed before the pandemic. Our scenario analysis shows that the OECD needs progress to be twice as fast as its historical rate if it is to completely recover by 2030.

Immediate action is needed to undo the damage from COVID-19 to women’s economic empowerment. Policy responses to support the economic recovery need to specifically address the impacts of the pandemic on women. Governments and businesses must work together to address the underlying gender inequalities exacerbated by the pandemic, close existing gender pay gaps, support female progression and leadership in the workplace, and fund employment and business opportunities for women in future growth sectors of the economy.

Working together to promote gender equality in work

1. Actively assess the gender equality impacts of all policies

Undertake gender budgeting and equality impact assessments to ensure policies better protect women and other marginal groups in the labour market and do not put them at a greater disadvantage. This will help inform fairer and more effective policy responses to the recovery from COVID-19 and future crises.

2. Empower women to participate optimally in the labour market by addressing underlying societal gender inequalities.

Governments, policymakers and businesses should focus on recognising the enormous value of the unpaid care work done by women, and on taking action to reduce women’s burden of unpaid care through policies such as shared paid parental leave, affordable access to childcare, and flexible working options for both women and men.

3. Take action to stop the pandemic from widening already significant gender pay gaps

If women leave the labour market or reduce their working hours due to COVID-19, particularly those in higher paid corporate roles, then existing gender pay gaps may widen. Governments, policymakers and businesses need to take action to close gender pay gaps through mandating gender pay gap reporting, compensating women’s and men’s work equally across (as well as within) industries, and implementing effective gender action plans in the workplace to support and empower progression and promotion of women.

4. Fund employment and business opportunities for women in future growth sectors of the economy

If the recovery from COVID-19 is to meaningfully support and empower women in the labour market, they need to be able to access productive, fulfilling, sustainable, and well paid jobs. These opportunities exist in high growth sectors. Governments, policymakers, and businesses therefore need to focus on retraining and upskilling women to access jobs in growth areas such as digital, AI, renewable energy and the Green Economy. Financial support schemes for female entrepreneurs and female-led start-ups in these sectors will also provide large gains to women’s economic empowerment and increase productivity of the economy. This will help to establish the necessary conditions for progress towards gender parity in the longer term.


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Larice Stielow

Larice Stielow

Senior Economist, PwC United Kingdom

Tel: +44 (0)7525 283543

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