International Women's Day: 2021, A year of reflection and action, but not of celebration

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Women in Peru in times of COVID-19
Women in Peru in times of COVID-19. © Photo: Victor Idrogo / World Bank.


This years’ international women’s day, March 8th, is not a day of celebration but rather a day of reflection .  Economies around the Latin America and Caribbean region continue to underutilize one major source of talent: Women. 

Though in previous years, we celebrated that more women were economically active than before (53% in 2019, vs. 41% in 1990), and gender gaps in economic participation were narrowing, the truth is, we are far from parity (77% for men in 2019). But the situation has worsened even more. The pandemic has really thrown a wrench into the motor; not only slowing down progress but also highlighting how sensitive to shocks women’s economic participation really is.

New data shows that at the onset of the lockdown, over 56% of women in the region, who worked before could not do so; and 21% of them lost their job altogether .  Men also faced work stoppages, but at a much lower rate (39% and 13%, respectively).  Data also shows that as time passed and lockdown measures (or compliance) eased, women returned to economic activity at a much lower rate than males. 

And the gender gaps became even larger in countries such as Peru, Ecuador, Argentina, and El Salvador.  A recent study focusing on Peru shows that the gender gaps are largest among women who live in households where children are present.These patterns are common across the region and very worrisome.  To start, they translate into huge economic losses; at current rates, the economic loss to the region is equivalent to 14% of GDP per capita.  But they also highlight how fickle progress was and how much (and how deep) underlying structural issues—from labor stringent regulations to social norms—continue to limit women’s ability to remain engaged in the economy.

Graphic 1: Percentage of work stoppage, by gender in LAC, over a 3-month period

Percentage of work stoppage, by gender in LAC, over a 3-month period
Source: World Bank 2021b


A complex answer to a complex problem

In a recent presentation of these worrisome statistics we were asked why the impacts of the lockdown and the ongoing recovery were more likely to negatively affect women than men in the region. 

Even though the answer is complex, with many dimensions to consider, there are some general principles and (existing and emerging) evidence for why the patterns we are seeing are worse for women than men:

Our objective with this blog is to explain why it is not a celebration of March 8, and to help with this small input to raise awareness about the reversal of the achievements that we are experiencing. We also hope that our discussion will make it clear that there is an urgent need to act quickly. There is no doubt that the reasons that contribute to keeping women out of the economy, identified here, present great challenges; and these are surely not the only ones in many contexts.

But it is important to emphasize the importance of addressing these challenges to prevent setbacks from becoming permanent and so that our region can benefit, socially and economically, from the contribution of one of its most important assets: women. It is also important to remind readers, especially those working on recovery plans, that any viable economic recovery plan must include women to ensure the sustainability of their efforts. We hope that an inclusive reactivation will give us reasons to celebrate on the March 8th to come.


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