By Patience Marime-Ball, June 9, 2020
It is true that the world is living through a collision of four major negative forces – a global pandemic, a financial crisis, climate related challenges as well as physical and non-physical conflicts. For most of us, COVID-19, has put into clear focus the magnitude of challenges that people and the planet now face. We are in uncharted territory and there has been an encouraging amount of writing focused on the problems disproportionately affecting the vulnerable including women and girls. Women are on the frontlines, in disproportionate numbers, as climate and war refugees, as healthcare workers, as well as caregivers for the young, elderly, and dependent. During this crisis, we need leadership and capital deployed towards containing and mitigating negative impact as much as towards the levers of change that can enable a more gender-equal world when this horrific global moment has passed.
A recently released statement from UN Women’s Executive Director, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, offers an expansive view of the issues that are impacting women and girls, including the fact that in addition to being on the frontlines of this crisis as caregivers, women and girls are more vulnerable to abuse in times of crisis. The Executive Director’s statement states “…globally, every day, on average, 137 women are killed by a member of their own family. We also know that levels of domestic violence and sexual exploitation spike when households are placed under the increased strains that come from security, health and money worries, and cramped and confined living conditions. We see this frequently among displaced populations in crowded refugee camps; and reported domestic violence has tripled recently in some countries practicing social distancing”
So what are some of the levers we need to deploy our imaginations and capital towards?
All care work should be remunerated – making sure that the world puts a value on ALL work including unpaid care work. During this crisis period, we are witnessing a robust embrace of the idea of Universal Basic Income, because leaders understand that families need continued income flows to sustain themselves as well as inject capital into economies through their spend, which in turn translates to economic stability and growth. Leaders need to go a step further and embrace the fact that remuneration for what has traditionally been unpaid care not only rewards people for work they are actually doing, caring for children, the elderly and the dependent, but helps economies thrive. COVID-19 may finally put this into focus and give leaders the opportunity and courage to implement a basic income for traditional unpaid work.
The gender pay gap must be closed – in the US, the healthcare industry is 76% female and 24% male, representing the gender breakdown of those on the front lines of medical care during pandemics like COVID-19. Male healthcare workers make on average $89,276 while female healthcare workers earn on average $55,602. Male physicians make on average $1.25 for every $1 made by female physicians. The high and equal risks that we see male and female health workers taking as they navigate COVID-19’s challenges dictate that the gender pay gap be closed. The virus will impact male and female healthcare workers equally and when, in tragic instances, a female nurse becomes sick and unable to work her family will suffer greater financial harm because she earns less than her male colleagues. It is time to close the pay gap and as the world manages through and emerges from this crisis, decision makers should hasten the closing of the gender pay gap.
Female scientists must have robust access to funding – in the last 20 years the largest funding agent of medical research in the United States, the National Institutes of Health (NIH), has steadily increased the percentage of women-led labs receiving research grants, now up by 12%. Even with these encouraging changes, male-led labs still receive almost 70% of the biology-focused and medically-focused funding in the United States. As research labs around the world scramble to produce therapeutics and vaccines to
combat COVID-19, it is important to acknowledge female-led labs in the fight. We know women-led labs are producing one-third of the NIH’s research output, however the development or commercialization funding for women is only slightly above 2%. The NIH’s seed investment program to small companies called the SBIR program is doing its part with 22% of its funding going to women-led companies but more needs to be done. Significant numbers of women-led labs are funded to perform research that could be the game-changer in our war against COVID-19. The commercialization infrastructure of investors needs to overcome their biases and recognize that the innovations that could save us have no gender – they must increase their investments in innovations out of female-led labs.
These are three areas of actionable changes that can be imagined and actioned during this crisis period to enable a more gender equal world to emerge. The world will, undoubtedly, emerge from this crisis. It would be excellent to emerge into a world that is consciously working towards a gender equal reality. A reality in which individuals, corporates and institutions with capacity to allocate capital, change remuneration packages, and enact policies, have the courage to push for gender balance and equality.