The pandemic risks significantly worsening gender equality – it is time to act!

At its upcoming Global Meeting on 18 and 19 November 2020, the Women’s Forum is publishing the results of an Ipsos survey of nationals of G7 countries, highlighting an emergency within the emergency: the fight against gender inequality in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The author(s)
  • Amandine Lama Public Affairs, France
  • Etienne Mercier Public Affairs, France
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The Covid-19 crisis and its consequences are hitting women particularly hard, more so than it is men

A majority of people in the G7 believe the economic and social consequences of COVID-19 will be the same for men and women (64%). However, women are slightly more aware that they are more likely to be affected (33% think that women will be worse affected) while just 21% of men think that women will be worse affected.

However, when asked about their life since the start of the pandemic, the discrepancies in the impacts on men and women are significant. The consequences are extremely wide-ranging. Women always experience them more frequently, and they affect very different aspects of the respondents’ lives: fear of the future, anxiety, loss of confidence, a total lack of help, not taking time to monitor their health, and the amount of time spent looking after vulnerable friends and relatives, etc. Across all of these problems, women have experienced difficult situations more frequently than men since the start of the epidemic.

  • 73% of women report being afraid of the future, compared to 63% of men – 10 percentage points more.
  • 59% have experienced burnout, anxiety or depression, compared to 46% of men – 13 percentage points more.
  • 49% say they do not take enough time to make sure they are in good health, compared to 43% of men – 6 percentage points more.
  • 46% feel that no one is helping them, compared to 39% of men – 7 percentage points more, and 43% of women who live as a couple also reported this feeling.
  • 46% of women do more than others to help vulnerable people around them, compared to 40% of men – 6 percentage points more.
  • 43% report losing confidence in themselves since the start of the pandemic, compared to 33% of men – 10 percentage points more.

These differences in experiences between men and women – which nonetheless must not mask the difficult situations that many men are also experiencing – are cumulative. These impacts, experienced to a greater degree by women, add up to create significant overall inequalities between men and women. Above all, these inequalities run the risk of becoming even stronger with the second wave of the epidemic that is currently affecting the vast majority of G7 countries.

The risk of women going back to traditional roles with the pandemic is even greater given that gender stereotypes remain widespread

While women have generally experienced situations that are objectively more difficult than those experienced by men since the start of the pandemic, at the same time, stereotypes about women continue to be widespread within the G7. This is particularly the case regarding stereotypes on differences in ‘natural’ aptitudes based on sex. These continue to be present at an extremely alarming level:

  • 73% of G7 citizens believe that “in general, women are more intuitive than men”.
  • 60% believe that “women are more comfortable facing practical problems than men”.
  • 38% believe that “men’s brains and women’s brains are different, which explains why men are generally better at science and women at literature”.
  • 33% believe that “career-wise, men are naturally more ambitious than women”.

But stereotypes regarding men and women’s natural abilities are not the only ones to remain very widespread. Belief in women’s traditional social roles continues to be extremely strong, with a majority of respondents having internalised that the role of a mother always takes priority:

  • 70% of those surveyed believe that “it is more difficult for a woman than for a man to have a successful career because she has to agree to sacrifice part of her family life”.
  • 53% still believe that “you can’t have it all – if you want to be a good mother, you have to agree to sacrifice part of your professional career”.
  • 28% think that “a woman will always be happier in her role as a mother than in her professional life.”

These beliefs are so strong that for many of those surveyed, they even mask the existence of gender inequalities and the mechanisms through which these inequalities are perpetuated:

  • 48% believe that “people exaggerate gender inequalities”.
  • 45% believe that “women don’t choose the same careers as men out of their own choice and free will”.

The strength of these stereotypes is all the more striking given that they are very common in all countries and are shared by both men and women and by younger people and older people.

An example of this is the response to the statement “you can’t have it all – if you want to be a good mother, you have to agree to sacrifice part of your professional career”. 53% of G7 citizens, men and women alike (55% and 52% respectively), agreed with this statement. This opinion is also widespread across all age categories: the under-35s (52%), people aged 35-54 (53%), and those who are 55 and older (54%). It therefore appears that this type of belief is not becoming less common among the younger generations, which indicates that change will not occur simply by waiting for mindsets to move forward.

The “inequalities factory” is still running at full speed throughout women’s lives

If mindsets are not changing sufficiently quickly, it is because inequalities are being perpetuated generation after generation, from childhood, with a direct impact on self-perception and educational ‘choices’:

  • During their education, 32% of women were told that they were not scientifically minded, compared to 23% of men – 9 percentage points more.
  • 29% were told that scientific careers were for men.
  • 25% were told that they should not pursue a career in science, compared to 19% of men – 6 percentage points more.
  • 23% were told that they should not choose a science or engineering school, compared to 19% of men – 4 percentage points more.
  • More than one in five women (21%) were even told that women who choose to pursue careers in science are often unhappy with their choice.

Faced with these comments, many women drift away from the most highly paid professions, persuading themselves that this is a choice that corresponds to their tastes and abilities.

This same persistent mechanism continues throughout their careers, with even greater differences in experiences compared to men:

  • 46% of women report not seeking new professional responsibilities for fear of not having enough time to do everything, compared to 32% of men – 14 percentage points more.
  • 43% feel that they lack the capacity to take on a position of responsibility, compared to 35% of men – 8 percentage points more.
  • 31% had been faced with people telling them they had to choose between being a good parent and having a great career, compared to 24% of men – 7 percentage points more.

Once again, the feeling that is created is one of a choice made by women: having a successful family life rather than a career, which masks the fact that both are possible, and that men are as likely as women to devote time to their children.

These inequalities have significant health consequences throughout women’s lives, with a new undesirable effect: encouraging women to withdraw from careers to reduce this mental load, as if there was no possible alternative.

  • 79% of women report being too tired and stressed by everything they do (work, household chores and childcare), compared to 61% of men – 18 percentage points more.
  • 69% report paying a lot of attention to the health of others but not to their own health, compared to 54% of men – 15 percentage points more.
  • 57% report feeling physically and mentally exhausted from caring for someone who is sick (a child, an elderly person, etc.), compared to 41% of men – 16 percentage points more.
  • 41% have been forced to give up or postpone health care for financial reasons, compared to 35% of men – 6 percentage points more.

However, these considerable discrepancies in the figures for men and women are a direct consequence of economic inequalities and the pressure linked to juggling the many roles assigned to women. As long as the pandemic and its consequences force or encourage women to withdraw into the private sphere, there is an extremely high risk of seeing these inequalities grow significantly.

Nationals of G7 countries are aware that gender inequalities persist, especially in the field of business

At work in particular, G7 citizens are aware that gender inequalities continue to exist. Unsurprisingly, this is more the case among women, but there is also a very high level of awareness among men:

  • 69% of people surveyed believe that women do not have access to the same salary levels as men for equivalent levels of experience and skills (77% of women and 61% of men).
  • 67% believe that women have less access to roles on boards of directors and in senior management in large businesses (73% of women and 61% of men).
  • 53% think that women have poorer access to professional training, promotions and career advancement (61% of women compared to 44% of men).

These inequalities in terms of access are also clearly identified in the field of Artificial Intelligence and in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields, in particular according to women:

  • 65% of women believe that they have less access to leadership posts in the field of IT and artificial intelligence (51% of men share this view).
  • 55% believe that they have less access to opportunities to develop new skills throughout their lives in the fields of STEM and AI (42% of men share this view).

But while the inequalities are seen as persistent, particularly in the world of work, the majority of men think that the situation has improved in their country in the last 5 years. However, saying that the situation has improved does not mean that the situation is currently satisfactory. But women have a more critical assessment of their situation:

  • Just 36% of women in G7 countries think that things have improved in terms of the pay gap between men and women performing the same tasks, while 54% of men think that this is the case (a difference of 18 percentage points).
  • Just 50% of women think that women’s access to management roles has improved, compared to 62% of men (a difference of 12 percentage points).

An overwhelming majority of citizens of the G7 countries want to take measures to bring an end to gender inequality

Faced with these persistent inequalities, citizens of the G7 countries are convinced that action must be taken. This is one of the key lessons learned from this survey. Despite the fact that stereotypes continue to be widespread and the “inequalities factory” is still operating at full speed, there is widespread desire to see the situation improve. Men and women, young people and older people – all want measures to be put in place to bring gender inequality to an end. There is no longer any opposition to public authorities, businesses and organisations putting strong measures in place to neutralise all of these inequalities; in fact, this is now a significant expectation:

  • 91% of the people surveyed believe that reducing gender inequalities is something that is important, and 34% even see it as an absolute priority (38% among women). This expectation can be seen in every country, and is even stronger in Europe (96% in France and Italy) than it is in North America (88%) and Japan (88%).

The vast majority of men and women report that ending gender inequalities would have positive consequences for all. A large majority believe that if women had the same opportunities as men, this would have positive consequences on:

  • Society as a whole: 81% (86% of women and 77% of men)
  • Employment: 76% (82% of women and 70% of men)
  • Economic growth: 76% (81% of women and 71% of men)
  • Overall wages: 76% (81% of women and 70% of men)

This belief is shared by the great majority of men and women, younger and older people alike, across all population categories and G7 countries.

There is now broad consensus on the fact that integrating women into every decision-making level is beneficial:

  • 90% of G7 citizens believe that the outcomes of decisions are positive when women and men are involved in decision-making.
  • A significant majority believe that better access to senior management roles for women would have positive effects, with 77% agreeing in terms of the ability to innovate and to think differently, and 68% agreeing in terms of the company’s growth.
  • The vast majority are convinced that if women had better access to employment in technology-based companies (STEM and AI), the impact would also be positive: 78% agree on the positive impact on society and on economic growth, and 71% on the efficiency of technological applications and AI tools.

For the vast majority of G7 citizens, the time for action is now!

Faced with the fact that inequalities continue to exist, the people of the G7 clearly expect education-focused measures:

  • 84% are in favour of investing in education for women and girls.
  • 86% are in favour of lifelong opportunities for everyone to access professional training in the fields of science and technology.

They also express strong expectations in terms of implementing measures designed to create real awareness of the inequalities women face in their access to healthcare, as well as the link between gender inequalities and major problems such as climate change (few people currently see how women may be worse affected).

  • 85% support the development of better understanding of women-specific health issues, and 85% support better understanding of mental health issues.
  • 69% think it is important to inform people of the links between gender inequalities and the effects of climate change.

But many people also believe that these consensual measures will not be enough, and that binding measures are required to bring about a change in mindset and force progress in areas that would otherwise be at risk of moving too slowly:

  • Quotas in universities: 69% are in favour of a target of having at least 40% female students on science and technology courses
  • Firm commitments from businesses: 80% are in favour of them committing to achieving equality at every level in their teams responsible for AI
  • From government: 83% are in favour of introducing legislation to ensure equal access for women to social and economic capital and 76% are in favour of appointing women to climate-related positions of responsibility.

The interviewees believe that things have to change and that strong measures and real commitments must be put in place, as it is clear that otherwise, stereotypes will persist. Because without measures from public authorities, particularly to develop childcare, it is clear that it is difficult to be a mother and pursue a career. Because without measures from businesses, when there are few women in positions of responsibility, it is difficult for a woman to see herself in a career.

Because when girls’ and women’s access to the highest-paid or most promising sectors in terms of jobs is not encouraged, it is difficult not to see sex-based economic inequalities being perpetuated.

And each time, an insidious and unrelenting mechanism is strengthened: one in which women are made to feel that their situation is the product of their own choices.

For this survey, Ipsos questioned 3500 citizens of the G7 countries, using a representative sample of the national population aged 18 and over from each of the seven G7 countries (quota method). The survey was conducted online between 17 and 31 August 2020.
The author(s)
  • Amandine Lama Public Affairs, France
  • Etienne Mercier Public Affairs, France