How the coronavirus pandemic threatens women’s progress in the global workforce

Even more than men, many women work in precarious conditions without job security, regular hours or benefits. In Peru, for example, the pandemic has pushed more women than men out of formal employment. A year and a half in, Claudia Huapaya, 46, and many others are still struggling to care for children and elders while earning far less than before.

Women in many countries were disproportionately represented in the type of service-sector jobs — hospitality, retail, food service — that were devastated by lockdowns. In Thailand, the sudden drop in tourism has put women, including Pimonrat Sriprapat, a 40-year-old tour guide, out of work, upending plans and prospects.

In France, the social safety net failed to protect all women, though early research suggests that social welfare programs may have cushioned the fall across the European Union. Andrea Watkins, 50 and living in Paris, lost her job but received unemployment payments and a spot in a job-training program for women over 40.

The three women — who spoke to The Post at length and whose stories are presented below in their own words — are among the millions who lost jobs globally, according to estimates by the International Labor Organization (ILO) that show women’s employment declined by 54 million, or 4.2 percent, in 2020 compared with 3 percent for men.

“What the data are telling us is that it could take a generation longer to get to equality,” said Saadia Zahidi, managing director at the World Economic Forum. “There have been greater job losses for women than for men, and the risk now is of an even more uneven return to work.”

Not only did women suffer a disproportionate share of job losses but research suggests that their hours of unpaid labor increased as they undertook more than their share of child care, home schooling and elder care.

Although the full impact of the pandemic is not yet clear, the fear is that the gender gap will widen both within and between countries, said Sher Verick, head of the ILO’s employment strategies unit. “The gains that have been made in recent decades,” he said, “you could lose that all in the response.”

In Peru, ‘the informal economy is what people fall into’

Peru saw one of the world’s most dramatic drops in employment during the pandemic. The country went into strict lockdown in mid-March 2020, and by the end of June 2020, labor force participation rates had fallen 20 percentage points among men and 25 points among women, data from the ILO shows.

Lima, the capital, has been hit hard. The number of women in the workforce initially fell by 55 percent in the city and had not returned to pre-pandemic rates by March of this year, according to the Peruvian census agency.

Since that initial drop, some women in Peru have been able to regain their footing in the job market, but experts believe this is because women moved from the formal to the informal workforce, where jobs are not regulated or protected by the state.

“The informal economy is what people fall into,” said Carmen Roca, Lima coordinator for Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing and Organizing, a research and policy network.

Claudia Huapaya, 46, spent the pandemic in Lima with her husband and two of her children, ages 18 and 15. Her older daughter, 26, and her 5-year-old grandson live across town.

Claudia Huapaya, 46, in the living room in Lima where she sleeps with her husband on a mattress. Before the pandemic, she and her husband worked independently and the family lived in an apartment they were paying off. During the pandemic, her husband sold the car he had used as a taxi driver and Huapaya's convenience store went out of business, and they later moved with two of their children into a rental apartment.
Claudia Huapaya, 46, in the living room in Lima where she sleeps with her husband on a mattress. Before the pandemic, she and her husband worked independently and the family lived in an apartment they were paying off. During the pandemic, her husband sold the car he had used as a taxi driver and Huapaya’s convenience store went out of business, and they later moved with two of their children into a rental apartment. (Daniela Rivera Antara for The Washington Post)

You’re talking to a mother of three children, a person who worked. We had acquired an apartment, with the bank. I had set up my own convenience store. My husband had managed to acquire a vehicle. My children were studying. Everything was going well.

We heard about the news, about the virus, first from other countries where the pandemic had already arrived. We didn’t expect that in Peru — that from one day to the next they would tell people that there was a curfew and no one could go out.

My husband is a driver, a taxi driver, of his own vehicle, and overnight, he couldn’t go out.

My mother had covid. I had to look out for her, because I am the oldest daughter, and to pay her costs.

My father was also sick, and as result, with my father’s sickness, my husband also fell ill with covid. We also had to have him treated privately because here, if you go to the state, you die.

I started to sell off what I had in the shop, and we were able to live off that. And like that, five, six, seven months, eight months went by, and the business was finished.

Our savings for the house, what we paid, the down payment, is gone. We lost everything.

In October, I handed over our apartment to someone else who could pay and we had to leave and look for a rental, somewhere to live.

We both started going out, with great care, with a kid staying at home, to be able to pay the monthly rent. Searching and searching, I found an ad for someone who was looking for home help.

The woman had a family, with an elderly person who was in a care home, and the woman had a house that was half-built, empty.

In January, I was living in this borrowed house and also working as a nanny. And bit by bit, on Sundays, I’ve also started selling meals again — meals that are traditional here in Peru — and earning some more income for the family, starting from zero again after so much time.

I do everything. I’m looking after the pet. I’m looking after the old woman’s home. I do the cleaning. I look after the baby. I cook to sell. I sell perfumes. If you tell me that tomorrow there is some trash outside, I’ll do it.

This is the capacity that many women here have: to find a way to earn a living, however we can. You do whatever you have to. You don’t say, “No, I don’t know how, I can’t.”

Huapaya worked during the early months of the pandemic at a restaurant, where she cut her hand on a bottle. She now works as a house cleaner twice a month and as a nanny for another family and sells meals on Sundays.
Huapaya worked during the early months of the pandemic at a restaurant, where she cut her hand on a bottle. She now works as a house cleaner twice a month and as a nanny for another family and sells meals on Sundays. (Daniela Rivera Antara for The Washington Post)

I sometimes think, “What if I had studied?” Because I think that people who studied, and who use it to work for the state, or to work in a company, are better off than a person who didn’t study, who works informally, independently.

If I were a lawyer, a teacher, perhaps I would be working and having a slightly higher income. Perhaps I would have social security, health insurance, perhaps benefits? I don’t know.

My son is in ninth grade, but he just goes to school by telephone. His phone is not great. The state doesn’t worry about that.

My second daughter, I can’t give her anything right now. I feel like a failure — a failure is what I feel for not being able to give her the support and the help that she wants.

I had my business. It was my pride and joy. I have photos of my store. I started with four boxes of beer, three boxes of sodas. I started with five packets of cookies. And I was able. I could. I managed it. I had it in my hand.

Thailand’s tourism collapse hit women harder

When pandemic-related travel restrictions hit Thailand’s tourism sector, women bore the brunt: 339,000 fewer women were employed in the second quarter of 2020 compared with 5,500 fewer male workers, according to ILO data. In Thailand, 30 percent of women work in sectors vulnerable to the economic effects of the pandemic, such as retail, manufacturing, and accommodation and food services, according to the ILO.

Women who have been able to return to work may not have found the same type of job, or earn the same wages, as before, said Sara Elder, senior economist at the ILO’s regional office for Asia and the Pacific in Bangkok. “There’s a great sense of anxiety. You can feel it in the air.”

Pimonrat Sriprapat, 40, spent years on the road as a tour guide based outside Bangkok. When the borders shut, her job vanished.

Tour guide Pimonrat Sriprapat, 40, visits Dongtan Beach in the Sattahip district of Thailand's Chonburi province. Dongtan is one of the domestic tourist destinations where she took a corporate group before the third wave of the pandemic hit Thailand in April 2021.
Tour guide Pimonrat Sriprapat, 40, visits Dongtan Beach in the Sattahip district of Thailand’s Chonburi province. Dongtan is one of the domestic tourist destinations where she took a corporate group before the third wave of the pandemic hit Thailand in April 2021. (Watsamon Tri-yasakda for The Washington Post)

Before covid-19, I was working on a one-month trip to Indochina. The tourists at the time were mostly Americans, Canadians and English.

I had been working with this company for about two years. The first year, I was working with them as a freelancer. About a year later, they promoted me to a full-time job. They have a name for this position that is different from other companies: CEO.

CEO is “chief experience officer” — the ones giving tourists experiences wherever we take them.

We started hearing that China had closed its borders and forbidden its people from leaving. Wuhan was in lockdown. I started to think, “Oh, damn, this isn’t normal.”

The last day that I worked was March 22nd [of 2020]. The next day, Thailand announced a border shutdown.

The very first thought was, “Well, it won’t be long.” I believe that a lot of people thought the same way — that it wouldn’t be long, and it would end. The issue is, it didn’t end.

They announced a lockdown.

I came back and was staying home full time. I was taking care of my mother. Well, let’s say, we take turns taking care of each other.

By the third week, I started to stress out: Why couldn’t I go anywhere? Why can’t I work?

When everything was closed and we couldn’t travel anywhere in the world, the company sent us emails to terminate the contracts of those in the full-time CEO position and to change us to freelance.

My income from the company was zero because the agreement in the contract states that they will pay based on the trips that I am assigned.

I still have my savings that I can use. That might last me until the end of this year.

For household expenses, I have to rely on my mom.

Sriprapat spends time at home with her retired mother, Sumon Sriprapat, in Chonburi's Sattahip district. Before the pandemic, the younger Sriprapat was on the road most of the time because of her work as a tour guide.
Sriprapat spends time at home with her retired mother, Sumon Sriprapat, in Chonburi’s Sattahip district. Before the pandemic, the younger Sriprapat was on the road most of the time because of her work as a tour guide. (Watsamon Tri-yasakda for The Washington Post)

In February, things looked better.

I was contacted about multiple jobs to help with operations, program writing and work on tours. I had discussions with companies that operate tours in Thailand.

Now, news about the number of the cases, or various clusters, in Bangkok and outside Bangkok makes me realize that this time, the third wave, won’t end easily.

In my previous plan, I planned my life that I would settle down and that I should start a business, so that I could live my life and earn money.

If I invest and the business isn’t successful, it would be like I burned my money. I have to stop and think: “Should I do this or not?”

I have to find a career as my second or third job, or it can become a main job for me in the future.

If I have one career and something like covid-19 happens, I will be drifting, a capsized boat.

French social spending may help preserve women’s gains

The French government moved quickly to bolster the country’s safety net, expanding partial unemployment benefits and supporting businesses. Although it is too soon to gauge the impact of specific programs, there are signs that stimulus and social spending helped cushion the blow across the E.U.

Some European countries have begun to rebound. In the fourth quarter of 2020, employment rates for women ages 20 to 64 in France and much of the European Union returned to pre-pandemic levels, according to data from Eurostat.

As countries begin to mull recovery programs, Europe offers some lessons, said Martina Bisello, a research manager at the European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions.

But gender-specific social spending is needed to ensure that recent gains are not lost, she said. “To make sure we are moving in the right direction, the gender element has to be part of the plan.

Andrea Watkins, 50, was in Paris with her two daughters, 12 and 20, as the city struggled through multiple lockdowns.

Andrea Watkins, 50, lives in Paris near Montmartre hill and has often walked there since the start of the pandemic to clear her mind. During the pandemic, she lost her job as an office manager for a software company.
Andrea Watkins, 50, lives in Paris near Montmartre hill and has often walked there since the start of the pandemic to clear her mind. During the pandemic, she lost her job as an office manager for a software company. (Sandra Mehl for The Washington Post)

I think at the beginning, we thought, “Okay, by tomorrow we’ll be fine. Everybody’s going back to their lives and it is going to be okay.” But not at all, not at all.

I was working for a company that develops software to manage data on ICUs and was the office manager for France. I used to work in a very nice place here in Paris.

The youngest, she didn’t have school. In March, they stopped, and she studied at home.

On school days, they had classes the whole day and I was not able to work some days.

The main thing for us women is, well, it’s already difficult for us on the job market. It was difficult for us because most of us, we had kids at home. If you’re working at home, and you have small kids, how in the world can you just concentrate in a meeting if you have a baby around? It’s sort of impossible.

The second [lockdown] was the most difficult for me because it was unexpected, and I knew I was losing the job.

We only had one client, and we were in the phase of looking for clients. So, I knew it would be fatal for us. I started to walk to the Sacré-Coeur every day. There’s lots of hills in Montmartre. I walked like an hour a day and it was life-changing: arriving [at the top] and seeing the whole of Paris. The first week I would cry every day.

It was in January when I finally finished everything with the company, and I went to what they call the unemployment agency.

I had a first meeting with a very kind person, what they call an adviser. And at the end of the meeting, he asked me, what do you think would be an obstacle to you finding a job? And I just said, “I’m 50 years old and we’re in the middle of a pandemic.”

It’s going to be difficult for everybody. But for a woman, a 50-year-old woman, it is going to be quite difficult.

Since January, Watkins has been a volunteer at the MaMaMa organization in the Paris suburb of Saint-Denis. MaMaMa was formed by four women during the first pandemic lockdown and provides emergency boxes of food, clothing and hygiene products to mothers and babies.
Since January, Watkins has been a volunteer at the MaMaMa organization in the Paris suburb of Saint-Denis. MaMaMa was formed by four women during the first pandemic lockdown and provides emergency boxes of food, clothing and hygiene products to mothers and babies. (Sandra Mehl for The Washington Post)

I received an email from the unemployment agency: a program from the city of Paris to introduce women to technology and jobs.

It’s part of a program that is called Paris Code, to introduce women to coding and technology because it is a man’s world. So, there’s this program and they have a lot of classes and a lot of schools. And this program is particularly for women over 40.

It’s very sweet because, my first day of classes, my oldest daughter brought a cake for me and some flowers.

When I used to walk during the winter, I used to arrive at the Sacré-Coeur and cry for a few minutes. Now I have a purpose. I have a project.

I just finished classes last Friday. I will continue to educate myself and take some new classes so that I can specialize myself. I know what I would like to learn, so I think it’s a good start for me.

I am very happy with what I’m doing — for now. I don’t know what will happen in six months.

About this story

Labor participation data displayed in the interactive graphic is from the International Labor Organization (ILO). Data on employment in Lima is from Peru’s National Institute of Statistics and Informatics (INEI). Data on employment in Thailand is from the ILO. Data on employment rates in France is from Eurostat.

Reporting by Emily Rauhala and Anu Narayanswamy. Simeon Tegel in Peru, Ryn Jirenuwat in Thailand, Rick Noack in France and Gabriela Martinez in Mexico contributed to this report. Graphics by Júlia Ledur and Youjin Shin. Design and development by Allison Mann and Madison Walls. Illustration by Alla Dreyvitser. Photography by Daniela Rivera Antara in Peru, Watsamon Tri-yasakda in Thailand and Sandra Mehl in France. Audio production by Emma Talkoff. Editing by Jennifer Amur, Meghan Hoyer, Vanessa Larson and Martha Murdock. Additional editing and production by Chloe Coleman, Armand Emamdjomeh, Maite Fernández, Courtney Kan, Suzette Moyer and Lauren Tierney.

Methodology

The Post analyzed seasonally adjusted labor force participation data from the International Labor Organization. The data was used to highlight countries where women were either deeply affected by job losses because of the pandemic or to present how women’s employment was affected in diverse geographical regions and in different economies across the world.

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