By Melissa Mahtani, CNN
Updated: Thu, 23 Jun 2022 13:13:16 GMT
Editor's Note: This story is part of As Equals, CNN's ongoing series on gender inequality. For information about how the series is funded and more, check out our FAQs.
Across every sphere, from health to the economy, security to social protection, the impacts of COVID-19 are exacerbated for women and girls simply by virtue of their sex."
This was the conclusion published in a United Nations document, less than a month after the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus outbreak a pandemic.
Two years on, an exclusive CNN poll found that women in the G7 countries -- Canada, UK, Japan, US, France, Germany and Italy -- experienced disruption to at least five areas of their lives during the pandemic: future planning, relationships, mental health, access to healthcare and their financial stability. The poll also found that an average of 60% of women in G7 nations felt unsupported by their governments in dealing with changes brought on by the pandemic.
So, what would it look like to rebuild in a way that "promotes equality" as G7 leaders expressed their commitment to do this time last year? As the group prepares to meet in Germany this weekend, CNN convened an international roundtable of policymakers and economists and asked them that question.
In no order of priority, here is a summary of what they said.
Invest in structural change
"If you really want to solve the problem and not just give little gifts to women or do something small before an election," building back in a more gender equal way will take an "enormous investment," Deputy Executive Director of UN Women Åsa Regnér said, calling out the elephant in the room.
"If you want to have parental leave that makes men take responsibility for their toddlers, if you want to have a comprehensive childcare system, if you really want to respond to the elderly care needs in the global north -- which are enormous -- all of this costs a lot of money."
Regner said conversations about policy are good but frank conversations about resources, feminist taxation and gender budgeting are also needed to result in tangible change.
Carlien Scheele, Director of the European Institute for Gender Equality, agreed.
"I looked into the percentage of the EU funds that are spent on gender equality and it's around 1%, so, gender budgeting -- having budgets to implement the specific activities targeting women and men -- should be made feasible," Scheele said before adding: "We can all agree that women were impacted disproportionately during the crisis. It feels like one step forward, three steps back. It would be great if these plans would focus on three steps forward."
One way to achieve that is by adopting a gender lens from the beginning of any initiative or policy rather than as an afterthought, Saadia Zahidi, Managing Director of the World Economic Forum, said.
"The way we think about this at the World Economic Forum is that any future growth models will have to be about building back broader. Whether that is economic policy, whether that is future planning, whether that is infrastructure, whether that is green, we're going to need to think about bringing equality into this mix, not as an afterthought, not as a handout, not as a gift, not as something that happens afterwards," Zahidi added.
Find the political will to implement change
Jennifer Klein, director of the year-old Gender Policy Council at the White House explained that she is currently in the process of implementing the first US National Strategy on Gender Equity and Equality "in partnership with literally every federal agency around the US government."
She told the other roundtable participants: "Gender equality is not only a matter of human rights, justice, and fairness, but also a strategic imperative for the United States. It reduces poverty, promotes economic growth, increases access to education, improves health outcomes, and advances political stability. Those are objectives that benefit everyone."
In practice, however, there's a long way to go. For example, women of color in the US have disproportionately poor maternal health outcomes, Latina women are projected to close the gender pay gap in 432 years and the US and the world are still reeling from the revelation that the Supreme Court is considering rolling back Roe v Wade -- the landmark law that gave women in all states the right to an abortion.
Representing the US's neighbor to the north, Canada's Minister of International Development Harjit Sajjan described the country as having a "feminist government," but admitted there's still more to do to achieve gender equality.
"Even though we as a government were fully committed with a feminist approach, we still found vulnerabilities within our approach. And that's something that we need to be honest about." He described one of those vulnerabilities as inadequate childcare options for families which kept more women at home. The government tried to rectify the problem by launching an early learning and childcare agreement last year to improve access to daycare facilities.
Saajan also highlighted Canada's Feminist International Assistance Policy, launched in 2017, as an example of why government leadership on gender equality matters, as well as the importance of accountability.
"Every policy that goes through government that needs to be approved, has to have a strong [gender-analysis] component to it. And if it's not, it gets sent back for more work. And so hopefully what this does is forces us in government to make sure that every policy, whether it's an economy, defense or natural resources, everything goes through a feminist lens."
Tackle the care economy
Covid-19 laid bare the disproportionate burden felt by women when it comes to care. A report by the G7 gender equality advisory council last year found that globally, women and girls do on average three times more unpaid care and domestic work than men and boys, which in turn affects their educational attainment and economic opportunities.
Addressing inequality in the care economy -- paid and unpaid work around childcare, domestic responsibilities and elderly care -- is a crucial step in leveling the playing field for a gender equal recovery, all participants agreed.
"We made strides when it comes to getting women into the labor market in the last decades but not as much was done in terms of getting men into the home and in terms of distributing that unpaid labor," Sara Reis, deputy director of the UK Women's Budget Group, said.
In 2020, her organization released a care-led recovery plan that showed that "when you invest in childcare, social care, health care, education -- you actually get a better return on your investment," Reis explained. "So, if we want to make the economic case for why a build back better plan from Covid should focus on the care sectors it's because it creates more jobs."
The focus shouldn't just be on job creation, Canadian economist Armine Yalnizyan argued, but on ensuring every job is a good job, especially when it comes to care.
She describes a good job as one that has living wages, paid leave, access to basic health/education services and statutory labor rights. Yalnizyan explained that this approach would focus on pre-distribution of the economy instead of redistribution polices - like jobless benefits or taxation - which amount to governments "apologizing for the economy, not fixing it."
"Everybody needs care at various points in their life, whether it's childcare, elder care, home care, hospital care, education. If you made every job in that sector a good job, providing great quality care, you could actually transform people's lives everywhere," Yalnizyan said.
Address a lack of representation
Even before the pandemic Italy had one of the lowest representations of women in the workforce, a fact Italian Minister for Equal Opportunities Elena Bonnetti acknowledged.
She highlighted government initiatives that have recently been implemented to increase female participation in the labor market, such as quotas, skills and training to get them there. Bonetti cited a current 51% employment rate -- the highest ever for women in Italy -- as proof of their success, but conceded that larger cultural obstacles need to be overcome to fully empower women in the workplace saying: "Stereotypes preventing women from accessing their full potential in societies is very, very strong."
Speaking from her perspective in banking and finance, Ratna Sahay, head of gender economic research at the International Monetary Fund described how a lack of representation of women at senior decision-making levels doesn't just hurt women themselves but the industry as a whole.
Following insights from an upcoming study, Sahay said: "It is shocking that the average share of women CEOs in banks across the world was only 5%. The share of women board members in commercial banks, only 23%.** And we find in our own study that banks with higher share of women board members have larger capital buffers, lower proportion of non-performing loans, and greater resistance to stress."
"This is not because we are claiming women are superior, but it's because the representation is so low in leadership positions that we don't benefit from diversity of thought that comes from gender diverse boards," Sahay added.
Encourage citizens to get involved
Ultimately, there will be little sustained change unless people imagine it and organize themselves to make it happen. Self-organization was necessary when so many institutions have failed so many for so long, explained Khara Jabola-Carolus, Executive Director of the Hawaii State Commission on Status of Women and author of Hawaii's Feminist Economic Recovery Plan.
"I think what worked in Hawaii with our feminist economic recovery plan is that it deviated very sharply from the traditional recommendations of proposing inclusion and participation in what most women view -- most women are working class and poor -- as a bad system."
Jabola-Carolus also highlighted the recent laws to roll back abortion in the US and the government's failure to pass paid family leave as examples of why politicians alone can't be depended on to bring about lasting change.
"The public is not interested in more incrementalism," Jabola-Carolus said. "We need to create plans that are as drastic as the abuse and exploitation in women's lives right now," Jabola Carolus said.
She concluded: "We need women to be knocking door to door, to be deep in the community, creating political pressure, attending town halls with legislators, booing them or cheering them, to have a structured organizing plan on how to replace politicians that are not supporting our initiatives. That is what we need in order to realize these recommendations at the end of the day."
** The 5 and 23 percentages are updates to this study that will be published in a forthcoming paper: Sahay, R, M. Čihák, P. Khera, and S. Ogawa, forthcoming, 2022, "Women and Finance in the Post-COVID World," IMF Staff Discussion Note. International Monetary Fund, Washington, DC. Figures from the latest available data in 2018 had the figures as 2% for the average share of women CEOs in banks across the world and 20% for the share of women board members in commercial banks.
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Women Behaving Badly: Yasmin Ahmad (1958 - 2009)
Written by Adie Vanessa Offiong
Yasmin Ahmad was a celebrated Malaysian movie director whose films explored themes on religion and inter-racial romance. In predominantly Muslim Malaysia, her films often sparked controversy for discussing sex, showing nudity and challenging racial stereotypes. She also used her films to examine class distinction and race.
After obtaining a degree in arts and psychology from Newcastle University in the UK, Ahmad worked in marketing at IBM before going into advertising, where she used the adverts she made for Malaysia's national oil and gas company, Petronas, to show racial unity in Malaysia. She launched her first feature film Rabun (My failing eyesight), in 2003.
Some of her more popular films are the trilogy, Sepet (Slit Eyes, 2004), Gubra (2006) and Mukshin (2007) as well as Muallaf (The Convert, 2008) and Talentine (2009), which all showcase the multiculturalism Ahmad is known for. While it is unclear how much of Ahmad's own life experiences are reflected in her work, critics argue that the cross-cultural relationship between the characters Orked and Jason in Sepet are inspired by her marriage to Tan Yew Leong, a Chinese Malaysian man.
Some experts believe Ahmad redefined Malay womanhood through her films, as the women in her stories were often opinionated and showed the many sides of women in Malaysia.
But Ahmad's films also came under fire from Muslim authorities in Malaysia. In Muallaf, the lead actress, a Muslim, shaved her head and acted alongside a Chinese Christian, which authorities said was unislamic.
In 2020, Talentine, Rabun and Mukshin were added to Netflix in honour of her legacy which the streaming platform described as successfully and creatively shining light on important social issues.
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The panelists at the CNN As Equals G7 gender roundtable discussion:
Jennifer Klein, Co-chair of the White House Gender Policy Council (United States)
Elena Bonetti, Minister for Equal Opportunities (Italy)
Harjit Sajjan, Minister of International Development (Canada)
Sara Reis, Deputy Director and Head of Research and Policy, Women's Budget group (UK)
Khara Jabola-Carolus, Executive Director, the Hawaii State Commission on Status of Women (HSCSW)
Armine Yalnizyan, Economist, Atkinson Fellow On The Future Of Workers (Canada)
Carlien Scheele, Director European Institute for Gender Equality (Lithuania)
Ratna Sahay, Head of gender economic research, IMF (United States)
Åsa Regnér, Deputy Executive Director of UN Women (United States)
Saadia Zahidi, Managing Director WEF, Author of WEF Global Gender Gap Index (Geneva)
Moderator: Eliza Anyangwe, CNN