United Kingdom

The Decline of Women's Labour Market Participation During COVID-19: A Systemic Risk

It seems like overnight that COVID-19 reversed years of work towards gender equality. Women already suffer with the inequality of salary and since the start of the pandemic, they have been leaving the workforce in droves. This is largely due to taking on more of the unpaid care burden and being more likely to work in sectors hardest hit by the pandemic.

This trend has far-reaching consequences. With the labour force being reduced by millions of women, GDP will potentially shrink and the retirement security of those women will be at risk.

On the 30th March Aon hosted a discussion with international political and industry leaders to help identify how different sectors of the economy can work together toward a common goal to address gender inequity, increase women's participation in the workforce, and address retirement and caring provisions.

Featured Speakers

  • Elizabeth McCaul (EM), European Central Bank, Member of the Supervisory Board
  • Sandra Boss (SB), Senior Managing Director and Member of the Global Executive Committee, BlackRock
  • Elizabeth Shuler (ES), Secretary-Treasurer, American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO)
  • Mathilde Mesnard (MM), Deputy Director, Directorate for Financial and Enterprise Affairs, Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD)
  • Moderated by: Christa Davies (CD), Executive Vice President and Chief Financial Officer, Aon


  • The post-Covid 19 world provides an opportunity to address the issues faced by women. We need to focus on a gender equitable recovery
  • An issue repeated by several speakers is the disproportionate burden of home/childcare placed on women. This pre-existed the pandemic, but has been seriously exacerbated by the pandemic.
  • This is the first economic crisis since 1949, where female unemployment rose faster than male. The situation can be described as a ‘shecession’.
  • Possibly the single most important solution to the issues faced by women, is the creation of affordable and accessible childcare. This should be seen as infrastructure investment, rather than just a cost for society.
  • One of the few positives to come out from this year, is the innovation of flexible working, which going forward, could benefit many women tremendously. This is something which can be harnessed by the private sector. In addition, employers need to come up with creative solutions that they can be directly supportive for women, and cater for their needs.
  • Public solutions could also include voluntary/mandatory disclosures (for example on a company’s gender gap in managerial positions, or in pay) as well a mandatory quota for women in senior positions
  • More work needs to be done to address the pension-gap faced by women, who on average tend to earn less, work for fewer years, and live for longer.
  • Going forwards, we need to keep in mind with so many women leaving the workforce:
    • The gaps in skills development
    • The gap in wage earnings
    • How to get women back in the workforce


  • CD introduced the discussion and explained that the issue represents three serious, and negative implications - the first around GDP, the second around career trajectories for women, and the third around retirement implications in terms of GDP. Less time in the workforce, lower pay, and greater longevity retirement security, results in exacerbation of a systemic issue and mean that women will generally have less money for a longer retirement. There's emerging evidence that these negative effects for women result from the economy, disproportionately impacting jobs that women held. These challenges threaten not just women, but our society as a whole. COVID-19 is a key opportunity for us to reassess our approach to gender equality in the workplace.
  • CD asked the panellists to introduce themselves, and to provide their preliminary thoughts on the topics.
    • EM: We can say rather unequivocally that there is a systemic impact that we're observing as a result of the pandemic, there has been a market impact on women, as a result of this pandemic
    • ES: Working women are the ones who've been getting us through this pandemic. One in three working women are on the front lines working as essential workers, and at the same time, women have been sidelined in the pandemic, and are more likely to lose our jobs or leave the workforce.
    • MM: The OECD looks carefully at gender imbalances and how we could shape policies with a gender lens. The issues faced are exacerbated by the existing structural challenges. There is a relationship between the home inequalities and the work inequalities and we need to have a systemic perspective and work on both of them to try to close the gap.
    • SB: we took a look at this from three perspectives so the first is as an employer, we've been doing all we can think about how to ensure that we support women and how do we make sure that we don't give up those areas that are so important, around diversity, equity and inclusion. Secondly, we are major provider of investment products that are focused on long term retirement, so we're very interested in what is our role as a financial services provider to ensure that there is appropriate asset allocation. Finally, in the core role in investment stewardship - clients depend on long term value creation and, we really need to see that companies take more action conducive to long term value of companies.
  • CD: The impact of the pandemic on women in the workforce, and maybe started with just your observations around how COVID-19 has impacted women in the workforce, and why it's not just disproportionate.
    • ES: Not all jobs can be done remotely, I think all of us on this channel, are lucky in that we continue to do our jobs, virtually, but for those who are not able to telework, that's us, women are the majority of frontline workers so many of them are showing up covering essential services, and women have risked their lives to go to work, and they die. Women are more likely to be exposed to COVID as an occupational health risk. And at the same time millions of women are still unemployed. So, women are both on the front lines, and on the side-lines. Our response really has to be centred on a gender equitable recovery and as we build that in looking through the lens of women as we look to what are the kinds of jobs we're going to be creating and really finding the new opportunities for women to get back into the labour force in a way that's sustainable and equitable.
  • CD: To what extent does the impact on women come from the uneven realities of caretaking?
    • SB: at Blackrock we see this from more of a professional services lens, but I think we all know that women are the carriers of last resort, and normally working women have this incredibly precarious infrastructure. It's not the frontline crisis that Elizabeth was describing, but it's nonetheless takes an incredible toll. What we see, particularly in our own statistics is how professional women in management roles are particularly burdened so they have an incredible lifestyle challenge. Interestingly, one of the things that we hear over and over, particularly from a women managers is the pressure that they play, giving emotional support to their teams. If looking for solutions – recommend the Scandinavian model. Childcare and education are an investment in the productive capacity of our economy. This is not a cost. But I acknowledge that we are also at a time where the public sector is struggling financially. So, for that reason, I think there's two levers we should consider. The first is what can we do as private sector employers by ensuring maximum flexibility for everyone. We also need to think about how we can be directly supportive. Just as we try to be there for the customer, we need to be there for women and their needs. These are funded professional services type solutions. So, I do think that in complement to these lovely private sector options, we do need to get back the state solution - about the core infrastructure that's available to everyone. Hopefully a private-public combination could get to a better outcome than today's safety net, which is proven to have a lot of holes in it.
  • CD: We have the closest thing to a clean slate, we'll ever have to think about everything the pandemic, the new normal and a new better in supporting women and creating that resiliency in the economy that we really need.
    • MM: Disagree that we now have a clean slate. We’ve had incredible challenges that have exacerbated the crisis in gender inequality. It's important is note the difference at work, but also at home. Even before the pandemic, women provided two hours per day more of unpaid care than men and, of course, the extra burden as increased disproportionately is a crisis. Less discussed is the effect on mental health caused by the crisis. In addition, there are the problems of the weaker economic position women were in – with lower wages/entitlements/access to Security. Social Security benefits. Also, weaker job protections and fewer opportunities to access training, and reemployment. So, this was clearly not a clean slate crisis. But it's true that now we must act not only to overcome the effects of the crisis but to do some more energy on the pre-existing gaps. and three areas of action that receiver important first in our response you know in our packages. We need to support entrepreneurs and SMEs, or give incentives such as grants, that can be targeted to sectors, and it can be also accessible for female entrepreneurs. All our policy responses need a gender lens. A theme that is really emerging is flexibility, and then also having affordable and accessible childcare services.
  • CD: If we're to think about designing the optimal social policy to drive growth of the economy and the inclusion of women and resiliency, what sorts of things should we be thinking about?
    • MM: When we think about where we go with the social policy, we have to take very much stock of where we are with the economic policy. It's the first economic crisis since 1949, where female unemployment rose faster than male. In the pandemic the sectors that were that were much more populated by women and affected the work that women did. And this was affected, in turn, of course by the closure of the schools, and of the day-care centres to the detriment of women. So, we've had a very disproportionate effect on the ability of women to, to continue to work during this in the EU in households where the youngest child is under seven years of age. The economic implications of the pandemics are causing a ‘shecession’. However, there are things we've learned in this pandemic that there’s a lot we can do differently. We did not understand the level of flexibility that could be brought to the workforce, and in fact if we look at this other side of the coin, we can expect that women can disproportionately be affected, to the positive from learning from the pandemic and some of the things that have happened. So, in terms of social policy there are things that we can introduce that have flexibility as the as the foundation. We do need more investment by government and business on the childcare side. Action needs to be taken to foster the growth and the ability of women to be in the workforce
  • CD: Addressing the systemic risks, and how businesses and political institutions make the challenges posed by the decline of the female labour market participation. What do you think about requiring disclosure and the impact it might have on female labour market participation?
    • SB: I think it’s an incredibly powerful tool, and we've already seen examples of it with voluntary disclosure which has essentially doubled the number of women on boards. The other example which I think wouldn't have been voluntary but which is also proven to be quite effective is the government requirement around gender pay gap-gap disclosures for any employer of a certain size. As an investment firm, BlackRock looks into voluntary disclosures and, there's evidence this disclosure has a meaningful difference in value for companies.
  • CD: What can governments and business do to support and empower women in the workforce.
    • EM: We need to embrace the work life balance – not just in business culture, but in law. In 2019, European Commission adopted the work life balance directive and that is to provide a foundation for supporting the work life balance for caregivers and encouraging a more equal sharing of parental leave and addressing the women's under representation in the workforce. I think it's also important to look to some of the diversity initiatives that are out there that are requiring change, and in the EU there has been leadership on this level, but there’s also a lot to be worked on. There is ample evidence diversity in the oversight and management of our financial services institutions, has an effect on shareholder value and has financial stability.
    • MM: Strongly support the ideas of mandates as well as quotas. Quotas are already present in numerous European countries, and despite the criticism, it really has worked. It is crucial for more work to be done to address the pension gap.
    • LS: Strongly supports the Scandinavian model and the focus on childcare. Care needs to be seen as essential infrastructure More work needs to be done on female pensions – to address lower earnings, fewer years in the workforce and longer lives. For example, this may require adapting national tax deductions for pensions which often favour wealthier individuals.
  • CD: What is the role of employers in addressing these issues?
    • SB: Should explain and make accessible workforce employment provisions, should make sure asset allocation is suited to the individual, and in general employers need to tailor themselves to the specific needs of women
    • MM: Childcare is fundamental and at the root of many of the problems - we really need good quality and affordable childcare

EM: There are three things we need to keep in mind with so many women leaving the work force: i) the gap in skills development, ii) the gap in wage earnings, and iii) how to get women back in the workforce.