In October 2020, UN Secretary-General António Guterres said that “COVID-19 could wipe out a generation of fragile progress towards gender equality”. Addressing the gendered impact of the pandemic means consulting women — but here’s how our institutions shut them out, and it’s all to do with decision-making.
A recent study found that men have dominated decision-making on the response to COVID-19. Meanwhile, women bear the brunt of the disease.
The British Medical Journal’s analysis of 115 decision-making and key advisory bodies, from 87 countries, found that over 85% are made up mostly of men and only 11% are made up mostly of women. There’s gender parity in just 3.5%. At the same time, women across the world have been hit harder by the pandemic: due to their responsibilities as primary caregivers, as a result of working in healthcare or the informal economy, and because of a spike in domestic violence.
Meaningfully including marginalised women in decision-making is easier said than done
Decision-makers in government — from defence departments to medical boards — face many barriers to consulting with the women and girls who are directly affected by their decisions.
It’s an age-old problem that has perpetuated centuries of inequity. Women are underrepresented at the highest levels of government, making up only 24% of legislators around the world. What’s more, local and regional representatives struggle to collect meaningful data about the lived experiences of their female constituents.
Six major barriers hinder good intentions.
Excluded women are hard to reach
It can be difficult to hear the voices of the most under-represented women because of poverty, illiteracy, disability, lack of internet access, and the fact that they often live in far-flung rural areas.
Grassroots women’s movements and community-based organisations are deeply connected to their communities and can be excellent bridges between them and decision-makers. But the challenge here is aggregating insights from this multitude of smaller organisations that are scattered across the world and may not have the same methodologies and approaches.
Too little data, too late
In most countries, data disaggregated by gender is woefully lacking, even though it’s relatively straightforward to collect when prioritised. In their 2030 report, the civil society organisation Equal Measures found that only 19% of gender equality experts consider their data up-to-date and two-thirds of policy-makers are dissatisfied with the quality of the data they currently have access to. Even when data exists, it’s often outdated, obscuring the facts on the ground for decision-makers who have needed to make quick decisions in the pandemic.
Few large-scale spaces where women can express their views with confidence
There are many spaces that have been designed to help women share perspectives and ideas in an open and honest way. They are often locally-led organisations and women’s rights networks that gather women together physically, or in carefully-moderated virtual spaces. They often have the relationships and local knowledge to bring the most vulnerable and excluded to the table.
The problem is that it takes time to earn women’s trust and confidence: discrimination and violence against outspoken women is pervasive globally. From the home to the national parliament, repression is deeply internalised and many women self-censor and self-exclude.
As a result, the lack of data disaggregated by gender is matched by the lack of large-scale spaces where women can express their views, and decision-makers can be confident of the results. This means some governments turn to large international or local non-governmental organisations (NGOs) to stitch together findings from many small, scattered community organisations.
Women’s groups face barriers when advocating for themselves
Community leaders for women’s groups often lack the access, connections, and skills to effectively deliver their messages to people in power. For the 8.4% of the world’s population living under what the Economist calls ‘full democracy’, voting can be an effective route to positive change. But voter suppression, corruption, and authoritarian control stifle women’s voices on both national and international stages.
International organisations do offer some international forums for women. For example, the Commission on the Status of Women, an NGO, offers robust annual consultations and opportunities for collective agenda-setting. They go through several steps to consult women and civil society by region and get input on priority issues. The issues participants raise are elevated to an annual global forum.
However, often only limited numbers of women can participate at the global level. Consequently, elite leaders — those who can afford to fly, are digitally savvy, or have the right connections — are the ones who get heard. Grassroots participants often say that they don’t know if their input results in any tangible policy outcomes.
Discrimination and exclusion in decision-making in international organisations
Sadly, racism and sexism continue to be a problem, even in the institutions mandated to root out these ills at a global scale. In a 2020 survey of 668 United Nations staffers in Geneva, more than 1 in 3 said that they had personally experienced racial discrimination, or witnessed others facing racial discrimination in the workplace.
Most multilateral organisations, international NGOs, and humanitarian aid organisations are led by white people from the West. As a result, exclusion can be built in to how international development works.
Even when women’s voices are heard on the global stage — in surveys, in reports, and focus groups — they’re rarely setting the agenda or deciding on the questions to be discussed. There are few ways for women to hold decision-makers accountable for how their input is factored into decisions.
Women’s participation in decision-making requires innovative thinking
One of the single most important challenges for governments and policy-makers to solve today may be ensuring that those most affected by the pandemic are heard meaningfully and participate fully in decision-making and resource allocation. In particular, women of colour experiencing intersectional oppression need to be included.
Guterres called for transformative thinking that puts women at the front and centre of our response to and recovery from the pandemic. If we don’t quickly raise the volume of women’s voices, the world has little chance of making an equal recovery.