To curb the spread of COVID-19, governments implemented unprecedented measures to restrict economic activity and individual mobility. All over the world, these measures disproportionately affected women workers and entrepreneurs, who experienced disproportionate job losses and revenues decline. Whether women recovered from this shock is still unclear, particularly in low-income economies. In our study we discuss the gender disparities in the impacts of two nationwide lockdowns and the following recovery patterns for a sample of 714 young, urban, and highly skilled Ugandan workers and entrepreneurs who had completed post-secondary vocational education before the pandemic. The sampled workers represent the top 3% of the country’s education distribution and are characterised by no gender differences in pre-pandemic employment rate and job security. This is arguably an expression of the emerging urban working class driving the country’s structural transformation.
Gendered impacts of lockdowns on skilled workers
Uganda underwent two distinct incidences of lockdown (from 30 March to 26 May, 2020; and from 19 June to 31 July, 2021) in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Key measures in both the lockdowns included the closure of the country’s borders, night curfews, bans on all public gatherings, strict limitations on the use of public and private transport, and the closure of schools. Schools fully reopened to students in January 2022, ending the world’s longest school disruption due to the pandemic.
Higher job loss for women than men
Relying on a unique high-frequency panel dataset spanning from January 2020 to September 2021, we show that the first lockdown reduced the employment rate by 53 percentage points among female skilled workers and by 35 percentage points among male skilled workers. This generated a previously non-existent employment gender gap of 20 percentage points. While male employment rate returned to its pre-pandemic levels in six months, female employment rate remained below its projection eighteen months after the onset of the pandemic. This gender gap was further amplified by the second lockdown that once again disproportionately reduced female employment.
While male skilled workers quickly returned to their pre-pandemic labour market trajectories, almost half of the previously employed female skilled workers found more precarious occupations or became jobless, driving the persistence of the employment gender gap for eighteen months.
Consistently, recent studies report partial recovery and persistent gender gaps in employment for the subpopulations of female wage employees in ten low-income countries, for female workers in South Africa – a more economically diversified middle-income country, and for female return migrants previously employed in urban settings in India. The most recent estimates from low-income countries corroborate our view and concerns that female employment is recovering at a slower rate than male employment, contributing to a growing employment gender gap globally.
Women shifted into self-employment, agriculture, and unskilled work, and the earnings gender gap widened
The disproportionate job losses suffered by female wage-earners led to a greater shift towards self-employment. Additionally, the lockdowns relocated women from sectors in which they had received vocational training to agriculture and other unskilled sectors. The gender earnings gap widened. The relocation of female skilled workers into industries where they cannot capitalise on their comparative advantage and experience is likely to result in a disproportionate depreciation of their productive skills. This is especially worrisome when considering the financial and time investments these workers made in vocational education.
Figure 1: Gendered impacts on labour market outcomes of skilled workers
Notes: Panel (a) presents skilled workers wage employment rates and their trajectories through two lockdowns, with women’s wage employment falling more than men’s at the start of lockdown. Panel (b) shows the proportion of employed skilled workers working in their training sector and illustrates an increase in the gender gap. The proportion of skilled workers employed in the training sector fell sharply for women when compared to men and is yet to return to pre-pandemic levels. Panel (c) shows that, among employed workers, men’s employment in skilled sectors remained largely unchanged with a slight decrease after two lockdowns, while women’s fell during the first lockdown and never recovered. Panel (d) illustrates the significant disparities in the earnings of employed workers, with men's earnings recovering and climbing up above pre-pandemic levels after the first lockdown at a time when women's earnings were falling. Although earnings dropped and recovered at a similar scale for both during the second lockdown, the gap between employed men's and women's earnings has almost doubled.
Non-essential sector work and childcare responsibilities entrench labour market gender inequalities
Literature identifies two potential determinants of these dynamics: the concentration of female workers in economic sectors deemed non-essential and with a higher risk of COVID-19 exposure, and the extraordinary childcare responsibilities generated by school closures. Prior to the pandemic, women were overrepresented in industries with the strictest restrictions, such as teaching, hairdressing, food, and hospitality. Initial closures in these sectors account for 50% of the employment gap between men and women during the first lockdown; their contribution declines gradually after the restrictions are lifted but rises to 13% during the second lockdown. In addition, during periods of school closure, the number of school-aged children in the household correlates negatively with women's employment, but not with men's. In the later stages of the pandemic, after the prolonged school closure, childcare responsibilities account for 11% to 24% of the employment gap between men and women. Our study estimates that gender differences in employment sectors and childcare responsibilities jointly account for up to 65% of the employment gap between men and women. Consistent with evidence from high- and low-income countries, a significant portion of the gap remains unexplained.
Figure 2: The role of non-essential sectors and childcare responsibilities
Notes: Panel (a) shows the economic sectors in which our respondents were employed pre-pandemic by the share of female workers hosted before the pandemic and the share of businesses that were closed during the first lockdown in May 2020. Markers are proportional to the number of workers employed in each sector before the pandemic. Panel (b) displays the average employment rate for female and male respondents with zero, one, and two or more school-age children in the household in periods in which schools were open (January and March 2020) and periods in which schools were closed (May, July, and December 2020; May, July, and September 2021). School-age children are children aged 3 or more.
Understanding the massive gender gap in pandemic job losses of skilled workers in low-income economies
The 20 percentage point job loss gender gap observed in our study is considerably larger than the gap documented in other high- and low-income countries for more representative populations. Three drivers of such large and persistent effects were identified.
1. Our young respondents were hit by the pandemic in the earliest, most vulnerable stage of their careers. Several studies consistently find larger job losses and gender disparities among the youth.
2. Our respondents were largely employed outside the relatively more sheltered agricultural sector and, given the hands-on nature of their jobs, they were mostly unable to work from home.
3. The study was conducted in a low-income economy where the government's ability to provide targeted support to workers and firms in economic distress was limited. Consequently, our respondents did not have access to publicly funded retention schemes, which supported around 50 million jobs in OECD countries.
Targeted policies for boosting women's productivity
The study's implications are significant for more gender equal COVID-19 response and recovery policies. The integration of female talent into the labour force is a key determinant of GDP growth. Assessing how female skilled workers and entrepreneurs in low-income economies have been impacted by COVID-19 is essential for determining how productivity will fare in these regions once the pandemic subsides. The gender disparities identified in the study underscore that hard-earned progress towards women's employment and earnings parity can be set back by temporary shocks and highlight the need for policies mitigating the disproportionate effects of the pandemic on female workers and entrepreneurs. Closing the employment gender gap will additionally require proper identification of its residual underpinning factors, such as employer discrimination and social norms.