On International Women’s Day, we must not let a year of Covid reverse decades of progress in gender equality

Every single day, we bear a responsibility, as mayors and global citizens, to take clear and concrete action to close longstanding inequities faced by women, girls, and others

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The global Covid-19 pandemic is more than a year old, and our cities remain on the front line of the emergency response, working to save lives and protect livelihoods across the world. But beneath the numbers reported in each news cycle – the cases contracted and the loved ones lost – rests an unprecedented economic and social crisis. Its impact is wide, deep, and broad, and it disproportionately falls on the shoulders of women and girls.

Every single day, we bear a responsibility, as mayors and global citizens, to take clear and concrete action to close longstanding inequities faced by women, girls, and others. But on International Women’s Day, we have to double down. And in our cities, we are.

Geographically, culturally, and historically, our cities – Barcelona, Freetown, London, Los Angeles, Mexico City, and Tokyo – could not be more different. Even so, our values are shared, our challenges cross borders, and our common ideals compel us to take the work happening in local governments everywhere and forge the world’s first city-led network focused on what we can do to make progress toward gender equity.

We stand together as founding members of Change – the City Hub and Network for Gender Equity – a new coalition that understands a fundamental truth: achieving gender equity demands that we go beyond unfair outcomes for women and girls from all backgrounds, and address the systems that perpetuate gender-based discrimination and inequality.

Covid-19 has laid bare these inequalities and widened the gender gap worldwide. Working mothers in England were 47 per cent more likely than working fathers to have lost or resigned their jobs as a result of the pandemic. The US economy lost a total of 140,000 jobs in December – women lost 156,000 jobs whilst men gained 16,000. Women in Barcelona are reporting that they are working more hours than before the pandemic. At the same time, studies show that during the lockdown across Spain, women saw their childcare and housekeeping responsibilities increase at higher rates than men.

In Japan, the food and beverage, tourism, and service industries have always had a high proportion of female workers, 64 per cent in 2019. These industries have been hit especially hard by Covid-19, resulting in a serious effect on women’s employment. In 2020, the total number of women working in this sector fell 8.5 per cent from the previous year.

Global data released by UN Women has now warned that the increased care burden faced by women around the world could not only wipe out 25 years of increased gender equality, but poses a real risk of “reverting to 1950s gender stereotypes.”

The details and statistics may differ from city to city, or even country to country, but the story is essentially the same. Women are more likely to lose their jobs, all while providing a higher degree of unpaid labour, taking on disproportionate responsibility for childcare, and experiencing greater risk of gender-based violence.

Change launched in November 2020, in the midst of the pandemic, because we know these inequalities are not inevitable. We were already fighting to make progress on these issues before the crisis hit, but Covid-19 threw the necessity of collaboration and the urgency of action into stark relief. As local leaders, we decided that it was high time to share what works with one another, and to make changes that tackle the root causes of system injustice, not just the symptoms.

Each of our cities is working to ensure that gender equity is more than simply another programme, but a lens for all we do.

In London, we have championed annual reporting on the gender pay gap at City Hall, which is now effectively zero, as well as making provision for shared parental leave, offering new mothers increased choice. In Los Angeles, leaders are working with the Commission on the Status of Women to kick off a second Report on the Status of Women and Girls, with an entire section dedicated to the impact of Covid-19 on women’s jobs, economic security, and opportunity.

Barcelona has pioneered an initiative to improve the lives of single mothers, while also helping family units experiencing adversity such as illness or low income. The Concilia programme provides childcare spaces, supports parents’ mental wellbeing, and facilitates their participation in training courses, as well as their return to work.

Freetown is committed to creating opportunities for women from low income backgrounds to improve their lives. Through its urban farming initiative, the city is providing women-led households with tools and training to farm a variety of crops, which gives them better access to food all year round, and additional income from the sale of excess produce.

Tokyo has formulated a strategic vision of gender equality for the city’s future in the 2040s, which aims to eliminate the gender pay gap, and looks towards creation of a society where men take on housework and parenting as a matter of course.

The examples go on, and the cause has never been more important. For too long, the struggle for gender equity has been another burden pushed onto women. Yet it’s not any single group’s duty to lead this charge for justice. It’s ours, as cities and as a society. Because we know that when women succeed, their communities succeed and those around them are able to thrive as never before. As Malala Yousafzai said, “We cannot all succeed when half of us are held back.”

Through Change and in our own cities, we will continue to fight to ensure that decades’ worth of progress toward gender equity are not lost in a single year. On this International Women’s Day, we call on everyone to put gender equity at the centre of their work. It is our responsibility to heal and build back a world that never leaves women, girls, or anyone behind.

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