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In India, as in many other countries, the economic fallout of covid-19 has had a disproportionate effect on women. The pandemic has left them more vulnerable, set progress back on gender equality, and damaged economies. How and when India responds to this challenge will be a significant factor in the country’s recovery from the pandemic and future economic success.

Even before the covid crisis, India’s quest for gender equality was stalling. Globally, female participation in the labour force is about two-thirds that of men. That number had hardly changed between 2014 and 2019. But, in India, where women made up just 20% of the workforce, going by data from the International Labour Organization, there was a slight decrease in female labour-force participation in that period. Against this backdrop, covid-19 has been a gender-regressive shock. Women’s jobs and livelihoods have been more vulnerable to the pandemic. Globally, the covid-related job loss rate for women is about 1.8 times higher than that of men, at 5.7% versus 3.1%, by our estimates. In India, women’s share of job losses, considering only the covid impact on the industries in which they work, would have been 17%, but unemployment surveys suggest that they actually account for 23% of overall job losses. Those numbers translate into millions of disrupted livelihoods.

There are several reasons, besides the underlying inequalities, for this disproportionate effect on women. A major factor is that coronavirus has significantly increased the burden of unpaid care. According to one survey, covid-19 has increased by 30% the time women in India spend on family responsibilities. Unsurprisingly, therefore, women have dropped out of the workforce at a higher rate than is explained by market dynamics alone.

Attitudes toward the role of women are also a factor. Over half the respondents to a World Values Survey in many South Asian countries agreed that men have a greater right to a job than women when jobs are scarce—far higher than the one in six respondents who said the same in developed countries. So is financial inclusion, with reduced capital available to support the micro-enterprises that are so often a pathway to work for women.

In India, as elsewhere, policy and business leaders face tough choices on how to respond to the crisis. Decisions often involve competing priorities and trade-offs. In the case of gender equality, though, our recent research suggests that decisions should be easy.

Our research assessed covid’s impact on gender equality in India along with five other countries, building on the McKinsey Global Institute’s Power of Parity work mapping 15 gender-equality indicators across 95 countries. In each country we focused on, the difference between taking action now on gender equality and doing nothing is substantial. If nothing is done to counter the pandemic’s gender-regressive impact, global gross domestic product (GDP) in 2030 could be $1 trillion lower than it would be if women’s employment tracked that of men in each sector.

By contrast, we estimate that achieving best-in-region gender-parity improvements by 2030 could lead to $13 trillion of incremental global GDP by that year, an 11% increase relative to a scenario where nothing is done to address gender inequalities. In India, this would be a 14% increase over the gender-regressive scenario, or adding $734 billion to its economy in 2030.

The research also sends a strong message on timing. A middle path—taking action only after the crisis has subsided rather than now—reduces the potential global opportunity by more than $5 trillion. The cost of that delay amounts to three quarters of the GDP we could potentially lose to covid-19 this year. Taking action now would help make gender-equality gains and drive inclusive growth. The faster policymakers and business leaders push for it, the bigger the social and economic benefits.

While policies that support gender equality need to be tailored to national contexts, there are tried and tested measures that can be considered. Our Power of Parity research found that 60% of the expected gains from increasing gender equality came from increasing women’s labour-force participation—a good starting point in India, given the reversal on this measure in recent years. Policy measures could include addressing or reducing the amount of unpaid work and rebalancing it between men and women, supporting employer or state-funded provision of childcare, and interventions to address digital and financial inclusion.

Any drive for gender parity arguably starts with efforts to change entrenched, widespread attitudes about women’s role in society. This is a very difficult and complex challenge that will require all stakeholders to play a sustained part over the long term. Interventions to address the economic participation of women must also address broader societal aspects of gender inequality, such as safeguarding girls’ education, tackling violence against women, and protecting maternal health, to name a few.

The evidence is clear: What is good for gender equality is also good for the economy. This was true before covid-19, but it is more important than ever in the turbulence of the pandemic. Our research shows that time should not be lost pondering these issues. Procrastination is a losing game. Now is the optimum moment for India’s policymakers and business leaders to step up and make gender equality a reality.

Oliver Tonby and Anu Madgavkar are, respectively, chairman of McKinsey, Asia, and partner of McKinsey Global Institute.

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