What does gender equality look like today?

Progress towards gender equality is looking bleak. But it doesn’t need to.

A new global analysis of progress on gender equality and women’s rights shows women and girls remain disproportionately affected by the socioeconomic fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic, struggling with disproportionately high job and livelihood losses, education disruptions and increased burdens of unpaid care work. Women’s health services, poorly funded even before the pandemic, faced major disruptions, undermining women’s sexual and reproductive health. And despite women’s central role in responding to COVID-19, including as front-line health workers, they are still largely bypassed for leadership positions they deserve.

UN Women’s latest report, together with UN DESA, Progress on the Sustainable Development Goals: The Gender Snapshot 2021 presents the latest data on gender equality across all 17 Sustainable Development Goals. The report highlights the progress made since 2015 but also the continued alarm over the COVID-19 pandemic, its immediate effect on women’s well-being and the threat it poses to future generations.

We’re breaking down some of the findings from the report, and calling for the action needed to accelerate progress.

The pandemic is making matters worse

One and a half years since the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic, the toll on the poorest and most vulnerable people remains devastating and disproportionate. The combined impact of conflict, extreme weather events and COVID-19 has deprived women and girls of even basic needs such as food security. Without urgent action to stem rising poverty, hunger and inequality, especially in countries affected by conflict and other acute forms of crisis, millions will continue to suffer.

A global goal by global goal reality check:

Goal 1. Poverty

In 2021, extreme poverty is on the rise and progress towards its elimination has reversed. An estimated 435 million women and girls globally are living in extreme poverty.

And yet we can change this.

Over 150 million women and girls could emerge from poverty by 2030 if governments implement a comprehensive strategy to improve access to education and family planning, achieve equal wages and extend social transfers.

Goal 2. Zero hunger

The global gender gap in food security has risen dramatically during the pandemic, with more women and girls going hungry. Women’s food insecurity levels were 10 per cent higher than men’s in 2020, compared with 6 per cent higher in 2019.

This trend can be reversed, including by supporting women small-scale producers, who typically earn far less than men, through increased funding, training and land rights reforms.

Goal 3. Good health and well-being

Disruptions in essential health services due to COVID-19 are taking a tragic toll on women and girls. In the first year of the pandemic, there were an estimated 1.4 million additional unintended pregnancies in lower and middle-income countries.

We need to do better.

Response to the pandemic must include prioritizing sexual and reproductive health services, ensuring they continue to operate safely now and after the pandemic is long over. In addition, more support is needed to ensure life-saving personal protection equipment, tests, oxygen and especially vaccines are available in rich and poor countries alike as well as to vulnerable population within countries.

Goal 4. Quality education

A year and a half into the pandemic, schools remain partially or fully closed in 42 per cent of the world’s countries and territories. School closures spell lost opportunities for girls and an increased risk of violence, exploitation and early marriage.

Governments can do more to protect girls education.

Measures focused specifically on supporting girls returning to school are urgently needed, including measures focused on girls from marginalized communities who are most at risk.

Goal 5. Gender equality

The pandemic has tested and even reversed progress in expanding women’s rights and opportunities. Reports of violence against women and girls, a “shadow” pandemic to COVID-19, are increasing in many parts of the world. COVID-19 is also intensifying women’s workload at home, forcing many to leave the labour force altogether.

And yet we can change this.

Building forward differently and better will hinge on placing women and girls at the centre of all aspects of response and recovery, including through gender-responsive laws, policies and budgeting.

Goal 6. Clean water and sanitation

In 2018, nearly 2.3 billion people lived in water-stressed countries. Without safe drinking water, adequate sanitation and menstrual hygiene facilities, women and girls find it harder to lead safe, productive and healthy lives.

Change is possible.

Involve those most impacted in water management processes, including women. Women’s voices are often missing in water management processes.

Goal 7. Affordable and clean energy

Increased demand for clean energy and low-carbon solutions is driving an unprecedented transformation of the energy sector. But women are being left out. Women hold only 32 per cent of renewable energy jobs.

We can do better.

Expose girls early on to STEM education, provide training and support to women entering the energy field, close the pay gap and increase women’s leadership in the energy sector.

Goal 8. Decent work and economic growth

The number of employed women declined by 54 million in 2020 and 45 million women left the labour market altogether. Women have suffered steeper job losses than men, along with increased unpaid care burdens at home.

We must do more to support women in the workforce.

Guarantee decent work for all, introduce labour laws/reforms, removing legal barriers for married women entering the workforce, support access to affordable/quality childcare.

Goal 9. Industry, innovation and infrastructure

The COVID-19 crisis has spurred striking achievements in medical research and innovation. Women’s contribution has been profound. But still only a little over a third of graduates in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics field are female.

We can take action today.

Quotas mandating that a proportion of research grants are awarded to women-led teams or teams that include women is one concrete way to support women researchers.

Goal 10. Reduced inequalities

Limited progress for women is being eroded by the pandemic. Women facing multiple forms of discrimination, including women and girls with disabilities, migrant women, women discriminated against because of their race/ethnicity are especially affected.

We need to do better.

Commit to end racism and discrimination in all its forms, invest in inclusive, universal, gender responsive social protection systems that support all women.

Goal 11. Sustainable cities and communities

Globally, more than 1 billion people live in informal settlements and slums. Women and girls, often overrepresented in these densely populated areas, suffer from lack of access to basic water and sanitation, health care and transportation.

The needs of urban poor women must be prioritized.

Increase the provision of durable and adequate housing and equitable access to land; included women in urban planning and development processes.

Goal 12. Sustainable consumption and production; Goal 13. Climate action; Goal 14. Life below water; and Goal 15. Life on land

Women activists, scientists and researchers are working hard to solve the climate crisis but often without the same platforms as men to share their knowledge and skills. Only 29 per cent of featured speakers at international ocean science conferences are women.

And yet we can change this.

Ensure women activists, scientists and researchers have equal voice, representation and access to forums where these issues are being discussed and debated.

Goal 16. Peace, justice and strong institutions

The lack of women in decision-making limits the reach and impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and other emergency recovery efforts. In conflict-affected countries, 18.9 per cent of parliamentary seats are held by women, much lower than the global average of 25.6 per cent.

This is unacceptable.

It’s time for women to have an equal share of power and decision-making at all levels.

Goal 17. Global partnerships for the goals

There are just 9 years left to achieve the Global Goals by 2030, and gender equality cuts across all 17 of them. With COVID-19 slowing progress on women’s rights, the time to act is now.

Looking ahead

As it stands today, only one indicator under the global goal for gender equality (SDG5) is ‘close to target’: proportion of seats held by women in local government. In other areas critical to women’s empowerment, equality in time spent on unpaid care and domestic work and decision making regarding sexual and reproductive health the world is far from target. Without a bold commitment to accelerate progress, the global community will fail to achieve gender equality. Building forward differently and better will require placing women and girls at the centre of all aspects of response and recovery, including through gender-responsive laws, policies and budgeting.

UN Women is the United Nations entity for #genderequality and women's empowerment.