EPIC calls for equal pay in the post-pandemic new normal

30 Sep 2021

The COVID-19 crisis had a near-immediate effect on women’s employment, with mass lay-offs and furloughs falling disproportionately on industries that employ women. Women make up 39% of global employment but account for 54% of overall job losses. The ILO estimates that there will be 13 million fewer women in employment in 2021 compared to before the pandemic, while the number of men in work will likely recover at pre-pandemic levels.[1]

Women are also much more likely than men to work in the most vulnerable segments of the informal economy as domestic workers, home-based workers in the lower tiers of global supply chains, or as contributing family workers. As a result, they have few protections against dismissal and little access to social protection, including paid sick leave or time off to care for sick family members.

Women essential workers have risked their lives to help our communities through the COVID-19 crisis, but often continue to face a major pay penalty. Globally, women are 70% of health workers and, in most regions, upwards of 80% of nurses and social care workers. In the United States, for example, essential workers in care services earned 18% less than other workers that were defined as essential during the pandemic. Countries across sub-Saharan Africa rely on over 900,000 community health workers to support their fragile health systems and over two of thirds of these frontline workers are women. 86% of these frontline workers are unpaid.[2]

As the economy re-emerges from the pandemic, women’s path to reentry and reengagement in the workforce could be made steeper by a need to reskill or find new career pathways. Gender pay gaps reflect discrimination, implicit biases and social norms in society, further replicated at the company level. These gaps lead to huge disparities in earnings over lifetimes that continuously reinforce women’s unequal position in the labour market and the workplace.

International Equal Pay Day serves as a reminder of the persistent and pervasive inequalities that exist in the world of work and urges all actors to take affirmative action to achieve equal pay for work of equal value and close the gender pay gap.

To mark the occasion, the Equal Pay International Coalition (EPIC) hosted a global, virtual event, focusing on the efforts of key labor market actors to ensure that equal pay remains central to pandemic responses worldwide and to fully recognize the contributions of women to COVID-19 recovery. With the participation of Governments such as Iceland, Panama, Costa Rica, and Ukraine, workers’ and employers’ representatives, civil society, the private sector and academia, the event reinvigorated a commitment to closing the gender pay gap across regions and sectors to build forward better from the COVID-19 pandemic.

The event kick-started with a video message from the Prime Minister of Iceland, H.E. Katrín Jakobsdóttir, calling for an absolute elimination of the gender pay gap as part of COVID-19 recovery. She emphasized that in most contexts, it is mostly women who take care of the sick, the elderly, and small children, and that, “On our road to recovery from COVID-19, it is hugely important for us to re-examine how we as societies value these immensely important jobs”.

Sharanjit Leyl, international news journalist and moderator of the event, built on the Prime Minister’s intervention, noting that the pandemic has widened the gender poverty gap and, in some cases, has even reversed the economic gains made by women in recent years. Ms. Leyl then opened the floor to a panel of equal pay experts from various sectors, including:

E. Dayra Carrizo, Vice-Minister of Foreign Affairs, Panama

María Picado Ovares, Coordinator, Department of Public Policies, INAMU, Costa Rica

Andrii Radchuk, State Expert, Ministry of Economy, Ukraine

Abdessatar Mouelhi, Director, Institut National du Travail et des Etudes Sociales (INTES), Université de Carthage, Tunisia

María Paz Anzorreguy, Director of ILO Coordination, IOE

Louisa Thipe, 2nd Deputy President, Congress of South African Trade Unions

Anika Dorothy Jane, East Africa Coordinator, AMPLIFY

The panelists agreed that unilateral interventions for closing the gender wage gap in a post-pandemic world do not suffice, emphasizing the need for multi-stakeholder, multi-sectoral collaboration in the fight for equal pay. “Employers cannot do this alone,” stressed Director of ILO Coordination at the International Organisation of Employers (IOE), María Paz Anzorreguy, “It is important to have government support to increase awareness of this issue on a societal level.” Louisa Thipe, 2nd Deputy President of the Congress of South African Trade Unions, pointed out that policy alone is also not enough, stating that, “Employment equity legislation does not address factors which lead to women’s over-representation in precarious, informal, and low paid jobs.”

Government representatives of the panel exemplified the need for multi-stakeholder engagement in their respective contexts. Dr. Abdessatar Mouelhi, Director of the Institut National du Travail et des Etudes Sociales (INTES) at Université de Carthage, shared that the Tunisian government is working to institutionalize support for women’s entrepreneurship, including through strategic partnerships with local banks and financial institutions for investment in women traditionally overlooked in the economy. Dr. Mouelhi stressed that projects aimed at promoting equal pay and gender equality more broadly in the Tunisian context rely heavily on triangular partnerships between international organizations, entrepreneurs and the business community, and regional civil society organizations. Mr. Andrii Radchuk, State Expert at the Ministry of Economy of Ukraine, asserted that tripartite partnerships were crucial to curtailing the effects of strict lockdown measures at the early stages of the pandemic, stating that, “The involvement of all parties into the dialogue related to the lockdown contributed to having diverse perspectives and … to introducing more flexible, adaptive quarantine that eventually prevented the collapse of our economy here.”

H.E. Dayra Carrizo, Vice-Minister of Foreign Affairs of Panama, highlighted that promoting a culture of data measurement and pay transparency in public and private institutions has afforded Panama a deeper understanding of the realities of gender pay gaps in the country. Ms. Carrizo shared that Panama’s promotion and implementation of the UNDP-funded Gender Equality Seal Programme, as well as UN Women’s Diagnosis for Equal Remuneration (DIR) tool, has given public, private, and civil society actors key entry points for collectively reducing gender pay gaps across Panama.

Ms. Leyl complemented these interventions by raising concerns over equal representation in positions of power and decision-making. “According to a UN Women report,” Leyl shared, “the lowest rates of managerial jobs held by women are actually in sectors that are dominated by women, such as health care.” Ms. Anika Dorothy Jane, East Africa Coordinator at AMPLIFY, built on this point, stressing that intersectional, intergenerational decision-making spaces are key to closing the gender wage gap. “We still have rooms full of men who are the same color and the same age, and this has to change,” Ms. Jane stressed. However, Ms. Jane emphasized that a truly intersectional and intergenerational approach to achieving equal pay for all is not simply about adding those traditionally left behind to the table but training the leaders of tomorrow on how to implement and effect the tenets of equal pay.

Ms María Picado Ovares, representing the office of H.E. Marcela Guerrero Campos, Minister for the Status of Women of Costa Rica, added that the horizontal segregation of the labour market – whereby women and men occupy distinct industries and distinct positions within those industries – fuels gender inequality and requires gender-responsive recovery measures to crises such as the COVID-19 pandemic. In an effort to overcome this labour market segregation, Costa Rica is working closely with its Public Education Ministry to develop projects that ensure the education system is a place where boys and girls can acquire skills to define their own interests, rather than relying on prescriptive roles and norms.

Following the expert panel, representatives from the United States – a new member of EPIC – delivered a pre-recorded intervention on the status of equal pay in their context. Ms. Wendy Chun-Hoon, Director of the Women’s Bureau, and Ms. Thea Lee, Deputy Undersecretary for International Affairs, both from the US Department of Labor, shared that the United States is placing women at the center of their COVID-19 recovery plan and building pathways for better employment outcomes for women in all their diversity. “We are doing this by working to increase pay transparency, disrupt occupational segregation, eliminate discrimination, increase access to paid leave and child and elder care, to build the economy we all need to thrive,” Ms. Chun-Hood shared.

To close the virtual commemoration of International Equal Pay Day, Ms. Leyl opened the floor to the three heads of agency at the ILO, UN Women, and the OECD, who called for unwavering, gender-responsive strategies in the ongoing response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Mr. Guy Ryder, Director-General of the ILO, shared that, “The ILO has made a call for a human-centered recovery, which isn’t just a shopping list of things we really must do but an attempt to integrate policy approaches so that these are self-reinforcing objectives as we recover.” Mr. Ryder emphasized that despite formal commitments made by Governments to reduce gender pay gaps in the wake of the pandemic, segregated labour markets, the unequal distribution of unpaid care work, and an overwhelming lack of pay transparency are exponents of pay inequity that require multi-stakeholder intervention.

Mr. Mathias Cormann, Secretary-General of the OECD, added, “The policies to support gender equality now are not fundamentally different from those that were needed before the pandemic.” In tackling the gender pay gap, Mr. Cormann stressed that the OECD will be conducting a review of pay transparency policies across OECD countries, publishing a report that will assess OECD countries’ progress on gender equality with specific measures on equal pay, and continuing its commitment to EPIC alongside UN Women and the ILO.

Ms. Pramila Patten, Executive Director a.i. of UN Women, built upon these reflections, calling for a variety of short- and long-term prerequisites to closing the gender wage gap and achieving decent work for women in all their diversity in line with the Women’s Empowerment Principles[3], including:

Increasing minimum wages, as many women are clustered at the bottom of the pay distribution;

Promoting fair and non-discriminatory employment processes, including pay transparency;

Offering paid parental leave;

Supporting more flexible work arrangements;

Supporting collective bargaining;

Increasing pay in industries where most workers are women such as health, child and social care, as well as community health care;

Stop basing current wages on pay history, as a worker’s pay history or past salaries should not determine the level of their present or prospective salary; and

Allocating a dedicated (temporary) budget to adjust pay in cases where pay gaps are explained by gender discrimination.

The inequalities between women and men in the world of work that have been exacerbated during the COVID-19 pandemic will persist in the near future. Hence, extraordinary efforts are needed towards putting in place gender-responsive strategies aiming at full, productive, and freely chosen employment and decent work for all, with a focus on the needs of the most vulnerable and hardest hit by the pandemic. An equitable and job-rich recovery, non-discriminatory labour markets, and care-inclusive economies are the only pathway to build resilience to crises such as the COVID-19 pandemic and to address persisting gender inequalities in the world of work.

To watch a recording of the event, see here.

Join the online conversation using the hashtags #EqualPayDay and #GenderPayGap.

Follow us on social media at:

@epic2030 (Twitter & Facebook) and Equal Pay International Coalition (EPIC) (LinkedIn)

@UN_Women (Twitter), @UNWomen (Instagram)



[1] ILO, July 2021. Building Forward Fairer: Women’s rights to work and at work at the core of the COVID-19 recovery.

[2] UN Women, September 2021. Beyond COVID-19: BEYOND COVID-19: A feminist plan for sustainability and social justice.

[3] UN Women, 2020. WEPs Guidance Note: Closing gender pay gaps to achieve gender equality at work.