EFFORTS to close the gender gap have been stalled by two global experiences that have disproportionately harmed women: the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic and disruptions brought by new technologies. To meet these challenges and regain momentum toward gender equity, women in the Philippines must prepare for the transitions ahead and take advantage of growing needs for scarce skills — with collective support from public and private players.

In moving forward, the Philippines starts from a position of relative strength. In a context in which most nations still have a significant gender equity gap, the World Economic Forum (WEF), in its Global Gender Gap Report 2020, placed the Philippines as the most equitable in Asia. The study measures the gender gap based on labor participation and income, education, health, and political empowerment in each country.

In 2020, the WEF gave the Philippines a gender equity score of 78.1%, essentially unchanged from 2018, and well above the global average of 68.6%. But as the Philippines’ score remained steady, countries including Spain, Latvia, and Costa Rica improved their situations dramatically, and the Philippines global ranking fell from 8th place in 2018 to 16th place in 2020.

Since 2006, when the WEF began its gender equity rankings, the Philippines has excelled in reaching gender parity in education and health standards and has lagged significantly in terms of labor participation and income and political empowerment. One reason is a sharp drop off between women achieving an advanced degree and gaining an entry-level job. A separate McKinsey report found that while women account for 53% of university graduates in the Philippines, they only make up 43% of entry-level professionals.

COVID-19 and changes brought by new technologies have made closing the gender gap more difficult. In 2020 the McKinsey Global Institute (MGI) found that globally jobs held by women are 19% more vulnerable than those held by men. Indeed, women dominate jobs in three of the four economic sectors most affected by the pandemic. In food service and entertainment globally, for instance, women accounted for 39% of the global workforce yet suffered 54% of overall jobs losses as of May 2020.

Looking at two hard-hit sectors, this global trend is likely to be reflected in the Philippines. In 2018, the Philippine Statistics Authority showed that women held 60% of the jobs in the wholesale and retail trade and 53% of those in accommodation and food services.

Beyond lost employment, the pandemic has also added to a general burden on women as primary caregivers for children and the elderly. Home schooling, increased housework, and greater attention needed for health and hygiene, among other effects of the pandemic, have disproportionately fallen to women, often taking them away from paid employment.

Coupled with the new challenges to gender equity brought by the pandemic, the move toward advanced technologies — automation, artificial intelligence, advanced analytics, and other digital innovations — is disrupting the workplace in a way that could potentially leave many women behind. While the trend to digitization was apparent before COVID-19 struck, the pandemic has accelerated adoption of these new technologies globally as companies and individuals were forced to embrace online work, shopping, and entertainment.

MGI estimates that the overall direct impact on jobs will be similar for women and men, even though individual sectors tend to be dominated by one or the other. Overall, in 10 countries studied, 20% of working women could lose their jobs to automation by 2030, compared to 21% of working men. But as jobs are lost, new ones are created. In its baseline scenario, in the 10 countries studied, MGI estimates that a net total of about 150 million jobs will be created, and filling these would require a transition to new skills in the workforce.

The institute estimates that globally 40 million to 160 million women will need to transition to new jobs by 2030, a wide range that reflects the uncertainty of the timing of adopting digital technologies. In total, 7% to 24% of employed women will face disruption, compared to 8% to 28% of employed men.

But while the scale of disruption may be similar between men and women, women will face greater challenges in moving into new occupations. Finding time to learn new skills could be more difficult for women who are more often weighed down with unpaid caregiving responsibilities, are less mobile because of risks to their physical safety, and are generally under-represented in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) disciplines, among other obstacles.

Although challenges persist, the changes also present opportunities that can be seized. For example, MGI estimates that demand for advanced IT and programming skills will increase by as much as 90% over the next 15 years. Overall, basic skills in digital literacy will be needed in many positions, including those not directly concerned with technology. With efforts focused on helping women overcome their unique obstacles to transitioning into the new economy, progress toward closing the gender gap could be accelerated.

For example, women can be encouraged to pursue advanced degrees in STEM disciplines. Of the 227,000 students studying engineering and technology in Philippine universities in the 2017-18 school year, only 31% were women. Similarly, of 316,000 IT students, only 39% were women. Some efforts are already underway to address this gap. The International Labor Organization and the JPMorgan Chase Foundation, for instance, launched a program in 2021 focused on preparing women in the Philippines for STEM-related careers.

Measures must also be found to relieve women of the burden of unpaid care responsibilities, allowing more time for re-training and paying jobs. The rise of remote work and education during the pandemic has helped address this, giving women and men greater flexibility. More is needed, however, to free women of the established and pervasive structural and societal barriers to participate fully in the workforce.

Closing the gender gap goes beyond meeting a sense of moral fairness to delivering significant benefits to corporations and the economy generally. McKinsey studies have shown, for example, that companies with the highest gender diversity are 25% more likely to have above-average profit than those with the lowest levels of diversity. Similar results are shown for companies with a higher proportion of female executives.

Economic growth is also buoyed by gender equity. Another McKinsey study found that if no action were taken to counter the adverse effects on gender diversity brought by the pandemic, global gross domestic product (GDP) would be about $1 trillion less by 2030 than if the status quo continued. Conversely, if the gender gap were successfully addressed, global GDP would be about $13 trillion more in 2030 than the baseline projection.

The theme of this year’s International Women’s Day is “Choose to Challenge,” and the time is right to challenge the harm to gender equity brought by the pandemic and the move toward a global digital economy. Public and private leaders can take this moment to understand the unique challenges faced by women to overcome the impact of the health crisis and successfully transition into new employment. Success not only creates greater social equity, but also can support a strong economy.


Kristine Romano is the managing partner of McKinsey Philippines and is based in the Manila office, where Oleg Timchenko is also based as a partner.