Brazil: COVID Pandemic Worsens Gender Inequalities

By Cristina Pereira Vieceli*

Participation rate of men and women in the labor market – fourth quarter 2014 to second quarter 2021


Source: Author’s elaboration based on PNAD-C/IBGE.

The COVID‑19 pandemic has worsened the already precarious state of employment for women in Brazil, reversing the modest progress they made in recent years and deepening gender inequalities. Brazil has had one of the world’s worst infection and death rates during the pandemic. As of last month, more than 600,000 people had died from the disease, second worst worldwide in absolute numbers. The pandemic has profoundly affected the Brazilian economy, mainly hurting the poorest populations, including women.

The 2015‑2016 recession and its aftermath, as well as neoliberal reforms introduced in 2017, left Brazil and particularly its labor force vulnerable to the pandemic and resulting economic slowdown.

  • The industrial and civil construction sectors, for example, underwent changes that had a profound impact on the labor market, with the deepening of the precariousness of contractual forms of employment. Labor reforms established, among other changes, new hiring formats, such as intermittent working hours and more flexible rules for part-time contracts. Promoted as necessary to “modernize” the labor market and thus increase productivity and hiring, the reforms have actually increased informality in the labor market and growth in self-employment. Between the fourth quarter of 2014 and second quarter of this year, the number of registered workers dropped from 36.35 million to 33.66 million – a decrease of 2.682 million jobs. Informal jobs increased by 1.435 million during the same period.
  • Women workers experienced divergent effects from the recession. From 2015 to 2019, the percentage of female private-sector employees decreased from 43.6 percent to 42.06 percent, but expansion of self-employment increased their overall participation rate from 50.6 percent to 53.1 percent. Wage inequalities between men and women, against a backdrop of falling wages for the working class, also narrowed. This “feminization of the workforce” occurred mainly between the fourth quarter 2014 and the first quarter of 2017, when the average working female’s earnings rose from 75.41 percent of the average male’s to 78.64 percent.

The pandemic hit a precarious labor market – with dire implications for labor security, especially among women. 

  • In the year beginning the fourth quarter of 2019, about 3.8 million formal jobs in the private sector for both women and men disappeared. Between the fourth quarter of 2020 and the second quarter of this year – the period of greatest pandemic control – only 304,000 jobs were created in the formal private sector, and informal-sector jobs dipped by about 1.9 million. Unregistered workers in the private and public sectors, including domestic workers, self-employed, and auxiliary family workers – 44.3 percent of the workforce (or 41 million workers) in 2014 – amounted to 48.73 percent (43 million) this year. 
  • With COVID, the upward trend in participation of women in the labor market has reversed. Activities that employ women in education, tourism, and public and domestic services have contracted, while unpaid domestic work has increased the burden facing the female workforce. Men at the same social level have also suffered setbacks (dropping 4.7 percent in participation), but women have left the workforce in greater numbers (dropping 5.3 percent). The income ratio between women and men has also declined because many women work in sectorswith a low level of formalization. 

The labor participation of men and women remains deeply polarized and, while both sexes face greater overall precariousness, the data clearly show that women have suffered significantly greater setbacks over the years. The unemployment rate among women grew from 7.7 percent in the fourth quarter of 2014 to 13.1 percent in the fourth quarter of 2019 – and jumped to 17.1 percent this year. Male unemployment was 9.2 percent in 2019 and 11.7 percent in the second quarter of 2021.

  • In-depth analysis of the data by class, race, and age would almost certainly show a similar trend: the vulnerable have grown more vulnerable through the country’s crises. It is clear that the populations most affected by the pandemic are those belonging to the low-income classes, which have a strong racial bias. Domestic workers, for example, were hit hard by job losses, with a dropout of 1.286 million workers in 2020 alone. Considering that more than 60 percent of domestic workers are black, most are in informal jobs with low wages.

November 3, 2021

Cristina Pereira Vieceli is an economist at the Inter-Union Department of Statistics and Socio-Economic Studies (DIEESE) in Florianópolis and the Universidade Federal do Rio Grande do Sul (UFRGS) in Porto Alegre. She is also a faculty fellow in economics at American University.

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