London, UK
Thomson Reuters Foundation

Women who run ethical businesses were harder hit by the pandemic than their male counterparts, a United Nations-backed survey found on Wednesday, raising fears of another sector where women bear the economic brunt of COVID-19.

From factory floors to shops, women have endured greater job losses and wage cuts due to the virus in a new setback to gender parity in the workplace.

Japan coronavirus woman walking

A woman wearing a protective face mask walks inside a buildng at a business district, amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, in Tokyo, Japan, on 18th November. PICTURE: Reuters/Issei Kato/File photo.

Wednesday's survey of 740 social enterprises - businesses that set out to do good as well as make money - showed women in the burgeoning sector had similarly paid a higher price.

"There is a clear warning sign here that the impact of the pandemic on social enterprises will significantly exacerbating existing inequalities," said Paula Woodman, global head of social enterprise at the British Council, co-sponsor of the survey and the country's cultural and education agency.

The report - by the British Council, UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (UNESCAP) and trade body Social Enterprise UK - surveyed firms across Europe, Africa and Asia.

Nearly two-thirds had changed their business models and more than half moved services online to stay afloat, said the report.

Across the sector, about  seven per cent of companies had shut temporarily in the pandemic and one per cent closed down, said the survey.

In comparison, about 10 per cent of female social entrepreneurs had been forced to close temporarily, with three per cent ceasing operations altogether.

Lowest paid, worst hit
COVID-19 has disproportionately hit women's careers, with studies showing they are more likely to earn less and be in jobs that are harder hit by lockdown, all while picking up the lion's share of unpaid jobs at home.

Monthly wages fell or stagnated in many countries in the first six months of 2020, with the pandemic hitting lower-paid workers and women hardest, the International Labour Organization said this month.

The report said women-led companies were more likely to report that they had no government support and saw a 30 per cent reduction in business activities.

Yet female social entrepreneurs were more likely to adapt and create new products or services, the report also found.

Bernadee Uy from Habi Lifestyle, a social enterprise in the Philippines that hires Indigenous people to make accessories from fabric scraps, said her company started making essential items like masks and personal protective equipment to survive.

Lockdowns and unreliable internet made it hard to coordinate the new business model but the changes kept the business running, Uy said at an online launch of the report.

"It's very challenging to try to adapt to this new context...but in a way, it also gives us a chance to review what we're trying to do here and try to get better," said Uy, head of finance and community development.

"It's an interesting journey so far and we hope to keep being resilient and keep doing what we're doing."