How COVID-19 and school closures are threatening women’s economic future

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COVID-19 is threatening the gains being made in girls’ education. Urgent action is needed to ensure that girls and women can realize the returns to their schooling. 

Returns to schooling for women are high – so says Bono and the research. A couple of years ago, in an essay in Time magazine Bono wrote: “Give girls just one additional year of schooling and their wages go up almost 12 percent.”

He said the same thing a year before that at the Munich Security Conference. The source of that quote was a 2014 World Bank paper and a recent update confirms this is still the case. At the same time, girls are staying in school longer and learning more. However, these gains are at risk as COVID-19 is presenting a crisis within a crisis for girls’ education.

How COVID-19 and school closures are threatening women's economic future BRANDSPURNG1
Sierra Leone, Children in a classroom, ready to learn.

On average, one additional year of schooling increases women’s returns to education by 12 percent compared with 10 percent for men. The gap in favour of women has increased by a percentage point over the last decade.

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Returns at the primary level are about the same for men and women but then diverge at the secondary level – 9 percent for women versus 7 percent for men – and at the tertiary level – 17 percent for women and 15 percent for men.

These returns are higher for women than for men in all economies and all regions. At the higher education level returns have increased overall, but particularly for women.

How COVID-19 and school closures are threatening women's economic future BRANDSPURNG

The longstanding disadvantage for girls in terms of enrollment has been declining over time, which has led to a reversal of the gender gap in educational attainment. Nevertheless, in terms of the number of expected years of schooling, girls are still disadvantaged in some contexts, including in South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa, and in fragile and conflict-affected states and low-income countries.

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The quality of education received by boys and girls is an important determinant of their access to higher levels of schooling and their future earnings. Girls have caught up to boys in many dimensions in recent decades and, in high- and middle-income countries, now outperform boys in terms of learning achievement.

This has led to a “reverse gap” where girls outperform boys in both enrollment rates and learning outcomes – a female learning premium. Nevertheless, girls’ outcomes remain lower in some contexts, including in low-income countries.

COVID-19 may put a temporary halt to this progress. COVID-19-induced school closures may slow or reverse these gains and may further prevent girls and women from realizing the potential returns – representing a “hidden” future cost.

The World Bank is forecasting lower levels of schooling, learning, and future earnings because of school closures due to COVID-19. Learning poverty is expected to increase significantly. A growing body of studies from high-income countries including Belgium, Netherlands and the United Kingdom have already found losses of learning as well as growing inequality.

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For women and girls, who are already being significantly negatively affected by the pandemic, there is a particular risk in the realm of education. The pandemic puts girls at an increased risk of dropping out of school, being vulnerable to domestic violence and other Gender-Based Violence (GBV) threats, facing child marriage and early pregnancy and being exploited as child labour.

UNESCO has projected that 11 million girls may never return to school following the pandemic. As we learned during the Ebola crisis in Sierra Leone, girls are more at risk than boys of missing out on educational opportunities as a result of school disruptions, which can put them at a persistent disadvantage in terms of accumulating human capital.

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Predictions vary as to how many girls will drop out of school and the extent to which learning poverty might increase more for girls than for boys, but the risk of long-lasting adverse effects is high.

Before COVID-19, returns to education were expected to increase for many more women in the decades to come as today’s students entered the labour market. Returns of 12 percent as predicted by the WB analysis (and Bono) are huge in terms of lifetime earnings, but if they are significantly reduced by the combined effect of school closures, COVID-19 illnesses and death, and recession, then advances for women will be derailed for decades ahead.

We know that, during crises, returns to higher education tend to increase, and if women are unable to access higher education because of the pandemic, then they will not be able to realize these higher returns.

Urgent action is needed to prevent further school closures, mitigate or reverse learning losses, and get girls back in school. For many girls, especially the youngest, the learning lost during the pandemic can be limited and even reversed by improving distance education during school closures and by implementing learning recovery programs such as Teach to the Right Level and tutoring, which the evidence has shown to be effective.

However, for older girls, the risk of dropping out is real, and they may leave school before their learning losses can be recovered (a study of the impact of school closures on high school students in Milwaukee found this to be the case).

The risk of dropping out needs to be addressed right away by providing extra support to students and their families to ensure that they stay in school, making sure to target girls as being at a high risk of dropout and learning losses.

The evidence on what interventions are effective at getting girls in school and continuing to learn shows that initiatives that increase access and learning for all students benefit girls.

Research highlights that the most effective interventions to improve access are those that reduce the cost of schooling. For improving learning outcomes, interventions that support improvements in pedagogy have been some of the most effective in improving girls’ learning outcomes.

Targeted support may also be needed to overcome constraints specific to girls, especially adolescent girls. For example, the Keeping Girls in School Program in Zambia provides cash transfers to families of adolescent girls so they can afford to keep their daughters in school and has set up an early warning system to identify girls at risk of dropping out and of other vulnerabilities.

It is critical that we prevent the re-emergence of a learning gap between girls and boys during the COVID-19 pandemic and prevent all students from dropping out. If they do drop out, it is imperative to give them enough support so that they can find ways to continue their education by investing in an educational approach based on lifelong learning.


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How COVID-19 and school closures are threatening women's economic future - Brand SpurHow COVID-19 and school closures are threatening women's economic future - Brand Spur

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How COVID-19 and school closures are threatening women's economic future - Brand SpurHow COVID-19 and school closures are threatening women's economic future - Brand Spur

Latest News

Hong Kong Productivity Council Theme of the Year 2021: “Make Smart Smarter”

  • Smarter Era of Intelligent Manufacturing Launch Ceremony
  • Witnesses New Milestone for Reindustrialisation in Hong Kong
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HONG KONG SAR - Media OutReach - 26 February 2021 - The Hong Kong Productivity Council (HKPC) launches a series of activities in 2021 themed "Make Smart Smarter". The campaign with "Smarter Era of Intelligent Manufacturing Launch Ceremony" was kicked off today, revolving around the theme of "reindustrialisation".

How COVID-19 and school closures are threatening women's economic future - Brand Spur

The "Smarter Era of Intelligent Manufacturing Launch Ceremony" was officiated together by Dr David Chung, Under Secretary for Innovation and Technology, HKSAR Government (fourth from left); Mr Clemente Contestabile, Consul General of Italy in Hong Kong (third from right); Ms Rebecca Pun, Commissioner for Innovation and Technology, HKSAR Government (second from right); Dr Daniel Yip, Chairman of the Federation of Hong Kong Industries (third from left); Mr Roberto Leone, Managing Director of NiRoTech Limited (first from right); Mr Willy Lin, Chairman of HKPC (fourth from right); Mr Mohamed Butt, Executive Director of HKPC (second from left) and Mr Edmond Lai, Chief Digital Officer of HKPC (first from left).

Co-organised by the Federation of the Hong Kong Industries (FHKI), this spotlight event exhibited and introduced an excellent example of reindustrialisation whose research and development were undertaken by HKPC. Gaining support from the Innovation and Technology Bureau and funding support from the R&D Cash Rebate Scheme of the Innovation Technology Commission of the HKSAR Government, production has been successfully commenced in NiRoTech Limited (NiRoTech), a local intelligent security product manufacturer.

This smart production line, named the "OWL" intelligent production line, gives into full play the characteristics of an owl's wisdom, piercing eyes, flexible body, soft neck (360o vision) and agile movement. These perfectly echo the key features of this intelligent production line which has high flexibility, excellent agility to cater for different production needs, stringent and precise production capacity, as well as non-stop operation. Five key "S.M.A.R.T" elements: Speed, Multi-function, Accuracy, Reliability and Traceability, can be seen in this production line offering edges of intelligence and efficiency enhancement.

In order to effectively respond to Hong Kong manufacturers' demands on production space, the "OWL" production line adopts a U-shape compact layout design and incorporates the beauty of the "Industry 4.0" (i4.0) lean manufacturing "vision", significantly reducing the factory area to meet the unique land constraints of Hong Kong. NiRoTech's smart factory only occupies 10,000 square feet, saving 50% of the land. It is also equipped with 12 robots and large amount of customised intelligent automation systems and digital technologies. Compared with traditional manual production, the overall production capacity increases by 1.5 times.

Mr Willy Lin, Chairman of HKPC, and Dr Daniel Yip, Chairman of FHKI, were joined by Mr Clemente Contestabile, Consul General of Italy in Hong Kong; Dr David Chung, Under Secretary for Innovation and Technology, Ms Rebecca Pun, Commissioner for Innovation and Technology; Mr Roberto Leone, Managing Director of NiRoTech; as well as Mr Mohamed Butt, Executive Director of HKPC and Mr Edmond Lai, Chief Digital Officer of HKPC, for the launch of the ceremony.

In his welcoming address, Mr Willy Lin, Chairman of HKPC, said, "HKPC is committed to offering staunch support for Hong Kong SMEs in technology R&D and technical aspects, with the aim of creating value for the industrial development of enterprises with state-of-the-art technologies. The 'OWL' intelligent production line is an excellent example of applying innovative technologies that also fits perfectly with HKPC's theme of this year 'Make Smart Smarter'. As owl represents wisdom, by being smarter and using innovative technologies such as IoT, AI, big data, intelligent robots and smart production processes to unleash production opportunities of i4.0, it will certainly scale up productivity and contribute to successful reindustrialisation in Hong Kong, thus achieving the goal of 'Make Smart Smarter'".

He continued, "It is really encouraging to see this 'reindustrialisation' example witnessing the concerted efforts of the Government, industries, business chambers and HKPC to promote reindustrialisation in Hong Kong! HKPC sincerely urges various sectors to work together to accelerate reindustrialisation for the swift recovery of Hong Kong economy and to ensure the "Made-in-Hong Kong" brand to continue to shine bright in the international arena -- Make Smart Smarter".

Dr David Chung, Under Secretary for Innovation and Technology, said, "the Government has been actively promoting 'reindustrialisation' in recent years by providing support in infrastructure, finance, technology and talents in order to create new area of growth and great job opportunities which would help alleviate Hong Kong's competitiveness. I wish to see more enterprises 'Make Smart Smarter', and make good use of these opportunities provided by I&T, as well as the support from the Government, to work and contribute together in turning Hong Kong into an international I&T hub".

Dr Daniel Yip, Chairman of FHKI said, "This collaboration of HKPC and NiRoTech serves as a valuable reference for industrialists on how to integrate i4.0 into production lines to enhance efficiency, elevating their confidence to set up high value-added manufacturing facilities in Hong Kong. With comprehensive policy support and HKPC's professional consultative service, FHKI believes that more Hong Kong manufacturers will join the force of 'reindustrialisation' by pursuing technological advancement and setting up smart manufacturing plants locally, taking the Hong Kong industries into a new era".

The "OWL" intelligent production line integrates the smart adoption of advanced robots with machine vision, smart electrical and mechanical devices, laser processing and sensor technologies. Also, by incorporating AI, IoT, human machine interface, real-time data collection and data analytic technologies, it ensures the full automation and digitalisation of production, assembly and monitoring to achieve big data analytics. Apart from three technologies whose patents are soon to be applied, the project also assists NiRoTech's business planning in exploring the emerging markets and grasping new opportunities.

Mr Roberto Leone, Managing Director of NiRoTech, said, "Mechatronic Manufacturing in Hong Kong: our strategy was clear from the start when we sought HKPC's assistance for help to realise intelligent production. For some, this goal was still immature and very difficult to achieve, especially with Hong Kong being chosen as our operation hub. Today we can proudly say we have achieved it with the system in Hong Kong operating satisfactorily as schedule. Despite there are challenges as the COVID-19 pandemic was affecting all in 2020, the result is now vividly in front of us, and we can touch it. Yet this is only the first step of a long journey".

For more details about "Make Smart Smarter", please visit the dedicated website:

About Hong Kong Productivity Council

The Hong Kong Productivity Council (HKPC) is a multi-disciplinary organisation established by statute in 1967, to promote productivity excellence through integrated advanced technologies and innovative service offerings to support Hong Kong enterprises. HKPC is the champion and expert in facilitating Hong Kong's reindustrialisation empowered by i4.0 and e4.0 -- focusing on R&D, IoT, big data analytics, AI and Robotic technology development, digital manufacturing, etc., to help enterprises and industries upgrade their business performance, lower operating costs, increase productivity and enhance competitiveness.

The Council is a trusted partner with comprehensive innovative solutions for Hong Kong industries and enterprises, enabling them to achieve resources and productivity utilisation, effectiveness and cost reduction, and enhanced competitiveness in both local and international marketplace. It offers SMEs and startups immediate and timely assistance in coping with the ever-changing business environment, accompanying them on their innovation and transformation journey.

In addition, HKPC partners and collaborates with local industries and enterprises to develop applied technology solutions for value creation. It also benefits a variety of sectors through product innovation and technology transfer, with commercialisation of multiple market-driven patents and technologies, bringing enormous opportunities abound for licensing and technology transfer, both locally and internationally.

For more information, please visit HKPC's website:

How COVID-19 and school closures are threatening women's economic future - Brand Spur
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