LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Companies need female employees to help them bounce back from the coronavirus pandemic and must not let gender equality slip off their agenda due to the tough business climate, a virtual meeting of global figures heard on Monday.

Women have been hit hard by the pandemic's economic impact, with the International Labour Organization warning last year that COVID-19 threatened to wipe out "modest progress" on workplace in equality in recent decades.

Business leaders, campaigners and politicians told Monday's online meeting organised by the World Economic Forum that women risk losing hard-won gains at work.

"I have heard many organisations are saying 'Well, we have so many important issues that diversity really isn't something we can focus on right now'," said Laura Liswood, secretary-general at the Council of Women World Leaders.

"That's just the opposite of the truth, because in a crisis time you need the most creative ideas and the most differing experiences and perspective, which is what diversity provides."

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The disparity is partly because women are more likely to have insecure jobs, while many have also struggled to balance employment with extra caring responsibilities and home-schooling.

Too often their needs are being put last in pandemic response strategies, women leaders told the meeting.

"In crisis, the gender perspective is unfortunately often the first thing to be disregarded," said Swedish Foreign Minister Ann Linde.

There is "lots of willingness" among businesses to tackle gender inequalities but not always enough attention to setting and tracking targets on hiring, promotions and fair pay, said Martine Ferland, chief executive at consulting fund Mercer.

Meanwhile, Liswood said she had come to back the idea of quotas for women in politics and business alike, to ensure that women have a "seat at the table" to influence decisions.

Panel members said governments, business and civil society groups must work together to promote equity in the recovery, with stimulus measures offering a chance to rebalance the scales.

"We will pay great attention on the respect of gender parity in the implementation of our national recovery plan," said Elisabeth Moreno, French minister for gender equality.

"It is extremely important that women are not left behind in these times of pandemic – there is no better time to involve women in the labour market."