The failure of leaders to take into account the disproportionate impact of Covid-19 on women, and their roles in lessening its harm, will mean a long, slow recovery that could cost the world economy trillions of dollars, Melinda Gates has warned.

Even a four-year delay in programmes that promote gender equality, such as advancing women’s digital and financial inclusion, would wipe a potential $5tn (£4tn) from global GDP by 2030.

“As policymakers work to protect and rebuild economies, their response must account for the disproportionate impact of Covid-19 on women, and the unique roles women will have to play in mitigating the pandemic’s harm,” Gates said in a paper published on Wednesday.

But Gates, the co-chair of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, told the Guardian she believed the pandemic had forced leaders to confront the burden of unpaid care work that falls on women.

Globally, a two-hour increase in women’s unpaid care work corresponds with a 10 percentage point decrease in women’s ability to participate in the labour force, she said.

“I think, finally, for the first time, this unpaid labour, which has been one of the biggest cracks in society that no one wants to look at, is in everybody’s face right now.

“World leaders have kids at home right now. World leaders are seeing their wives have to drop out of the workforce or take care of an elderly parent. So I think leaders are waking up to this, and what I think you’re going to see is the coalition of leaders who say: ‘This is how we’re going to get recovery – we’re going to get recovery if we start to get equality,’” she said.

Gates’ paper, published in Foreign Affairs magazine prior to the G20 meetings of finance ministers and central bank governors at the weekend, looks at the toll the pandemic is taking on women and calls on policymakers to “use this emergency as an opportunity to replace old systems with new and better ones”.

As well as addressing unpaid care, Gates called for women’s jobs to be protected, for health systems to be strengthened, and for sexual and reproductive healthcare to be considered an essential service.

Key to any fundamental change, Gates said, will be the inclusion of women from diverse backgrounds in decision-making. Grassroots organisations also have a “fundamental” role to play, she said.

But Gates warned: “We have to keep this on the forefront of the agenda. That’s exactly why I wrote this paper. If we don’t look at the health systems, the economic systems and how we can build back, if we don’t look at the data or the female leadership or use those women’s collectives, we’re not going to build back in a better way. We’re going to have a very, very long slow recovery across the globe.”

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