Insights and Analysis

No Women, No Growth

July 18, 2018

By Eileen Pennington

The 2018 Chatham House International Policy Forum convened last week at a time of international angst. Two British cabinet ministers had resigned over Brexit negotiations, creating more uncertainty around the tenure of Prime Minister May. President Trump’s contentious meeting with NATO officials sparked questions about the U.S. commitment to that institution. And the U.S. administration’s efforts to undermine a World Health Organization resolution promoting the benefits of breastfeeding focused attention on recent challenges to international norms and relationships that threaten hard-won gains toward gender equality.

Against this unsettled backdrop, a crowd of government officials, corporate executives, gender experts, and civil society representatives gathered to provide crucial input for the upcoming Women 20 (W20) meeting in Argentina. They embraced Chatham House associate fellow Susan Harris Rimmer’s assertion in the opening session that “we’ve got to stop feeling grateful for bits and pieces” and instead demand transformative change. The W20 recommends commitments that G20 governments should make so that women realize their full economic potential and economies achieve gender-inclusive growth. Forum participants emphasized clear, pragmatic, and locally relevant solutions that governments can put in place, summing up the business case as: “no women, no growth.”

Yet the Forum’s theme, “No Going Back: Making Gender Equality Happen,” served as a reminder of the uncertainty of further progress on the gender-equality agenda in the current political climate. Monika Queisser of the OECD’s Directorate for Employment, Labor, and Social Affairs presented recent data showing that, while Japan has already exceeded its G20 target for engaging more women in the formal labor force, the United States is moving in the wrong direction, with the percentage of women in the U.S. labor force actually decreasing. While we need to closely analyze this data to also consider issues such as job quality and numbers of hours worked, gender gaps in labor-force participation underscore the continuing need for policies like flexible hours and affordable daycare to support caregivers, male and female, and to change norms around women’s unpaid and unequal labor burden of caring for the home, children, and elders. Japan, which has made women’s economic participation a focus of its growth strategy and is tackling these policy challenges, takes over the W20 presidency this year, and announced its plan at the Forum to hold the W20 in March 2019 in conjunction with its annual WAW! World Assembly for Women.

One key theme of the Forum was that transformative change only occurs when the leaders of an institution— government, corporate, or civil society—are personally committed to gender equality and to changing the norms that perpetuate gender inequality and power imbalances. Putting the right policies in place is only half the battle. Unilever’s head of global diversity and inclusion, Aline Santos Farhat, for example, argued that managers need to be held accountable for gender-equitable business practices. The message, she said, must be “follow our values or get out.” The crowd was further galvanized by the keynote address of France’s minister for gender equality, Marlène Shiappa, who declared that President Macron has put gender equality, including ending sexual harassment and violence against women and closing the gender pay gap, at the heart of his political platform. To that end, a new French government policy requires large companies to make their payrolls transparent and close their gender pay gaps within three years or incur financial penalties.

McKinsey’s Vivian Hunt provided insightful analysis of four key change levers to create gender parity: improving workforce agility, eliminating violence against women, increasing girls’ education, especially in STEM, and closing the gender differential in unpaid work. Elva Susana Balbo, the chair of W20 Argentina, noted that digitalization in the economy holds great promise for expanding economic opportunities for women, and can even engage women who are not yet part of the formal economy. She recommended encouraging women to use smartphones to manage bank accounts and even family logistics, so they can develop their skills and confidence. This is exactly the approach that The Asia Foundation is taking in Vietnam, where a partnership with MasterCard and the Vietnam Bank for Social Policies has led to the development of a mobile banking platform that will reach underserved and remote populations, with particular emphasis on meeting the specific needs of women.

In the midst of the #MeToo movement, discussion also focused on sexual harassment and abuse. Hao Yang, program officer from The Asia Foundation’s China office, emphasized the importance of changing the “culture of silence” that keeps victims from speaking out and perpetuates the myth that sexual harassment in the workplace is uncommon. She highlighted recent research findings that 70 percent of women in manufacturing and 83 percent of women journalists have experienced it. The Foundation is now expanding its partnership with Chinese companies that are taking steps in the workplace to combat domestic violence. Structural change is also necessary, and Ted Rizzo of the International Center for Research on Women emphasized that increasing the number of women in management and leadership positions is a direct strategy to reduce sex-based harassment in the workplace.

We must remember that no country in the world has achieved gender equality yet. At global gatherings like the Chatham House Forum and the upcoming W20, diverse actors can coalesce around a shared platform and a renewed commitment to advance gender equality worldwide. We must work together to strengthen and multiply the recent achievements that expand women’s rights, improve female labor-force participation, and encourage greater leadership by women and girls if we wish this progress to endure.

Eileen Pennington is a senior adviser in The Asia Foundation’s Women’s Empowerment Program. She can be reached at [email protected]. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and not those of The Asia Foundation


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