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Women in the world economy: the next decade of action

Written by Sara Pantuliano, Arancha González


Despite strides of progress, women still make up just 40% of the global labour force.

With the future of work one of the key topics under discussion at this year's World Economic Forum in Davos, ODI's Chief Executive, Sara Pantuliano, and Spain's newly-appointed Foreign Minister, Arancha González, share their reflections on women in the economy. In particular, how to achieve sustainable progress for women's full participation in the global economy, and what the next decade of action should look like to ensure equality for all. 

Frequently asked questions

Sara Pantuliano: reflections on the road ahead

Despite increasing employment and leadership opportunities, women remain vastly under-represented in the global economy, particularly in its top tiers. Women’s under-representation in emerging roles and the rise of informal employment threaten to exacerbate this in the future. To ensure women’s full economic opportunities at every level, we will need to set ambitious and comprehensive goals for the next 25 years.

Stepping into the future will require learning from the past

Rapid declines in fertility, the expansion of women’s education and economic growth have promoted female labour force participation globally. Women’s increased representation in local and national decision-making has also supported change processes in some cases.

These factors have supported more gender-equal societies overall and enabled more women to access decent and fulfilling work, particularly when they have helped shift norms around the acceptability of gender-based harms like child marriage and violence, which amount to human rights violations. However, taken together, they have not been enough to ensure even and sustainable progress towards equality.

Where the availability of sufficiently lucrative work has increased, this has helped shift norms and contributed to women’s economic empowerment. But these changes have been far from sufficient in ensuring even and sustainable progress towards equality. ODI research shows that an important reason for this is the persistence of sticky norms that influence women’s and their families’ choices about divisions of labour, uptake of particular economic opportunities, access to education and training, and control over financial resources.

New challenges will need new solutions

The expansion of the gig economy, supported by innovations in digital technology, provides new opportunities for women to work more flexibly and accommodate care and domestic work. But ODI research shows that we don’t know enough about the impacts of these technologies and this flexibility, and that precarious work can have adverse effects, particularly on the most vulnerable.

More than 129 million women work in the informal sector, and in some contexts women spend up to five hours more a day than men doing critical but undervalued unpaid care and domestic work. Across 37 countries covering 20% of the global population, women typically undertake 75% of childcare responsibilities – with a range of from 63% (Sweden) to 93% (Ireland).

Evidence is unclear as to how informal work affects these gendered divisions of labour, and economic growth and more opportunities have not always led to more gender-equal outcomes overall. More needs to be done to advance our understanding of digital innovations and increase support for more decent, gender-equal employment. 

The role of women in future economies will be predicated on gender equality in the green economy 

Key to enabling women to participate fully in future economies will be supporting women’s and girls’ education and skills in science and technology and their inclusion in a green economy. Women tend to have smaller ecological footprints than men, and engage in environmental issues differently than men. And yet they are often absent from the industries and decision-making bodies influencing our climate, which still lack diversity, and the gender digital divide continues to shut women’s voices out of the conversation. 

Combating the norms which keep women out of technology-driven industries or devalue women’s ideas and innovations, and dismantling the barriers facing women entrepreneurs, will help ensure more equal, future-looking economic growth. This will require recognising that contemporary challenges, for example stemming from automation and climate change, are global issues – and that we need more space for deliberative citizen processes that are inclusive and representative of all. 

A focused agenda moving forward 

McKinsey’s Global Institute suggests that gender equality in the labour force could increase global GDP by $12–28 trillion by 2025. But how do we get there? Faster economic growth doesn’t necessarily lead to more gender-equal distribution of financial gains on its own. Targeted efforts and strategies are needed to understand and address the barriers to women’s financial inclusion. 

A future-looking agenda should recognise the pervasiveness of gendered inequalities in the economic sphere by calling for removing legal restrictions to women’s equal economic access; supporting women’s financial knowledge and access through education; enhancing women’s ability to organise and self-advocate; enabling women to protect their bodily autonomy and control their own fertility; and addressing unpaid work and ensuring decent jobs and social protection. This must also include a progressive commitment to a green economy, bringing in new and diverse perspectives to address the contemporary challenges and opportunities we face in the 2020 economy.  

Frequently asked questions

Arancha González: achieving permanent and sustainable progress for women in the economy

All glass is destructible – even the metaphorical glass ceiling that researchers forecast will keep gender equality at bay for another 257 years.

Inevitably, glass will break when you blast it with enough force. In the case of the glass ceiling of hindering women’s full participation in the global economy, there have been a number of key forces which have caused some irreversible shattering. These include progress in three key areas:

1. Women’s economic empowerment has shifted from being a purely social issue to one that also represents a business imperative that drives growth

A big part of gathering enough momentum for a lasting impact is mobilising as many people as possible. There is a reason why Liza Minnelli’s 1960s song ‘Money makes the world go round’ has stood the test of time – commerce and the financial system are inevitable parts of the economic and social fabric of life which captures the attention of paupers, potentates, politicians and policy-makers alike.

Progress in today’s body of research both showcases and makes projections on just how big the financial loss or gain could be when it comes to empowering women in the economy. And now that we know the economic cost of gender inequality around the world runs to a little more than $160 trillion – we cannot but continue to ensure progress in this critical area.

2. The voices championing change have been amplified beyond women-only advocates and conferences about women’s rights

We have come a long way since the Second International Socialist 1910, when the lone voice of German revolutionary Clara Zetkin proposed that 8 March be honoured annually as a day for working women. Today, the Commemoration of International Women’s Day and the promulgation of the importance of women’s economic empowerment is widespread – from male world leaders like Barack Obama, Justin Trudeau, Paul Kagame and Stefan Löfven to influential global institutions including the United Nations and, most recently, the World Trade Organization (WTO).

On 12 December 2017, the first-ever Declaration on Women and Trade was launched during the 11th WTO Ministerial Conference in Buenos Aires, Argentina. A far cry from women’s conferences, we have also seen G20 Communiqués supporting gender equality and women’s economic empowerment. Progress in this critical area can only be sustainable if we engage everyone as advocates for gender equality – from economists to heads of states, and CEOs to actors.

3. The channels through which we can empower women economically have become more widely agreed on and practiced

Change is a good thing. Thanks to the fast-paced technological revolution, social media provides us with an efficient platform to inform and mobilise change. Increasing consumer demands for more traceable and inclusive value chains have prompted policy-makers and CEOs to use trade agreements and purchasing policies to provide women and other under-represented economic actors with better opportunities. We have also seen a rise in the use of preferential government procurement and bank lending practices as new ways of levelling the playing field for women to better engage in the global economy.

The sobering reality is that largely untouched pieces of the glass ceiling remain in every aspect of our daily lives, and within every country. The global problem of the under-representation of women in the economy remains substantial. That said, big strides have been taken towards a more gender-equal world, all of which offers the promise of more permanent and sustainable progress.

* This blog was written while Arancha González was in her previous capacity as Executive Director of the International Trade Centre.

This blog is part of our ODI at 60 initiative.