It’s Time to Let Women Thrive
At the start of 2018, the #MeToo movement has given global efforts to empower women new momentum, and provided an opportunity for governments to take concrete steps to boost female workforce participation. In fact, that, as much as anything else, may be what is needed to sustain today's global economic recovery.
DAVOS – In public debates around the world, women’s empowerment is increasingly being recognized as a top priority. The question of how to provide more economic opportunities for women is firmly on the agenda at the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting in Davos this year. And longtime advocates for women are feeling energized, as countless others – men and women alike – have come to recognize the urgency of the task.
Affording women and girls the opportunity to succeed is not just the right thing to do; it can also transform societies and economies for the good of all. For example, bringing women’s labor force participation up to the same level as that of men would boost GDP by as much as 9% in Japan and 27% in India.
The International Monetary Fund has documented many other macroeconomic benefits associated with women’s empowerment. Reducing gender gaps in employment and education has been shown to help economies diversify their exports. Appointing more women to banking-supervision boards can prevent cozy groupthink, thereby ensuring greater stability and resilience in the financial sector. And reducing gender inequalities also reduces income inequality, allowing for more sustainable growth.
Closing the gender gap may seem like a tall order, but it is essential for long-term economic development and prosperity. The challenge for every country, then, is to make the most of all of its people’s talents.
Realizing women’s potential is a universal mission. But some of the barriers holding women back are also universal. Astonishingly, almost 90% of countries have one or more gender-based legal restrictions on the books. In some countries, women still have limited property rights compared to men; in others, husbands have the right to forbid their wives from working.
Beyond legal barriers, women also face social and cultural obstacles that limit their access to education, work, and finance. This is especially true in countries with fragile political systems.
Now that public awareness is growing, it is time to press ahead with concrete measures to help women remain in the workforce while raising a family. For a glimpse of what that might look like, consider Norway, where affordable childcare and parental-leave schemes have proven successful in enabling both mothers and fathers to work. Yes, these programs are costly. But they are well worth the investment, given employed women’s enormous contribution to economic growth.
Moreover, programs that help women keep working also change the role of fathers. In Norway and other countries with similar policies, fathers now share equally in parental leave and child-rearing. As a result, more women can pursue leadership roles in work and public life.
Of course, countries that are not yet at Norway’s level of economic development typically face other gender-related challenges, including limited access to water and education. Unfortunately, while many countries have made progress in reducing gender gaps in primary-school enrollment, there is still much more work to be done at the secondary and tertiary levels. As long as these gaps persist, women will not be able to aspire to political and economic power on an equal footing with men. Accordingly, Norway has made girls’ education a top priority in its international-development programs.
Beyond education, ensuring that women in developing countries have access to finance is critical, because it enables them to participate fully in the economy, including as entrepreneurs. When women are empowered to start their own businesses, they can drive innovation and help their countries prosper.
Because women’s labor-force participation is so important for growth, organizations such as the IMF are committed to working with governments around the world to empower women economically. IMF-supported programs in Egypt and Jordan, for example, include measures to boost investment in public nurseries and safe public transportation.
In addition to specific policies, today’s conversation has increasingly focused on the need for wider social change. And now that movements such as #Equalpay and #MeToo have gained so much momentum, it looks like that change could be coming. It has been inspiring to see so many women, girls, and – yes – men speaking out against retrograde attitudes toward women, which have been holding all of us back.
With the global economy recovering, governments must now lay the foundation for long-term growth, by creating the conditions for women everywhere to realize their full potential. Discrimination and abuse against women can no longer stand. It is time for women to thrive.
Making the Business Case for Gender Equality
Gender parity is both an economic and a moral imperative. When development leaders gather in Chile this week, their goal must be to capitalize on the momentum of recent activism by and on behalf of women, and ensure that businesses understand that equality is good for the bottom line.
NEW YORK – Around the world, gender bias is attracting renewed attention. Through protest marches and viral social-media campaigns, women everywhere are demanding an end to sexual harassment, abuse, femicide, and inequality.
But, as successful as the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements have been in raising public awareness, the struggle for parity is far from over. Empowering women and girls is key to achieving all 17 of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals by 2030. At the moment, however, gender bias remains a significant obstacle to global progress, and it is particularly acute in the workplace.
Today, only 5% of S&P 500 companies are led by women, according to Catalyst, a non-profit CEO watchdog. That dismal figure is all the more remarkable when one considers that 73% of global firms allegedly have equal-opportunity policies in place, according to a survey by the International Labour Organization (ILO). Moreover, while research shows a clear link between a company’s gender balance and its financial health, women occupy fewer than 20% of governing board seats in the world’s largest companies.
Addressing such deficiencies is both an economic and a moral imperative. A 2015 report by the McKinsey Global Institute found that if women and men played an “identical role in labor markets,” $28 trillion would be added to the global economy by 2025. These global gains would be in addition to the benefits for individual companies. Firms with greater gender equality are more innovative, generous, and profitable. But, at the current rate of female empowerment, it would take nearly 220 years to close the gender gap. The world cannot afford to wait that long; we need a new approach.
To help chart a path for companies to hire, retain, and promote female employees, we are joining more than 400 global business leaders and government representatives in Santiago, Chile, this week for the Fourth Global Forum on Business for Gender Equality. The gathering – organized by the Chilean government and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), in partnership with the ILO and UN Women – will highlight the importance of gender equality in the private sector.
One solution that will be on the agenda is the UNDP-supported Gender Equality Seal program, a unique initiative that certifies companies that have eliminated pay gaps, increased the number of women in decision-making positions, and worked to end sexual harassment on the job.
Today, these UNDP-certified companies are leading the way in building a more balanced global workforce. For example, Chile’s state-owned copper mining company, Codelco, is increasing its ranks of female employees – and boosting productivity in the process. Similarly, Costa Rica’s Banco Nacional has promoted dozens of women into managerial roles; the bank is now a leading regional provider of financing to female entrepreneurs. And in Canada, Scotiabank has used a female mentorship program to become one of the industry’s most gender-balanced companies. Our hope is that many more firms will strive for gender equality certification, possibly even by signaling their intent this week.
Another initiative to be discussed is the Women’s Empowerment Principles, a set of operating guidelines developed by UN Women and the UN Global Compact that embodies the business case for gender equality. More than 1,700 CEOs have endorsed the principles, while nearly 300 companies in 61 countries have used the initiative’s free gender gap analysis tool to help managers implement them in the workplace.
To be sure, global meetings, certification systems, and free software are only part of the solution. Women still bear disproportionate domestic burdens, and pressures stemming from social and cultural norms often rob them of the chance to attend school, start businesses, or participate in public life. Moreover, women who do have paying jobs outside the home are on the wrong side of a gender wage gap that averages 23%, suggesting that equality is not only about opportunity.
Businesses, communities, and families must work together to level the playing field. Fortunately, the cost of doing nothing is too high for any business—and economies as a whole—to bear, which is why we are optimistic that eliminating gender bias at work is possible. When companies make female empowerment central to their business strategies, growth and equality can be mutually reinforcing to leave no one behind.
African Women on Top
From limited land rights to the enduring expectation that they perform the majority of unpaid household labor, women in Africa face major economic, legal, and cultural barriers to advancement. But while the barriers to women’s leadership in Africa are formidable, they are not insurmountable.
TORONTO – Africa has a long history of female leadership. Yet leadership can be a challenging aspiration for the continent’s young women, owing to enduring barriers to success. If African countries – and Africa’s women – are to meet their potential, this must change.
Women were leaders on the frontlines of Africa’s decolonization struggle. Queen Anna Nzinga, the monarch of the Ndongo and Matamba Kingdoms in what is now Angola, spent decades fighting to protect her people from the Portuguese and their expanding slave trade. In 1900, Yaa Asantewaa, queen mother of the Ashanti Empire (part of modern-day Ghana), led a rebellion against British colonialism. Nearly three decades later, women in southeastern Nigeria organized a revolt, known as the Aba Women’s Riots, against British colonial policies.
More recently, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf – a Nobel Peace Prize laureate – led her country to reconciliation and recovery following a decade-long civil war, managing a devastating Ebola epidemic along the way. Former Rwandan Minister of Health Agnes Binagwaho has dedicated her career to achieving equitable access to health care in her country and beyond. As a young teenager, Kakenya Ntaiya agreed to undergo female circumcision (a traditional Maasai rite of passage) in exchange for the opportunity to get an education. After earning a PhD in education, she founded Kakenya’s Dream, which focuses on educating girls, ending harmful traditional practices, and uplifting rural communities in Kenya.
Yet barriers to women’s leadership in Africa today remain systemic, widespread, and they begin early. They start at home, where girls are expected to take on more responsibility, including chores like childcare, cooking, and laundry. This, and other factors, undermines African girls’ educational attainment: 47% either do not complete school or never attend at all.
Girls’ paths are no easier when they grow up. From limited land rights to the enduring expectation that they perform the majority of unpaid household labor, women in Africa face major economic, legal, and cultural barriers to advancement. According to the World Economic Forum’s Gender Gap Report, Sub-Saharan Africa has closed the disparity in economic empowerment by only 68%, with women still far more likely to be unemployed, underemployed, or hold precarious employment in the informal sector.
But while the barriers to women’s leadership are formidable, they are not insurmountable. Whether in politics or health, law, or engineering, African women are showing the world how to unleash their fellow women’s leadership potential.
In Uganda, Favourite Regina is keeping refugee girls out of early marriage and pregnancy, as part of an initiative led by CIYOTA, a youth-led, volunteer-based organization established in the Kyangwali refugee settlement. In Nigeria, Blooming Soyinka employs a half-dozen economically disadvantaged and disabled artisans at Africa Blooms, creating conditions for those employees and their families to thrive and educate their children. In Kenya, Fanice Nyatigo is developing MammaTips, an app that will provide timely information on pregnancy, breastfeeding, immunization, and other important health matters to new mothers. These are young people – all Mastercard Foundation Scholars – to watch, as they are only just beginning to demonstrate the breadth of their potential as leaders.
Africa needs more such remarkable woman leaders. And, though research on how to champion female African leadership is sparse, early findings from the scholars program suggest that there are several pathways that young African women can take – and that we can support – to assume their rightful place among the continent’s leaders.
For starters, while education plays an important role, experience shows that it is not enough. Deliberate investment in leadership programs for young women are also essential. Young women need opportunities to practice leadership, whether in school, the workplace, or the community. And they need supportive spaces where they can hone these skills, build networks, and obtain support.
Moreover, recognition of young women’s talent and potential is needed to nurture their confidence and self-esteem, and to raise their profile beyond their immediate community. Mentors and role models – especially female ones – are also extremely valuable.
This is a job not only for African governments or local NGOs. All global policy discussions concerning education, the environment, science, and health must explicitly address how to develop woman leaders.
Africa’s aspiring young women are often motivated by the desire to give back to their communities. We should empower them to do just that.
If we provide young women with the right support, they will transform their communities, their continent, and the world. They will provide ethical leadership inspired by shared values, passion for community, and a commitment to a brighter future. For those of us who believe in their potential, it is a privilege to accompany them on this journey.
Liberia’s Presidential Legacy
In a region typically associated with coups and authoritarianism, the legacy of Liberia's outgoing president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, stands out. As the country's new leader settles into office, his government should commit to building upon the solid foundation that his predecessor left.
DALLAS – Last month, Liberians witnessed something remarkable: a peaceful transfer of power in their country. After 12 years in office, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf stepped down as president, and former soccer star George Weah was inaugurated. It was the first time since 1944 that one democratically elected leader voluntarily made way for another.
To be sure, one well-managed election does not a stable democracy make. But in a region often associated with coups d’état and authoritarian rule, Liberia’s progress is worthy of celebration, as it can help to lay the foundation for a better, more democratic future. As representative government in Liberia enters a new phase of maturity, it is worth reflecting on how the country got here.
In 2005, when Sirleaf was elected, Liberia was a shambles, following 25 years of civil war and dictatorship. Few predicted that Sirleaf, Africa’s first democratically elected female head of state, could set her country on a better path. But, though her tenure was not without challenges – from the Ebola crisis to endemic corruption and fiscal difficulties – she did just that.
Perhaps Sirleaf’s defining legacy will be the improved rights of Liberian women and girls. Female voters powered Sirleaf to victory; the Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace movement, which helped end Liberia’s second civil war in 2003, was among her strongest political backers. During her tenure, Sirleaf increased the participation of women in all aspects of society and aimed to ensure greater rights and protections for women and girls. Sirleaf, along with another Liberian, Leymah Gbowee, and a Yemeni, Tawakkol Karman, was awarded the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize largely for her work in this field.
The empowerment of women was only one area where Sirleaf made gains. She recognized that peace, strong governance, and growth would be the pillars of her country’s future. So she spearheaded efforts to secure justice for human-rights abuses that had occurred during the civil wars; reignited the economy through debt relief; rebuilt war-torn infrastructure; improved access to clean water and sanitation; and strengthened Liberia’s democratic institutions, including by enacting the country’s first Freedom of Information Act. Much work remains to be done, but this progress should not be underestimated.
As Sirleaf noted in her Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, “rebuilding a nation nearly destroyed by war and plunder” was her greatest political priority. While “there was no roadmap for post-conflict transformation,” she continued, “we knew that we could not let our country slip back into the past.” Her government’s “greatest responsibility,” therefore, was to “keep the peace.”
Sirleaf’s leadership served as a catalyst for a more stable, prosperous, and freer Liberia. In its 2017 “Freedom in the World” report, Freedom House concluded that Liberia has made significant progress in human and political rights. Sirleaf’s commitment to democratic ideals were instrumental in enabling these gains. They helped her country to secure greater international support.
For example, in October 2015, the United States awarded Liberia a $257 million grant for energy and infrastructure initiatives under the Millennium Challenge Corporation. This type of assistance is granted only to countries that show improvements in democratic governance and economic development.
Still, Liberia faces many daunting challenges. Human development indicators, such as life expectancy and per capita income, remain well below the regional average. A sluggish economy and rising inflation are also testing economic stability. Liberia’s new president will need to focus on these and other issues to ensure continued progress.
For starters, Weah should continue Sirleaf’s work of investing in women and girls; after all, improving gender equality is a proven catalyst for enhancing national prosperity. Moreover, Weah and his government would do well to embrace Sirleaf’s statement that “poverty, illiteracy, disease, and inequality do not belong in the twenty-first century.” Empowering all Liberians is the only way to keep the country on its positive trajectory.
Finally, like Sirleaf, Weah’s government must embrace coalition-building and active engagement at the local, regional, and global levels. Cooperation will be essential to strengthen existing partnerships and to open new avenues for development.
Liberia now has in place a democratic system that will support continued progress. But that system cannot be taken for granted. On the contrary, Weah must build on the good work of his predecessor to strengthen and sustain it. By embracing and deepening their country’s democracy, Liberians and their new president can ensure a better future.