Indian women work at a garment factory in Ludhiana MONEY SHARMA/AFP/Getty Images

The High Price of Gender Inequality

The huge costs of depriving women and girls of rights and opportunities are borne not only by women and girls themselves, but also by their families, communities, and the entire economy. By investing in women and girls and ending gender inequality, we can eliminate those costs and change the fate of entire countries.

OTTAWA – There is no doubt that ensuring that women and girls enjoy the same rights and opportunities as men and boys is the right thing to do from a moral and ethical standpoint. But it also makes economic sense – $160 trillion worth, to be precise.

A new report released by the World Bank Group, with support from the Canadian government, finds that if women had the same lifetime earnings as men, global wealth would increase by $23,620 per person, on average, in the 141 countries studied, for a total of $160 trillion. That is a lot of money that could be put toward, say, reducing inequality, expanding the ranks of the middle class, and mitigating the factors that drive social and political instability.

Despite this clear opportunity, women still only account for 38% of their countries’ human capital wealth, defined as the value of the future earnings of adult citizens. In poor and lower-middle-income countries, women account for just one-third of such wealth – or even less.

In nearly every country, women and girls face systemic barriers that bar them from full and equal participation in the workforce and the formal economy more broadly. While the specific challenges confronting women vary, the fundamental imperative is the same everywhere: national governments and international actors must put the needs and priorities of women and girls at the center of everything they do.

As the current head of the G7, Canada has committed to ensuring that gender equality and women’s empowerment are integrated into all of the body’s themes, activities, and initiatives. This approach echoes Canada’s Feminist International Assistance Policy, launched last year on the premise that ensuring equal rights and economic opportunities for women and girls is the best way to eradicate poverty.

Reflecting this commitment, participants at the May 31-June 2 meeting of G7 finance and development ministers in Whistler, British Columbia, discussed women’s economic empowerment, including unlocking the potential of adolescent girls. Last week in Charlevoix, Québec, G7 leaders affirmed this focus. To gain access to opportunities and to the resources needed to succeed in the workforce, empowerment must occur throughout a woman’s life, from early childhood to school and the acquisition of in-demand job skills.

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If women are to participate equally in the labor force, we first need to ensure that they have the right tools. That means guaranteeing that all women and girls have access to health care and information, proper nutrition, and safe and effective learning environments at all levels. It also means upholding sexual and reproductive rights and combating sexual and gender-based violence, including harmful practices like child, early, or forced marriage.

But that is not enough to improve women’s employment opportunities and earnings. We must also take collective action to reduce the amount of time women spend in unpaid work; to ensure they have access to and control over productive assets like land, credit, insurance, and savings; and to address the restrictive social norms that relegate women to lower-paid or informal work.

Policies to support women’s entrepreneurship would also have far-reaching benefits. One initiative that is already advancing this goal is the Women Entrepreneurs Finance Initiative (We-Fi), a collaborative partnership housed at the World Bank and supported by 14 governments, including Canada. We-Fi seeks to unlock billions of dollars in financing for women-owned or women-led businesses in developing countries.

The huge costs of depriving women and girls of rights and opportunities are borne not only by women and girls themselves, but also by their families, communities, and the entire economy. By investing in women and girls and ending gender inequality, we can eliminate those costs and change the fate of entire countries.

Moreover, by considering economic empowerment in terms of gender, we may better understand how intersecting issues like ethnicity, age, disability, or language also create barriers to full and equal economic participation. Dismantling these barriers would bring even more far-reaching benefits.

Only by unleashing the full potential of all people to participate fully in the economy can we strengthen growth, eliminate poverty, and respond effectively to mounting global challenges, from conflict to climate change. The G7 meeting presents an important opportunity to take concrete steps toward doing just that.

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