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What Will It Take to Get Women on Equal Economic Footing With Men?

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, Executive Director of the UN Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (UN Women)
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, Executive Director of the UN Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (UN Women), briefs journalists on the map, “Women in Politics: 2017”, launched by UN Women and the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU). Addressing reporters with her was Martin Chungong, Secretary General of IPU. UN photo/Mark Garten

If women played an identical role to men in the labor market, they would add 28 trillion dollars to the global economy by 2025. Poverty rates would fall, more children would be healthier and in school, and the world would be more politically stable. However, at the current rate of progress on gender equality, it would take us over 70 years to get there according to the International Labor Organization.

Today, only about 50 percent of women work compared to nearly 80 percent of men. They earn 77 cents on the dollar, are more likely to do lower-paid, lower-skill work, have less job security and lower pensions. Few women are in decision-making roles, holding only 23 percent of seats in parliament and making up only 4 percent of Fortune 500 companies CEOs, for example. And, while they grow half the world’s food, they own only 2 percent of agricultural land because they lack the prerequisite access to credit and education. This is not only bad for women and girls, but also for men and boys who stand to benefit from the inclusive economic growth that overcoming these inequalities would generate.

So, as innovation and globalization change the way we work, what will it take to get women on equal economic footing with men? That was the question put before more than 4,000 government and civil society leaders from around the world who convened in New York, as they do for two weeks every March for the UN Commission on the Status of Women (CSW)*.

Overcoming Structural Barriers to Equality

Laws that discriminate against women and girls not only hold them back economically, but also entrench and perpetuate gender inequality. Nonetheless, 90 percent of countries still have at least one discriminatory law on the books while in 18 countries it remains legal for husbands to prevent their wives from working. Moreover, discriminatory customs like marrying off daughters when they are still children (15 million girls per year) or subjecting them to genital mutilation (130 million women worldwide) can negatively impact their health and well-being for a lifetime. Globally, physical and/or sexual violence continues to affect 1 in 3 women, even in Western democracies. And if a daughter is born into a family that can only afford to send one child to school, chances are her brother will get an education while she stays home. Social acceptance of these harmful gendered practices bar many girls from living up to their full potential — economic and otherwise.

“Discrimination against women sounds a loud alarm that our common values are under threat,” UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres told CSW delegates during his opening address.

Meanwhile, inadequate maternal healthcare and policies that affect families leave too many women at risk of dying in childbirth (830 women per day) and without access to contraceptives (225 million) or affordable child care. They, not their husbands, bear the lion’s share of the responsibility for raising the children at the expense of earning their own money or pursuing professional aspirations. On average, women do more than two and a half times more of the unpaid household and care work than men, while in many regions they shoulder six or more times the burden.

Yet in spite of these and other obstacles, women are not giving up. One memorable CSW moment came at 4:10 in the afternoon of March 15, when female CSW delegates stopped working with 23 percent of the work day left in protest of the 23 percent gender pay gap. In the General Assembly hall they picked up magazines and began relaxing over tea and coffee served in cups bearing the slogan “EQUAL PAY NOW #CSW61.” And in the same vein, UN Women launched, #StopTheRobbery, a social media campaign that blacks out 23 percent of characters in Tweets.

Symbolic gestures aside, women on every continent are driving progress by carving out economic and political decision-making roles for themselves.

Some are taking advantage of new opportunities for decent work afforded by technological advancements and growth in fields like renewable energy and climate-resilient agriculture. So far, women account for 20–25 percent of the workforce in those sectors, but closing the gender gap in internet use (which stands at 31 percent in the least developed countries and 12 percent globally) would open more such opportunities to them.

Others are bucking the trend of stagnant progress on women’s equal political participation, like the female ministers who are no longer content only to lead on “soft” issues that pertain to Family/ Children/ Youth/ Elderly/ Disabled. For the first time, the Environment/ Natural Resources/ Energy portfolio is the most commonly held portfolio by women ministers according to Martin Chungong, Secrety-General of the International Parliamentarian Union, who called the development “good news” at a recent press conference. Women’s political empowerment matters with respect to their economic empowerment because, as Denmark’s Minister for Equality Karen Ellemann put it to AWT, “they go hand in hand.”

Even women who have been chased from home by violent conflict are stepping into new head-of-household roles as they try to rebuild their lives in exile despite the targeted violence and exploitation many face as widows. For instance, in Jordan, where refugee women receive only 20 percent of payments issued through the cash-for-work program and only 40 percent of them work at all compared to 60 percent of the men, they are finding innovative ways to survive. Speaking at a CSW event, Mervat Tallaway Director of the Arab Women Organization illustrated their resilience with an anecdote about a refugee woman who capitalizes on her access to a car by charging friends and family for chauffeuring all their kids to and from school.

But women shouldn’t have to innovate or be so resilient just to carve out the same economic opportunities for themselves that men take for granted.

The Nordic Role Models

At the highest end of the equality spectrum, the Nordic countries are exploring ways to close what remains of the gender gaps in pay and unpaid care work, which are lower than anywhere else. With generous parental leave, universal healthcare, affordable high-quality child care, and other exemplary policies already in place, the debates there center on how to enforce existing equal pay for equal work laws instead of whether or not to enact them. No wonder Norway, Denmark, and Iceland are the three happiest countries in the world (Finland and Sweden also rank in the top 10, while the US is number 14).

Swedish Minister for Children, The Elderly and Gender Equality, Åsa Regnér
Swedish Minister for Children, The Elderly and Gender Equality, Åsa Regnér
Photo by Kristian Pohl/Regeringskansliet

The Swedish Minister for Children, The Elderly and Gender Equality, Åsa Regnér credits parental insurance and pensions with helping to equalize the burden of unpaid care work between men and women.”The overall aim is to provide both parents with equal compensation for the loss of earned income when they are looking after a child, thereby making it easier to combine family and working life,” she explains to AWT. Her country, led by the world’s first self-proclaimed feminist government, also “takes a holistic approach” to tackling the large discrepancy between women’s and men’s pension amounts.

Still, she notes they have not fully solved the problem of gender inequality in the workplace. For instance, the proportion of women in leadership roles has dropped and the labor market continues to be segregated along gender lines, with few men and women working in professions stereotypically associated with the opposite gender (male nurses and female engineers, for example). Moreover, despite making it possible for both parents to stay home with newborns without putting their careers at risk, women still stay at home longer than men and then work fewer hours while raising children, which in turn results in a life-long income pay gap.

Minster Ellemann of Denmark made similar points about having farther to go on the road to equality. She blames gender stereotypes for “preventing women and men from truly realizing their equal opportunities” and believes “political and popular buy-in is key” to dispelling them. She also stressed the importance of policy-makers keeping up with emerging issues, by “redefining gender policies [and by focusing on new] areas such as girls and IT programming, violence against men [as well as women], revenge porn and digital sexual harassment.”

New legislation is also central to Iceland achieving its goal of closing the gender wage gap by 2022, according to its Minister of Minister of Social Affairs and Equality, Thorsteinn Víglundsson. He announced new laws that will require large companies and institutions to have their equal pay systems certified because “Iceland knows that gender equality is the basis of our success and economic prosperity.”

Reconciling The Dissonance

Never before has the prospect of full equality been so tangible for women, but at the same time the gains they have successfully fought for remain extremely fragile and at risk of reversal. The atmosphere of hatred and fear that permeates much of the world today leaves women vulnerable to new or resurgent threats.

“Globally, women are suffering new assaults on their safety and dignity,” Secretary-General Guterres remarked at CSW. He continued, “Extremists have built their ideologies around the subjugation of women and girls and the denial of their rights. Sexual violence, forced marriage, human trafficking and virtual enslavement—these are weapons of physical and psychological warfare in today’s world. Some governments are enacting laws that curtail women’s freedoms. Others are rolling back legal protections against domestic violence.”

Perhaps in recognition of this somber reality, the atmosphere at CSW did not seem as celebratory as it has in past years. It was hampered in part by the absence of delegations from the Muslim majority countries whose citizens are barred from entering the United States and others from around the world who boycotted CSW out of solidarity with them. The minimal participation of UN Ambassador Nikki Haley was also conspicuous in contrast to the US mission’s more prominent role under the leadership of her two predecessors, Samantha Power and Susan Rice (read more about that here).

However, these and other setbacks on the road to gender equality have not discouraged its champions from continuing their fight for women’s economic empowerment. If anything, the worrisome developments outlined by the Secretary-General—coupled with the threats posed by rising right-wing populism in the United States and Europe—seem to leave them extra determined to succeed.