Achieving Women’s Economic Empowerment by 2030: From Global Commitments to Policy Action

Delivered 08- 03- 2017, OECD, Paris France

Happy International Women’s Day! I am delighted to welcome you all to the first OECD’s Development Cluster panel on women’s economic empowerment in developing countries; it’s about women as an engine of Inclusive Growth, a topic very close to my heart.

And we know how badly we need that. Today, our countries are still dealing with the consequences of the worst economic crisis of our lifetime. High unemployment, sluggish growth and low productivity are indeed putting strong pressure on our economies to maximise the use of available talent.

It is high time to ensure gender equality in order to achieve a stronger, more sustainable and inclusive growth – one that benefits all and creates opportunities for all. The Sustainable Development Goals explicitly recognise the universality of gender challenges – and that we cannot achieve “the future we want” if 50% of our population is not empowered.

We need everybody on the deck to boost productivity and spur inclusive growth.

Social and economic returns from addressing the gender gap are high: if labour force participation rates among women reached those of men, we could boost annual global GDP by 12% in OECD countries over the next 20 years.[1] This is true also for developing countries. We all win when we make economies work for women.

The cost of inaction cannot be overlooked either. Last year, the Development Centre estimated that discrimination in laws, attitudes and practices costs the global economy close to USD 12 trillion. More recently, a new study by the Centre found that gender-based discrimination in social institutions impedes well-being beyond its negative impact on economic growth and GDP.

The OECD and Gender Equality

The OECD has been very active on this issue for years, championing gender equality in all areas of its work through the Gender Initiative and Inclusive Growth Agenda. We have also set high standards for our Members – and some partner countries too – through two important Recommendations on Employment, Education and Entrepreneurship, and on Women in Public Life.

Beyond generating benchmarks and policy tools, the OECD’s contribution is to shape the public policy debate. For example, we have been instrumental in the adoption by the G20 of a target of reducing the gender gap in labour participation by 25% by 2025.

We are making great strides in areas such as women on corporate boards or reduced gender gaps in PISA results, and innovative initiatives to reduce the wage gap, such as the new proposal underway in Iceland.

Yet, we still see stagnation in other critical areas, notably labour force participation rates of women. It is for this reason that the SDGs are so timely. They remind us that the challenge to achieve women’s economic empowerment applies to us all, and that we all have a role to play in supporting this agenda by 2030.

Gender equality in developing countries

Of course, our commitment to gender equality goes far beyond our membership. The OECD is proud to have built a comprehensive toolbox of policy solutions, networks and new ideas to advance the gender agenda in both developed and developing countries, namely through the work of the OECD’s Development Cluster, represented here by the Chairs of the Development Assistance Committee (DAC) and the Governing Board of the Development Centre.

For example, the DAC Network on Gender Equality (GENDERNET) has been supporting Member countries make strong commitments and impacts on the ground, channelling aid where it is most needed. Similarly, the Development Centre’s research, data and analysis on the Social Institutions and Gender Index (SIGI) provide policy makers with the know-how to design targeted policies in favour of women and girls.

Women’s economic empowerment in the changing world of work

As we take stock of the achievements made thus far, we also have our eyes set on 2030. We need to step up the use of our tools, expertise and experience to better support our partner countries in promoting women’s economic empowerment in the changing world of work – the main theme of next week’s meeting of the 61st Commission for the Status of Women at the UN Headquarters.

The picture for women’s economic empowerment is sobering. While we know that every additional year of education for a girl opens more doors to empowerment, millions of girls do not have the chance to finish high school. In Uganda, for example, only one in four girls completes high school.

The reasons are many. Poverty is one. Social norms are another. In many countries, adolescent pregnancy and early marriage also prevent girls from finishing high school. Among girls with incomplete secondary education in the Dominican Republic, for example, 50% give marriage or pregnancy as a reason to leave school.

Improving norms around the value of educating girls is critical. In a recent SIGI survey on social norms in Uganda, parents were asked whether they preferred their sons or daughters to go to school – one-third opted for their sons. When asked whether they thought it was appropriate for girls to get married before the age of 18, almost half of them agreed. Analysing the social norm barriers to empowerment is important for targeted and effective policies.

Another critical pillar on the path to women’s economic empowerment is labour force participation. Women continue to face both sticky floors and glass ceilings.

  • Since 1990, the global rate of female labour force participation has decreased by 2 percentage points (from 57% to 55%).
  • Women tend to be concentrated in informal and vulnerable employment. This is the case for up to 60% of female workers in Latin America. In sub-Saharan Africa, where almost 90% of the labour force works in the informal sector, the majority are women.
  • The wage gap between women and men remains stuck at a world average of slightly less than 20%.
  • Despite these challenges, development financing for women’s empowerment is a drop in the ocean. Recent GENDERNET data suggests that only 2% of the aid targeting gender is going to the economic and productive sectors. We need to match our commitments with action if we are to deliver the SDG promise to empower women and girls everywhere by 2030.

We must ensure that the resources that we use are well-targeted and achieve their intended impact and promote a ‘whole-of-society’ approach to gender equality. The OECD is proud to have contributed to cracking, at least, a part of the glass ceiling through our data and analysis. Our evidence-based advocacy and standard setting have contributed:

  • to reforms ensuring that women can enjoy greater legal equality with men in land, productive and financial resources through making reference to the SIGI;
  • to greater donor co-operation on gender equality and women’s empowerment through the GENDERNET; and,
  • to better working standards through newly published guidance aimed at improving business conduct and protecting workers in the garment and footwear sector. It will be important to keep up these efforts the future. That’s why I am pleased to announce today a new OECD initiative to support women’s empowerment in developing countries, tapping into our know-how, data and tools. The Development Centre and the Development Co-operation Directorate, along with the Statistics Directorate, are jointly launching a “Policy Dialogue on Women’s Economic Empowerment”. The Policy Dialogue will be geared to help implement SDG-5 on gender equality and women’s empowerment, with a specific focus on unpaid care work. This perpetuates the inequalities in education and in the labour force. Ironically, whether they are living in an OECD or developing country, women always work more than men when their unpaid and paid work hours are combined.
  • This Policy Dialogue will partner with developing countries as well as with the GENDERNET to design gender-responsive policy solutions and to create an enabling environment for women to enjoy better economic rights.
  • Unpaid care work is a barrier to women’s economic empowerment, due to the unequal share that women must shoulder – their “double work burden”. The time that women spend on unpaid care activities – caring for children, looking after the elderly, fetching water – is time they cannot spend pursuing empowerment opportunities.
  • Through this initiative, the Development Cluster will provide practical guidance to decision makers for better policies and development co-operation towards women’s economic empowerment in developing countries.
  • The way forward: Policy Dialogue on Women’s Economic Empowerment

I am convinced that today’s discussion on “what works” will give new depth and breadth to the policy debates, building on lessons learned from both OECD and non-OECD countries. Together we can reduce the gender gap for good and drive a truly inclusive economic growth.

[1] OECD (2012), Closing the Gender Gap: Act Now, OECD Publishing.