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Closing the gender gaps

Michelle Bachelet, Executive Director of UN Women, explains why the organization focuses on the economic empowerment of women, how macroeconomic policies and policymaking can advance the aim of gender equality, and how the social and labour market obstacles that prevent women from accessing greater economic opportunities can be overcome.


Livelihoods, most often earned through paid employment or entrepreneurial activities, represent the most immediate and important indicator of empowerment and well-being. Like other development partners, UN Women recognizes that efforts to reduce poverty are most critically about empowering people economically, enabling them to earn sufficient livelihoods to lift them above the poverty line.

Women’s experience of poverty is different from that of men, owing to structural inequalities in societies and households that restrict their ability to earn and control income. Empowered economically, they exercise greater control over their lives and can challenge the personal and social power relations that restrict their options and perpetuate their dependency. (The concept of empowerment therefore involves agency, assets, opportunity and capacity, and is both a human rights issue and a development issue.)

Women attending a political rally in Bangalore, India, March 2007 | Photo: John Roberts

Making women’s economic empowerment a reality requires bridging several gender gaps. Globally, the share of women in paid employment outside the agricultural sector has continued to lag behind that of men. In Southern and Western Asia, and in Northern Africa, only 20% of those employed outside agriculture are women. Gender inequality in the labour market is also a concern in sub-Saharan Africa, where only one in three paid jobs outside of agriculture are occupied by women. But even when women represent a large share of waged workers, it does not mean that they have good jobs, or even secure jobs. In fact, women are typically paid less and have less secure employment than men. For example:

  • The International Labour Organization (ILO) estimates that the gender gap in wages averages between 10 and 30%. In Europe, the wage gap for 30 countries ranges from 15-25%, widening with level of education and experience.
  • Globally, more than half of working women (53%) are in vulnerable jobs, as own-account or contributing family workers, where they earn little or nothing, and lack security and benefits; in parts of Asia and Africa, over 80% of working women are in this category.
  • At the other end of the spectrum, only 13 (3%) of the world’s 500 largest corporations had a woman CEO in 2009. In Europe, for which there is more comparable data, the average share of women board chairs at top corporations is also just 3%.
  • In 2009, there were over 200 million women-owned small and medium enterprises worldwide, almost 30% of the total. In the United States alone, there were over eight million women-owned businesses in 2010, employing over 23 million workers, and generating US$2.86 trillion. In the Asia-Pacific, some 35% of all small and medium enterprises are headed by women. Yet mainstream financial institutions have been slow to meet the needs of these entrepreneurs.
  • Many women, especially in rural areas, lack land or other forms of collateral needed to access capital. Yet the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) reports that stark gender disparities in landholdings persist in all regions, not only in ownership but also in plot size and quality.
  • Time use studies across 44 countries show that women spend at least twice as much time as men on unpaid domestic work, and work longer hours juggling paid and unpaid work.

Closing these gender gaps is critical, not only for women but also for economies, societies, and even for business. There is increasing recognition that countries cannot grow and prosper without the equal rights and empowerment of women, one half of their populations.

Indeed, while there is a moral and rights-based argument for addressing gender inequality, at UN Women I am determined to continue to build compelling evidence that gender equality is good for economic prosperity and social well-being.

Michelle Bachelet | UN Photo/Paulo Filgueiras

The World Economic Forum’s Gender Gap Report shows that, across 134 countries, greater gender equality correlates positively with GNP per capita. This makes sense: the World Bank and others have shown that women’s increased labour force participation and earnings generate greater economic growth and have a multiplier effect on society as a whole, particularly in terms of education and health outcomes.

The FAO estimates that equalizing women’s access to land and other agricultural inputs would boost agricultural productivity and reduce the number of people living in hunger by 100m-150m.

In the private sector, a study by management consultants McKinsey & Co. found that companies with three or more women on their boards or in top management outperformed those with no women by 53%.

How macroeconomic policies can advance gender equality

Governments have a key role in redefining national goals and developing macroeconomic frameworks to meet these goals by facilitating a development strategy characterized by more equitable and inclusive growth, and greater economic stability.

Governments need to focus on regulating the markets – labour, credit, and goods and services – in ways that provide decent work and equal opportunities; and on making sure that macroeconomic policy and institutions, including the international financial architecture, aim to ensure that markets are expanding in a stable and sustainable way.

For this, governments need adequate fiscal policy space, enabling them to relax balanced budget requirements and debt ceilings, and target public investment in ways that avoid recession, keep people employed, and sustain growth over the medium and long term, thereby generating increased revenues to pay off debt in future. And equally important, they need to actively use this space in ways that benefit all people, and especially those most vulnerable. The impact of the 2008-09 financial and economic crisis, and the responses of governments worldwide, illustrated what I have said often in the past, that ‘the state cannot be neutral’.

Overcoming obstacles to women’s economic empowerment

UN Women strategies to advance women’s economic empowerment rest on three pillars: a favourable legal and policy enabling environment; expanding access to economic opportunities, including education and training, employment and entrepreneurship; and expanding leadership and participation in the policy decisions that affect them.

Many economies are no longer able to generate sufficient jobs and livelihoods for the growing number of new people entering the labour force every year, making jobs hard to find for both women and men, and especially for young people. Increasingly, those who have lost jobs or are just entering the labour force have to pick up some kind of work in the informal economy.

UN Women advocates for a more consistent and gender-equitable macroeconomic policy environment, one focused on domestic growth with high employment rather than low inflation, targeted public investment rather than cuts to public services and infrastructure. Our aim is to mobilize coordinated support across the UN system – to countries that are prioritizing women’s economic empowerment, helping them to put gender equality at the heart of the decent work agenda, including social protection, and to adopt measures to increase women’s access to, and control over, productive assets.

This requires recognizing and supporting women’s economic potential. Policymakers need to revisit the conventional model of men as primary breadwinners and women as ‘secondary’ earners. With the decline of manufacturing in many developed countries, particularly since the global economic crisis, many men have lost the well-paid jobs that made this true. In the United States, for example, women were primary or co-breadwinners in two-thirds of households in 2010. Elsewhere, women in poor households are increasingly playing this role by migrating for work; in 2009 they comprised at least 50% of migrant worker flows from Africa and Latin America and up to 75 and 80% from parts of South and Southeast Asia. And even where men’s incomes are still higher than women’s, as is still the case in the vast majority of countries, women’s earnings are often the key to keeping households above the poverty line.

The impact of the crisis on women’s employment

However, while, especially in industrialized countries, the impact of the crisis on women’s employment was generally less than it was on men’s employment, in large part due to women’s concentration in public sector jobs, the growth in employment that occurred during the partial recovery in 2010 was lower for women than for men, especially in developing countries. This trend is continuing, as public sector jobs are cut as part of the austerity policies governments are adopting – either as a condition of IMF loans or to pacify the bond markets. And whether it is men or women who are losing paid employment, in all countries it is still women who are taking on more unpaid care work (health, child, or elder care), to make up for loss of public services as well as lower household income.

A gender equitable policy environment also calls for increased provision of a social protection floor, as urged by the ILO’s Social Protection Floor Advisory Group. This would guarantee basic income through social transfers in cash or kind, such as pensions, child benefits, employment guarantees and services for the unemployed and working poor, while providing universal access to affordable essential social services, such as health, education, transport and other services, including child care. Women in particular benefit from such measures, which do much to relieve their burden of unpaid care work.

Social protection should be considered an investment, and not a cost. It delivers significant future paybacks in terms of improved human development outcomes and as a key instrument for unlocking women’s productive capacity. This would enable them to more fully participate in economic life, as workers, employers, consumers and citizens.

Other kinds of public investment that can promote gender equality include labour-saving technology and alternative energy sources for cooking and food preparation; improved water and sanitation facilities to reduce the time women spend collecting water, transportation improvements to reduce the time spent in accessing markets and public services. These have the potential to reduce many hours of work to mere minutes, freeing women to engage in paid labour or entrepreneurial opportunities, including market trading and small businesses.

Panellists share a joke at the UN Women event: “Women’s political participation – making gender equality in politics a reality”, New York, September 2011 | UN Photo/Rick Bajornas

Monitoring the gender impact of public investment and public expenditure of all kinds, through a gender analysis of national and local budgets, has empowered women in countries in all regions to follow the money and to use the findings to advocate for gender-responsive budgeting in all sectors of the economy, not just education and health. UN Women is expanding its work in this area, empowering women to hold governments accountable for commitments to gender equality in other sectors as well, including agriculture and trade.

In the run-up to Rio+20 next year, UN Women is prioritizing women’s economic empowerment through the promotion of gender-responsive green economy strategies, and institutional and governance frameworks, as well as national food security strategies that support women small-scale agricultural workers and other rural women. We will advocate for strengthened linkages between social and economic development and environmental protection for the benefit of gender equality and women’s empowerment.

Working with the private sector

UN Women is collaborating with private sector companies in building their capacity to better support women’s economic empowerment throughput their value chain. This includes providing support to women in their capacity as farmers, producers, workers, vendors, and recyclers, among others. Support takes many forms, and ranges from capacity development, such as skills training, business support, information and knowledge sharing, to facilitating women’s access to finance and networks and the establishing of women-friendly markets.

The large number of women working as own account workers calls for increased attention to strengthening women’s economic literacy and awareness of the exigencies of the market, such as quality and standards, their access to markets, and the support from local authorities and trade support organizations. Existing practices that have proven successful should be scaled up and replicated. One of those is creating multi-service facilities for women entrepreneurs and business owners to overcome the barriers they face.

In line with this, we are also strengthening our partnership with the UN Global Compact to advance private sector commitment to the Women’s Empowerment Principles, encouraging businesses to review recruitment and promotion policies to ensure equal opportunities and to proactively appoint women to boards of directors and top management positions, and to expand business procurement to include women entrepreneurs and women-owned businesses.

In our role as conveners on gender equality, and in the context of our mandate to coordinate the gender equality work of the UN system as a whole, UN Women is focusing on building communities of practice for women’s economic empowerment, bringing experts, leaders, and women’s groups together to share knowledge and good practices, and promoting South-South collaboration.

We are also advocating with governments and the corporate sector to support women’s participation and leadership in economic policymaking, making the case in each country that this benefits economies, businesses, and communities at large.

In all of this, we need to guard against women being exploited rather than empowered. We can do this by making a link between women’s economic empowerment and women’s economic and social rights; and between economic policy and the obligations that governments have to progressively realize economic and social rights. This makes it more likely that participation in markets really does empower women, and in particular, poor women.

In the four years that remain to 2015, the deadline for achieving the Millennium Development Goals, UN Women is determined to work with UN and national partners to put gender equality at the centre of national and global efforts to achieve these goals; a key part of these efforts will be our work to improve livelihoods and well-being among women worldwide.

Michelle Bachelet is the first Under-Secretary-General and Executive Director of UN Women, the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women, which was established on July 2, 2010. From 2006 to 2010, she served as President of Chile. Her accomplishments as President included the 2008 reform of the pension system, which introduced a basic pension for poor homemakers who have never earned a wage outside the home, as well as a stipend per child for all mothers. Another flagship programme of her administration, which has been replicated in other countries in Latin America, was Chile Crece Contigo (Chile Grows with You), which provided support for parents and children from conception through to the age of four. Other major gains for women under her government included the establishment of a large number of free day-care centres and nursery schools, which gave women more freedom to enter the labour market, and a law aimed at bridging the gender wage gap. A long-time champion of women’s rights, she has advocated for gender equality and women’s empowerment throughout her career.

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