It’s over, apparently. The gender gap, that is. At least that was the conclusion drawn by those pointing to the arrival of a female PM, the continuing presence of German Chancellor Angela Merkel (who, despite her CDU party’s recent drubbing in regional elections, is still likely to win a fourth term next year) and the increasing likelihood that Hillary Clinton is the next US president.
These developments are welcome signals that women too have the chance to take on some of the world’s most powerful roles. But their presence alone is far from a game-changer, no more marking an end to gender inequality than the election of President Obama meant an end to racial inequality. On the contrary, it could mean higher expectations of progress.
The rise of a crop of high-profile female political and business leaders should not be allowed to provide a pretext for ignoring the persistent gap in women’s economic attainment. This is true not only in the developing world, where educational attainment is lagging, but in advanced economies. As many studies have pointed out, maternity issues do not come close to explaining this gap.
Neither does “culture” — a recent report noted that for women in 17 Middle-Eastern and African countries more than 90 per cent felt that having a good job is either “essential” or “very important”. And, of course, much of women’s work is unpaid, with Gallup’s World Poll highlighting that 28 per cent of women spent three to five hours a day on unpaid care work, compared to six per cent of men.
In a time of constrained global growth, maintaining barriers to entry for women into the labour force is becoming expensive, both for countries and employers. In a Citi GPS report I co-authored, Women and the Economy: Global Growth Generators, we highlighted that closing the gap in female labour force participation could add 12 per cent to OECD countries’ GDP; even a 50 per cent reduction would see a five per cent GDP bounce over 15 years.
Politicians seem to be seeing the light. Even Donald Trump has proposed making childcare tax deductible. The UK under the Tories has been a leader in promoting such policies as the gender pay transparency initiative.
A mix of fresh policy levers and renewed urgency is required, and in some cases quotas may be needed. On September 22 the UN’s first high-level panel on women’s economic empowerment, which I am proud to participate in alongside Education Secretary Justine Greening, IMF chief Christine Lagarde and others, launched its first report at the UN General Assembly.
The panel intends to turbocharge plans to meet targets across seven of the 2030 UN Sustainable Development Goals. Maintaining barriers to female labour force participation serves few and costs a great deal. But in an era when President Obama has been interviewed in Glamour magazine saying “This is what a feminist looks like” and heart-throb Canadian President Justin Trudeau explained the presence of his 50 per cent female cabinet with the slapdown “because it’s 2016”, perhaps the fact that it seems increasingly uncool for men to be “old-school” when it comes to support for economic prospects for women suggests attitudes will change.
A version of this piece originally appeared in The Evening Standard