by Michelle Bachelet
United Nations Under-Secretary-General and Executive Director of UN Women
The global economic crisis, with high levels of unemployment, especially among youth, and rising inequality, with large wage gaps between high- and low-skilled workers, has added urgency to the need for better skills. This is especially important for women, who already face barriers to participating fully in the economy. Investing in their skills from early childhood, through compulsory education, and throughout their working life can transform women’s lives and drive economies. Equally important are better policies to promote equal rights and opportunities and women’s full participation in public life.
Investment in skills is particularly important during these tough economic times. Skilled workers play a crucial role in generating future jobs and economic growth. Women’s entry into the labour market has been an important driver of European economic growth in the past decade. Research finds that closing the female-male employment gap would have positive economic implications for developed economies, boosting US GDP by as much as 9% and euro area GDP by as much as 13%. A 2011 report by the International Labor Organization and the Asia Development Bank revealed that a gender equality gap in employment rates for women cost Asia USD 47 billion annually – 45% of women remained outside the workplace compared to 19% of men.
It is time to remove the barriers to women’s full participation in the economy. The OECD has found that the main reason 25-39-year-old women cite for choosing to work part-time is their care responsibilities. The same reason is given when inactive women are asked why they don’t participate in the labour market at all. Globally, women are still responsible for 60% to 80% of household chores and childcare. Worldwide, women account for 58% of unpaid work.
Although 552 million women joined the global labor force between 1980 and 2008, and research shows that reducing the gender employment gap improves economic growth, millions of women remain marginalised from the formal economy. In Egypt, Jordan, Libya, Morocco and Tunisia, only about one-quarter of adult women were in the labour force in 2010, compared with 70% to 80% participation rates among adult men.
An agenda for equality is needed that includes better skills and better policies so that women can exercise their economic, social, cultural and civil rights and economies can be healthier and more inclusive. Policies are urgently needed to help women and men reconcile work and family responsibilities, through the provision of childcare and maternity and paternity leave, and flexible working hours. Tax and pension systems also need to be revisited and revised to encourage equality.
When it comes to promoting women’s economic empowerment, we are not starting from scratch. There are many important initiatives taking place in all regions, including in low- and middle-income countries, to ensure economic justice and security for women. These include flexible childcare that enables women to participate in the labour force, fair pensions to ensure that older women do not live in poverty, cash transfers to enable families to send their girls to school, and training that gives women skills in entrepreneurship and new technologies. Our challenge is to make the equality agenda universal. In 2013, UN Women will use our flagship report, Progress of the World’s Women, to present evidence on the policies that work, to enable countries to learn from one another and drive the change we want to see.
OECD Work on Gender via www.oecd.org/gender