Structural barriers impede women’s economic advancement

Skills transfer: For gender parity to be advanced in especially the workplace, it is key that considerable effort is made in the direction of capacity building and skills training for women. Picture: iStock

Yayi Bayam Diouf became the first woman to fish in her small rural fishing village in Senegal despite initially being told by the men in her community that the fish wouldn’t take bait from a menstruating woman.

When she started practicing law, Ann Green, CEO of ANZ Lao, was asked to make coffee or pick up dry cleaning (by men and women), because she was a young woman. The difficulties faced by Yayi and Ann in entering the labour force and at the workplace are not only unique to them, but is the reality for many women across the globe.

These difficulties represent violations of women’s human rights to work and their rights at work with gender-discriminatory laws still in existence in 155 countries, resulting in the gender wage gap of 23% globally.

Also, women represent 75% of informal employment, in low-paid and undervalued jobs that are usually unprotected by labour laws and lack social protection.

Only half of women participate in the labour force compared to three quarters of men and in most developing countries it is as low as 25%. Women spend 2.5 times more time and effort than men on unpaid care work and household responsibilities. All of this results in women taking home one tenth of the global income, while accounting for two thirds of global working hours.

These inequalities have immediate and long-term negative impacts on women who have a lower lifetime income, have saved less and yet face higher overall retirement and healthcare costs due to a longer life expectancy.

Women’s economic empowerment is about transforming the world of work, which is still patriarchal and treats the leadership of women as tokenism. Despite recognising progress, structural barriers continue to hinder progress towards women’s economic empowerment globally.

Women in all professions face what we call sticky floors, glass ceilings and glass walls. At the current pace, it may take 170 years to achieve economic equality among men and women – according to estimates from the World Economic Forum’s latest Gender Gap Report. This is simply unacceptable.

To accelerate the move to a planet 50/50 in women’s economic empowerment will require a transformation of both the public and private sector environments and world of work they create for women.

It will mean adopting laws, policies and special measures by governments. It means their actively regulating and providing incentives to companies and enterprises to become gender equal employers. The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, together with the Addis Ababa Action Agenda (on financing for development), position gender equality and the empowerment of women as critical and essential drivers for sustainable development.

There is a Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) on gender equality (Goal 5) which seeks to “Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls” and sets out global targets to address many of the remaining obstacles to gender inequality.

The framework recognises women’s economic empowerment as essential enabler and beneficiary of gender equality and sustainable development and a means of implementation of all the six targets of SDG 5, including ending all forms of discrimination against all women and girls; ending all forms of violence and harmful practices like child marriage: recognising and valuing unpaid care and domestic work through the provision of public services, infrastructure and social protection policies.

This includes ensuring women’s full and effective participation and equal opportunities for leadership at all levels of decision-making in political, economic and public life and ensuring universal access to sexual and reproductive health and rights.

Achieving these targets would have a multiplier effect across all other development areas, including ensuring equal access to decent work and full and productive employment (SDG 8), ending poverty (SDG-1), food security (SDG-2), universal health (SDG-3), quality education (SDG-4) and reducing inequalities (SDG-10).

The upcoming 61st session of the Commission on the Status of Women will consider “Women’s Economic Empowerment in The Changing World of Work”, as its priority theme providing the international community the opportunity to define practical recommendations to overcome the structural barriers to gender equality, gender-based discrimination and violence against women at work.

We live in a world where change is happening constantly, presenting new challenges and opportunities to the realisation of women’s economic empowerment.

The innovations in digital and communication technologies are also increasing rapidly. Emerging areas, such as the green economy offer new opportunities for decent work for women.

Also, in the context of new digital and information technologies, it is estimated that women will lose five jobs for every job gained compared with men losing three jobs for every job gained in the fourth industrial revolution. Successful harnessing of technological innovations is an imperative as is women’s education and capability building.

Achievement of women’s economic empowerment, as well its related benefits, requires transformative and structural change.

In his report on the priority theme of the 61st session, the secretary-general of the UN identifies are four concrete action areas in achieving women’s economic empowerment in the changing world of work, including strengthening normative and legal frameworks for full employment and decent work for all women at all levels; implementing economic and social policies for women’s economic empowerment; addressing the growing informality of work and mobility of women workers and technology driven changes and strengthening private sector role in women’s economic empowerment.

Progress must be provided from both the demand and supply sides of the labour market. From the demand side, the enhancement of capacity building and the creation of a value chain of education skills and training for women is key to accelerating change.

This will in turn lead to decent work opportunities as well as productive employment for women.

From the supply side, there must be a creation of an enabling environment for women to be recruited, retained and promoted in the workplace, including through promoting policies to manage trade and financial globalisation.

Lakshmi Puri

Lakshmi Puri is assistant secretary-general of the UN and deputy executive director of UN Women