How to Accelerate Progress Toward Gender Equality

November 25, 2015

Co-authors of the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Index discuss what we can and can’t predict about the future of gender parity, and how we can quicken the rate of progress now.

The World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report 2015—released in November—made headlines around the world with its findings on what movement on economic, education, health-based and political indicators in the last ten years means for the future of gender parity.

We spoke with two of the report’s co-authors, Laura Tyson, professor at the Haas School of Business at the University of California, Berkeley, and Saadia Zahidi, head of Employment and Gender Initiatives at the World Economic Forum.

Q: The big headline from the report has been that it will take 118 years to reach gender parity. Can we take that at face value or is there more complexity to it?

Zahidi: There’s definitely a lot more complexity. It’s an aggregate of the pace of change for all of the 109 countries for which we have ten years of data. The 118 years come from projecting that out into the future and saying, “At this rate of change, how long will it be before we reach parity?” There are so many factors that will end up determining things in the years to come.


Q: Does that also mean there may be trends in motion right now whose influence on gender parity we aren’t even seeing yet?

Tyson: I think one area where that might be true, at least I hope it’s true, is one of the highlights of the report this year — the large number of countries that have now achieved gender parity in education. Right now, there’s a growing mismatch between the development of talent at the secondary and university level and women’s leadership roles in both the economy and in politics. Now maybe that changes over time. Maybe progress in gender parity in education, especially university-level education, feeds a larger pipeline of female talent and that fosters faster progress toward gender parity in the economy.

Zahidi:  We haven’t yet seen the full impact of women’s reversal of the gender gap in education. We haven’t yet seen the full impact of businesses advocating for the benefits of a diverse workforce, which is relatively recent. So there’s definitely some hope for an accelerated pace of change. At the same time, there are also a number of disruptions that are coming up, whether that’s the automation and the digitization of the economy and what that is going to do to both traditional female and male dominated roles and how that will end up impacting the gender gap. Now, will that lead to some kind of wage ghetto because one is so much more well-paid than the other? That remains to be seen. So, there are definitely a lot of changes to come that may change the pace of change for good or for bad.

Q: Given that we’re talking about over a hundred countries with vastly differing economic, cultural and political trajectories, can we even speak of any policy measures that are applicable across regions to advance gender parity?

Tyson: I do think we have some. The same set of basic policy measures that seem to have a demonstrated effect on improving gender parity arise across the world. The first area would be just the legal rights of women. You need to outlaw discrimination. You need to make it illegal to discriminate on the basis of gender. You need to review the property rights in your country to make sure there are not gender biases in property rights.

Second, you need to think about making sure that educational access, in fact, is at parity. Not every country has done this, and those that have not tend to be among the poorer countries where oftentimes girls leave school under pressure from family when they’re only 11-12 years old.

Third, we need to think about financial incentives or, for that matter, disincentives. We know that countries can revise their tax policy, so that there is not a disincentive for spouses to be involved in the workforce. We know that women bear the disproportionate share of unpaid care around the world, and that impacts their engagement in the economy very significantly. So, that makes policy measures to take away some of the conflicting demands of work and family, like parental leave or child care assistance or early childhood education, very important tools.

Q: From a purely tactical perspective, is there any way to make the argument for gender parity in a different way to accelerate progress?

Tyson: To accelerate progress it is important to emphasize that policies that promote gender parity promote inclusive economic growth. For example, family leave policies and early childhood education policies promote gender parity by helping women balance the demands of child care and work, and such  policies are also investments in future talent and future economic growth.  Studies from around the world show a large positive return from investing in early childhood education—it impacts how well children do in primary and secondary education, their drop-out rates and the likelihood that they will go onto university.

Focusing on policies and practices that foster gender parity in health, education, the economy and politics leads to faster more inclusive growth.  That is a powerful argument with resonance to business and political leaders and that argument increases the likelihood of meaningful changes in business practices and government policies that will accelerate progress toward greater gender parity.


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