Betting on women's leadership for a better post-COVID-19 worldMonday, March 08, 2021
THIS year, International Women's Day will shine the spotlight on women's leadership and the need for gender equality in a post-COVID-19 world. Surely, the pace of reform is too slow, and we know that the novel coronavirus pandemic is threatening to push us back into the kitchen, and even further away from the boardroom.
Even before the pandemic, women's leadership statistics around the world were, at best, disappointing. Despite being 25 years out from the adoption of the Beijing Platform for Action, women still account for only 25 per cent of the world's parliamentarians, and less than seven per cent of the world's heads of State. When it comes to access to economic decision-making and financial power — the stuff that really counts — the sad reality is that women comprise a minuscule number of the top brass in the corporate world, as only seven per cent of the fortune 500 CEOs are women.
Women's earning potential remains well below that of their male colleagues, with a gender pay gap averaging 20 per cent. Juxtapose this against women's education: In nearly all regions, women make up a higher level of tertiary graduates and, despite this trend, continue to lag behind men when it comes to leadership in nearly all professions.
Now COVID-19 threatens to reverse years of progress towards gender equality, and women's leadership in particular. Women, who carried a disproportionate share of unpaid care work in the home (estimated at three times as much as men), are now also having to manage household hygiene and homeschool their kids, all while also sustaining their livelihoods. This, in a context in which they account for more than 54 per cent of overall job losses, while accounting for only 39 per cent of formal global employment.
And, everywhere in the world more and more women experience violence in their homes, on the street, and in the workplace. The novel coronavirus pandemic has only intensified the shadow pandemic of violence against women in every region and cultural context. It is estimated there are at least 15 million cases of gender-based violence (GBV) for every three months of lockdown. Staying safe while feeding and educating their families in the wake of the pandemic is no small challenge.
While right now women don't have the time to put towards professional or political advancement, I would argue that betting on women's leadership is the best way for us to leapfrog our nations out of this pandemic and towards a path for a better tomorrow. And this requires concrete policies and action to get us there.
Pre-pandemic, the World Economic Forum argued that closing the gender gap in economic participation by 25 per cent by 2025 could increase the global gross domestic product (GDP) by U$5.3 trillion. I imagine now this figure is likely greater. We now know that companies with more gender-balanced boards and stronger female leadership, on average, report higher returns on equity, sales, and invested capital. And, look no further than New Zealand, Taiwan, Germany, Norway, and some of the small-island states led by women, such as Barbados and Aruba, to see how adept women political leaders have been at managing through crises. In fact, a recent Harvard Business Review showed that confirmed deaths from COVID-19 in the first half of 2020 were six times lower in countries led by women.
The world is also counting on a group of outstanding women to steer our global economic recovery, with Janet Yellen heading the US Treasury; Kristalina Georgieva, managing director of the International Monetary Fund (IMF); Christine Lagarde, president of the European Central Bank; and Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala recently appointed to lead the World Trade Organization (WTO).
Imagine how much better off we would be if we had equal participation of women in all leadership positions, and across all sectors, and an equal sharing of the burden of care in the household. This would mean more women in non-traditional sectors, such as policing, engineering; in executive management; in the public service and private companies; and as business owners and investors — more women in decision-making effecting choices over health, education, wealth, social protection, foreign and defence policy.
Realising this dream will require a 'whole of society' approach. It will require rapid changes in discriminatory laws and practices that deny women basic equal rights covering the gamut from decisions concerning their own body to those effecting their economic rights. It would also mean policies that reduce the care burden on women, eliminate discrimination in fiscal policy, and a radical increase in investments to ensure services enable women realise the right to feel safe in their home, on public transport, in public spaces, and in the workplace.
Here in Latin America and the Caribbean, where 39 per cent of households are headed by a woman, and 26 per cent are single-parent households headed by women, policies that enable women to safely re-enter the workforce are also the vital antidotes to preventing families from sliding back into poverty while safeguarding economic recovery.
The Beijing Platform for Action continues to provide the blueprint for what needs to be done. Twenty-five years later, as the world contemplates its way out of the dire situation COVID-19 has put us in, we should finally provide the resources to close gender gaps. Let's look no further than to the women who have shown incredible resilience and skill in managing households while standing at the front line of the pandemic. Let's hope they aren't left behind when some level of normality returns and our economies start roaring.
Randi Davis is the United Nations Development Programme's resident representative for Trinidad and Tobago, Curacao, Aruba, and Sint Maarten. She was previously the director of UNDP's Global Work on Gender Equality. Send comments to the Jamaica Observer or @RandiDavisUNDP.
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