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Progress since the UN High-Level Panel

Monday 27 – Wednesday 29 March 2023 | WP3201

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Did we see sufficient momentum?

Since 2016 there been some successes we should reflect on and celebrate, including seeing women’s economic empowerment rocket up the agenda of International Financial Institutions (IFIs) and Multilateral Development Banks (MDBs). Ten years ago, gender was not seen as relevant to their work, and over last five years DFIs and MDBs have moved from looking at gender only through a narrow, risk lens, towards baking gender into impact scores and looking at it more systematically across the investment landscape. This has been done through careful thinking of internal incentives and governance approaches, including incorporating legal levers into agreements and potential incentives of more favourable interest rates and financial returns based on gender inclusion. Now the World Bank Group is developing a Gender Strategy Update 2024 -2030.

We have seen growing evidence that ‘cash +’ social protection interventions work, and they are being increasingly rolled out, and broader inclusion programmes are being implemented across different sectors. Women’s entrepreneurship and businesses are getting more, targeted support and there are a number of impressive corporate procurement strategies promoting women businesses. Financial inclusion efforts, measured as access to bank accounts, have effectively mobilised people and money towards this goal.

Within the private sector, more businesses, especially multinationals, recognise that gender is not a separate issue from good business practice. Inflation has strengthened the business case that we need 100% of the potential workforce empowered to meet their potential. We have seen some positive impacts for women with disabilities from investments in Business and Disability networks to strengthen inclusion across different market sectors. Partnerships with large private sector organisations, such as CISCO and Diageo, have enabled civil society actors to embed disability inclusion into recruitment, hiring and training packages. However, while everything a business does should address environmental, social, and governance issues, typically businesses focus most on the environmental, and least on the social. Further, some of these initiatives may miss the point. They are only effective where people can access the formal sector and very often, women, especially those with disabilities, work in the informal sector if they are in work and are often paid low wages and experience greater job instability. 

Despite the progress that has been made, we are not on track to meet the Sustainable Development Goals 2030 targets on women’s economic empowerment – indeed, only 5% of all SDG goals are on target, and on the current trajectory we won’t reach gender equality until 2108. Too often ‘gender lens investments’ are too small to shift the dial and are used for ‘pinkwashing’ PR campaigns rather than to see business-wide changes in practices.

Progress in women’s human capital has not translated into economic opportunities, assets and services, or voice and agency. Women in low income and fragile and conflict affected countries continue to be disproportionately deprived of basic services or opportunities.

We must compare where we have made progress, and where we have stalled. Have we improved the lot for women in ’sexy’ jobs, without paying enough attention to those in ‘dirty’ jobs? Have we focused too much on the public sphere not on the home? Modern Slavery and Gender Based Violence are addressed more than in the past, but a lot of the issues are much further down the supply chain and responsibility is therefore murky. BBC Panorama recently revealed that women working on plantations producing tea for PG Tips and Lipton are pressured to have sex with their bosses in return for work. This isn’t a unique case – this happens much wider. Addressing these issues head on at the front line takes more than just the private sector.

In 2018, Argentina’s Presidency mainstreamed gender in the G20, but we have since seen the issue falling off the agenda. We now need better incentives and accountability for leaders to actively mainstream and therefore address gender head on.

Economic growth is key to offering opportunities for women’s economic empowerment, but without accompanying social and political efforts growth will not lift all boats. For example, in Pakistan, as families get richer, it has become a cultural status symbol for women to show they don’t need to work any more – so we can’t rely on growth alone.

Impact of the pandemic

UN Women and the International Finance Corporation (IFC) published a report on Private Sector Response and Recovery Measures for Gender Equality amid COVID-19, which showed that gender considerations were not systematically addressed by businesses – gender was often an after thought in their pandemic response. During the pandemic we saw the Gender Pay Gap increase, women lose their jobs at higher rates than men, and women’s care burdens increase. This was in part due to women disproportionately being in unstable jobs, outside of the formal sector.

We know from previous responses to economic downturn, that the economic inclusion of people with disabilities can go backwards as companies experience lay-offs or have to deprioritise inclusions efforts due to competing pressures. Without a concerted effort, women with disabilities will continue to be further left behind as economies recover from the acute impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.

However, there were positive stories of innovative interventions, for example in Bangladesh women were paid digitally by the Government during the pandemic to make up for lost earnings. COVID-19 has made flexible working more popular, which supports the empowerment of women who can’t travel safely or where it is not socially condoned.

The rollback

Alongside the challenges prompted by the pandemic, the context of this conference was the increasing momentum behind systematic attempts to roll back on women’s and girls’ rights. This has included limiting access to sexual and reproductive health and rights, condoning violence against women and girls, and preventing equal access to skills, services, resources and jobs. Andrew Tate’s influence amongst young people in the UK, for example, shows how much this is everybody’s issue. We need to engage men along every stage of this journey as allies and build a coalition to address this together.

The Supreme Court in the US overturning the Row vs. Wade judgement proved that this rollback is not just an issue in lower income countries. Despite this decision being extremely unpopular, it proved the effectiveness of decades long, well-funded, strategic and dedicated campaigns. We need to be able to match this, and need strong leadership, including from businesses, driving the pushback too. We need to reaffirm the fundamental principles of our social contract – the basic and inalienable rights that we layer our work on top of. This is proving difficult in multilateral negotiations, where for example, the principle of equal pay for work of equal value nearly fell from the conclusions of the latest Commission on the Status of Women communique, despite the gender wage gap remaining stubborn internationally. The backlash does not just come from men, it also comes from women. We must ask ourselves why we can’t reach these parts of the population who are pushing the rollback to change mindsets. Perhaps part of the issue is that the traditional approach of defining our ambitions on women’s economic empowerment are not exposing or addressing the tension points and pushback the way we need, and to rectify this we need to be more disruptive – responsive, reactive, and inclusive.


Defining the problem


Tools for increasing gender parity and economic inclusion

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