Gender Balance: Investing in Gender Equality is Key to a Sustainable Society

Editor’s Note: This post is part of the on-going collaboration between S&S and GreenBuzz to promote increased dialogue between sustainability practitioners, academic experts, and the general public. GreenBuzz chapters in different cities coordinate on-the-ground events for a word-of-mouth driven community of professionals engaged in sustainability, bringing sustainability leaders together to connect with each other and to discuss specific sustainability topics. S&S will publish excerpts, summaries, and discussions generated by these events in order to facilitate on-going debate and make the information presented at these events available to a world-wide audience.

GreenBuzz and the international investment company RobecoSAM recently organized an event in Zurich with three guest speakers to discuss how gender equality matters to businesses and sustainability. Two strong themes emerged: (1) that gender equality could only be achieved by empowering women through education with integration into the workforce and (2) the gender issues and challenges in developing countries and the West differ. Closing the gender gap in each place requires different strategies.

The status and human rights of women have improved in the last few decades, especially in the Western world. Despite these improvements the gender gap still exists. While the gender gap regarding health and education has been decreasing worldwide over the last decades and stands at 96 percent and 95 percent, respectively, the gaps in economic and political participation are still substantial, at 59 percent and 23 percent.

Although women represent roughly one half of the global population, they account for only 40 percent of the global labour force and “remain far from equal in many countries and in many aspects of life”, according to the International Center for Research on Women (ICRW).

Eradicating gender inequality in economic participation is vital, because improving gender equality creates immediate benefits. For example, although women represent roughly one half of the global population, they account for only 40 percent of the global labour force. Increasing the share of women in the workforce increases household incomes. In the U.S., median family income would be almost 30% lower without female labor force participation.

The gap is mainly due to the widespread illiteracy among women and girls barring them from getting good jobs and participating in the labour market. Despite falling global illiteracy rates, almost two-thirds of the 781 million illiterate adults are women. Girls, particularly in developing countries, either get no education or drop out of school after just a few years, because of low social acceptance, parents who invest in their sons’ rather than their daughters’ education, and the expectation that girls take on caregiving duties and household responsibilities. Women undertake 70 percent of the world’s total unpaid care, like childcare, caring for the elderly, cooking and cleaning

One crucial step for closing the gap then is fostering an interest in education among girls from an early age and giving them access to education. As Ban Ki-moon aptly put it:  “Literate women are more likely to send their children, especially their girls, to school. By acquiring literacy, women become more economically self-reliant and more actively engaged in their country’s social, political and cultural life.”

Even in countries where women enjoy nearly equal rights, the Nordic counties for example, there is still a gender gap in salaries. The gender pay gap has narrowed in 45 out of 50 countries, but women still earn only about 77 percent of what men do. The reasons for this gap are complicated but two important ones are the lack of women in top positions at major companies and the ‘penalties’ for a non-traditional career path. To the first point, although women hold 21 CEO positions at the world’s largest companies, they still represent less than five percent of CEOs at S&P 500 companies.

To the second, while working part-time has become widely accepted in the Western world, it can come at the cost of career advancement. In Switzerland, for instance, about 70 percent of women opt for part-time because of childcare responsibilities; these numbers do not look very different in other western countries. There is “a severe penalty for working part-time”, though, as part-time workers often get trapped and building a meaningful career is more difficult. If women are forced to choose between childcare and a career path that leads to highly paid management positions it will be difficult to close the pay gap.

Girls and women make up half of the world’s population and yet do not have the same rights as men in many parts of the world, especially in developing countries. They are expected to support and make their families and communities work, often by essential unpaid contributions like childcare or looking after sick relatives.

In countries where female literacy rates still lag men’s empowering the female population by giving them access to education is critical to closing gender gaps. In the long run giving women access to the formal economy and political process is beneficial not only to themselves but to society as a whole. Education for all appears to be key and a good starting point to overcome those stumbling blocks and challenges to gender equality.

In the Western world on the other hand where girls and women have access to education and the job market, the complicated relationship between part-time work, flexibility and career advancement opportunities for women pose major hurdles to gender equality. The policy solutions to these problems are not clear but the need for reform seems clear. When women entered the workforce households became 30% richer – how much will society gain from making them equal participants in that workforce?

 

Image courtesy of Flickr. Originally published by S&S on October 27, 2016.

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