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Agents of change


Over the past few decades, women all over the world have pushed the boundaries on educational attainment, economic participation, and even political representation. According to the World Economic Forum’s latest Global Gender Gap Report, Latin America is the region with the largest absolute improvement over the last ten years, followed by Asia and the Pacific region. So in some respect, APEC is leading the way.

And yet, this great progress has not been enough to close the gender gap. Globally, only 55 percent of women have the opportunity to participate in the labour force, compared with 80 percent for men. Women still earn about 50 per cent less than men for the same type of work, and they represent only 20 per cent of parliamentarians across the world.

Clearly, in many places, gender equality remains an elusive goal. The moral case for gender equity is clear. So is the economic case.

As countries around the world struggle to grow their economies more quickly and to reduce inequality, tapping into the huge potential of women can be a game changer. I would even go further to say it is a no brainer.   
I have said repeatedly that world growth has been too low, for too long, and benefiting too few. Some countries are facing transitions, such as adjusting to low oil prices; others are contending with the immutable force of population aging and its impact on the labor force and productivity growth.

Women can be the solution to these problems. For three main reasons. First reason: women’s empowerment can boost growth and reduce inequality . If we want everyone to have a bigger piece of the pie, the pie has to grow.

Our research has shown that increasing women’s labour force participation can deliver significant macroeconomic gains. For example, if Latin American countries raised their female labour participation to the average of the Nordic countries (about 60 per cent), GDP per capita could be up to 10 per cent higher.

Gender inclusion not only supports growth; it can reduce income inequality as well. Again, our research has shown that moving from a situation of perfect gender inequality to perfect gender equality is equivalent to reducing income inequality from the levels prevailing in Venezuela to those in Sweden. So again, tapping into women’s potential will not only make the pie bigger, but more evenly shared as well.

A second reason why women’s empowerment is a game-changer: it can help mitigate the impact of demographics. Many advanced countries, and some emerging economies as well, struggle to raise growth potential in the face of an aging population and shrinking labor force. Women can be part of the solution.

The impact of employing more highly educated women on overall productivity growth could be even more significant – by up to 0.4 percentage points per year in Canada.

So bringing more women into the labour force would expand the pool of talent in the labour market – and boost productivity and growth.

My third reason for this being a game-changer: greater female economic participation supports diversification. Many commodity exporters have been hit hard by the decline in oil prices – which is the case for several countries in APEC, and for Latin America more generally. They are now faced with the difficult task of diversifying their economies to generate new drivers of growth.

Women’s inclusion can help in this case as well. In low-income and developing countries, moving from perfect gender inequality to perfect equality is equivalent to moving from the least diversified economy to one with average export diversification.

How? Closing gender gaps in education expands the pool of human capital that is essential for technology adoption and innovation. Closing gaps in labour participation also increases a country’s ability to create and execute ideas – all necessary for diversification.

The bottom line is this: women are the solution to many of the problems confronting countries around the world today . They can be an economic game changer. So the obvious question is: how do we get more women to participate in the economy?

Narrowing gender gaps requires a comprehensive agenda and a commitment to gender equity by governments, the private sector, and international institutions.

There are several ways in which governments can demonstrate leadership here. A natural place to start is fiscal policy, which we know can be shaped to help achieve gender equality goals. For example, tax reforms that reduce taxes on a family’s secondary earner – which is almost always a woman! – can encourage more women to join the labour force.

This was the case in Canada in the 1990s, which improved incentives for secondary earners by introducing tax cuts and benefits for families with children. Today, Canada’s female labour participation rate is over 80 percent – above the 74 per cent of the United States.

Family support policies also matter. This is particularly important in countries in Latin America that have seen impressive strides in young women’s participation in the labor force. As they reach childbearing ages, policies that preserve their engagement with the labour market will be critical. In Mexico, free or subsidised childcare programs through Estancias Infantiles helped increase the mother’s probability of employment. In Chile, extending the children’s hours in school, through Jornada Escolar Completa, freed up time for mothers to work more hours. 

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