Gender Inequality

A novel way of getting more women into work

Women work at the front desk of the Centum Investment Company Limited in Nairobi, Kenya November 11, 2015. A consortium including Centum will start building a 1,000 megawatt coal-fired power plant in Kenya next month, the investment firm said on Wednesday as it reported a 75 percent jump in first-half pretax profit. Centum is the biggest investment company on the Nairobi bourse with interests in real estate projects, listed firms, private equity and electricity generating plants, among others

Image: REUTERS/Siegfried Modola

Saadia Zahidi
Managing Director, World Economic Forum
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Gender Inequality

There is an emerging new field of theory and practice on gender equality as new efforts are put in place by businesses, governments, international organizations, behavioural economists and others to close gender gaps. Most efforts are too new to provide a conclusive picture on how effective they are but the very fact that they are occurring – and growing in frequency – demonstrates how much momentum there now is for addressing gender equality.

There is mounting recognition that there is both a moral and economic imperative for closing the workforce gender gap. While nearly 95% of the education gender gap has been closed globally, women make up only two-thirds of the labour force and hold only a third of senior roles. Within most countries, this pattern is replicated, sometimes in extreme forms. Inside most companies and organizations there is relatively high participation at entry level, tapering off to slim participation of women in top leadership roles. This pattern then aggregates across entire industries and sectors, even in those sectors that tend to be more dominated by women.

There is a rich field of policy ideas and actions – from board quotas to paternity leave to childcare – and an equally rich field of individual company efforts – from mentorship programmes to unconscious bias training to gender-blind recruitment. Yet there is surprisingly little public-private dialogue and collaboration to understand barriers, set targets and implement collective solutions.

In 2012, the World Economic Forum embarked on a journey with leaders from Mexico, Turkey and Japan to close economic gender gaps through public private collaboration, adding the Republic of Korea in 2014. Each community set a target to close the economic gender gap by 10% relative to its starting point and based on the methodology of the Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report.

Building on existing practical and analytical tools, the overall objective of the Gender Parity Task Forces was to serve as a neutral platform for awareness, dialogue and action. Initiatives addressed a range of employment issues, such as hiring, retention and promotion, wage inequality, workplace culture, national and corporate policies around parental leave, and the integration of women-owned businesses along corporate value chains.

While the task forces were by no means the only efforts underway in each of the countries, they were unique in providing a neutral space to all parties, co-leadership by business and government, and the economic rationale applied to accelerating change. Three years on, Turkey has closed 10.8% of its economic gender gap, Japan has closed 6.2%, Mexico has closed 1.3% and Korea – with one year still remaining – has closed 9% of the gap. There have been both successes and challenges along the way. Six elements have been crucial to “making or breaking” the collaboration:

1. It is important that the collaboration is based on a strong economic case for gender parity from the start to maximize the engagement of businesses. Despite the prevalence of this rationale in international policy circles, for many businesses this was a message that needed to be understood more profoundly in a local context and among peers.

2. The task force objectives should be defined and shared publicly to create a shared sense of mission. A critical element of the successful pilots was the early identification of common objectives and a public commitment to these objectives by all parties. In cases where this did not occur, objectives often shifted and were prone to leadership changes.

3. The objectives should be measurable and progress should be systematically tracked. While all efforts in these public-private collaborations were voluntary rather than mandated by the government or another party, the most successful results came from those task forces that agreed to specific commitments and track progress against these.

4. The task force should be structured to withstand political and business cycles, with both leadership and expert level commitment. In nearly all cases there was significant political change leading to ministerial level leadership changes or changes in business leadership that led to churn within the group of co-chairs leading each task force. However, the presence of a broader group of committed leaders and technical experts ensured that the objectives of each task force were still met or adapted as necessary.

5. The collaboration should aim to build a broad base of support and involve civil society, academic and media stakeholders, in addition to business and government leaders. The presence of multiple stakeholders ensured that many angles of the workforce gender gap were addressed, including social, cultural and psychological barriers.

6. Companies involved can benefit from both broader cross-organizational learning as well as sector-specific collaboration to overcome similar barriers. While there was much value in companies sharing their experiences broadly, some of the most important cross-learning arose from those who would normally be competitors but share the most similar set of gender equality barriers within one sector or industry.

The Gender Parity Task Force model was designed for countries with relatively high rates of female educational attainment and relatively low levels of female economic participation, using the methodology of the Global Gender Gap Report. Scores of other countries are in a similar efficiency trap, having invested in closing education gender gaps but without gaining the returns through women’s economic participation or by limiting their rise to skilled and leadership roles. Public-private collaboration through a model such as the one implemented in the four pilot task force countries can be a successful strategy for accelerating progress in these countries by galvanizing business leaders and policy-makers to commit to tangible progress.

The Forum will now serve as a platform for future efforts, led wholly by other countries and organizations or in partnership with the Forum. The first of these new partnerships, with the Inter-American Development Bank, will focus on Chile, a country that stands to gain enormously from the continued integration of women in the workforce. In addition, as the Fourth Industrial Revolution unfolds across countries, it will be more important than ever before that strategic efforts are put in place to ensure that women and men stand to gain equally from the changes under way. Public-private collaboration for gender parity will be an indispensable method towards this goal.

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