Global disparities between women and men have been narrowing for more than a decade, even if by small percentages. That makes the news from the World Economic Forum last week that the gender disparities have widened in 2017 all the more disappointing. It is a step back from global efforts toward achieving gender equality, and that hurts all of us.

The World Economic Forum’s 2017 Global Gender Gap Report — which analyzes disparities in health, education, economy, and politics — found that the overall average gender gap rose to 32%, up from 31.7% in 2016. It’s a fractional increase, but it’s the first uptick since the Forum began tracking gender inequality in 2006, signalling that efforts by the public and private sectors to prioritize gender parity have stalled.

This does not auger well for economies. Countries, communities, and economies cannot prosper without the equal participation of both women and men. Yet, women face greater hurdles in almost all spheres of economic activity, from access to finance and assets to technology and peer-to-peer networks. The annual credit gap for female entrepreneurs, for example, is nearly $300 billion. This impedes women’s ability to start or expand their businesses, reducing opportunities to create jobs or boost economies.

At International Finance Corporation, which helps spur private sector investment in emerging markets and developing countries, we know how companies can close gender gaps at the corporate leadership level, in the workforce, across the supply chain, and along the consumer base.

Legal barriers

One important step is to dismantle legislation that blocks women from entering certain professions or from owning land — the World Bank Group’s Women Business and Law report found that 90% of economies examined had at least one law impeding women’s economic opportunities.

Another step is to eliminate all forms of harassment that keep women from advancing in their field of work. In addition, we need to address the lack of sex-disaggregated data that serves as a hurdle to designing better policies and programmes for women’s participation in the economy.

Access to finance

One part of the solution is to improve women’s access to finance. The World Bank Group is now overseeing the Women Entrepreneurs Finance Initiative, which has raised more than $350 million in grants from governments that will be leveraged to about $1 billion in financing for female business owners.

We-Fi builds on IFC’s seven-year long experience with the Banking on Women programme, which has cumulatively invested nearly $1.6 billion to support women entrepreneurs.

In addition to financing, We-Fi will provide advisory services to encourage businesses to engage with more female customers and entrepreneurs.

Women don’t just want to own businesses: they also want to contribute to the economies as employees. One key constraint to jobs for women around the world is the disproportionate child and elder care responsibilities.

Image: Global Gender Gap Index 2017

Meeting childcare needs

To fill the information gap on what companies can do to address their employees’ childcare needs, IFC recently published a report, Tackling Childcare: The Business Case for Employer-Supported Childcare. Through several case studies, the report highlighted a variety of childcare provisions, from on-site childcare to subsidies, that companies can offer. Employees weren’t the only beneficiaries — companies could hire and retain talented workers, improving their profits.

Despite the strong evidence of the benefits of closing the gaps between women and men in economic, social, and political spheres, progress has been slow. And, as the Forum's 2017 report notes, the economic gender gap — which measures, for example, the wage differences — would now take 217 years to close, up from 170 last year.

We should not have to wait that long.

The Forum’s report should serve as a wake-up call for governments and businesses to prioritize gender parity as an important economic and moral imperative.