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Women: the future of our economies?

8 March 2011
by Guest author

8 March is the centenary of International Women’s Day. This year, we mark the occasion with a series of blog posts about initiatives to strengthen gender equality worldwide. In this post, OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurría looks at women’s role in the economy.

On the 100th Anniversary of the International Women’s Day, have we achieved equal opportunity, even in the developed countries? No, women are not equal on the labour market, in entrepreneuship or in politics.

Women spend twice as much time as men in unpaid caring activities. Women are still under-represented in key education fields such as science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Women are less likely to work for pay, tend to work less hours, have lower hourly wages, are concentrated in less well-paid sectors, etc. They are also less likely to reach decision-making positions, in either public or private sectors. In politics, women still hold only 20% of seats in Parliaments; only a very few country show parity in their governments; and only 15 women are Head of states or governments.

We need to change this because it is a moral imperative, but it is also an economic necessity. Gender inequality is detrimental to society as a whole. Greater economic opportunities for women would raise the overall level of human capital and labour productivity. Indeed, recent research shows that a equal male-female distribution would foster innovation in business, bring more women into the labour force and help address the challenges of population ageing.

In a nutshell, greater gender equality would lead to stronger and fairer growth. How can we achieve this?

First, let’s look at education. For sure, gender parity in enrolment has been achieved or almost achieved in most OECD countries, but there is a persistent gender bias in the choice of disciplines. Girls don’t go into scientific careers or engineering, the ones with higher returns. And this gender sorting starts very early on.

Second, let’s look at employment. Public policies have to help women, and men, combine employment with parenthood. Staying out of the labour market is not the first choice for most mothers. It is a choice dictated by a labour market that does not allow women to have a family and a rewarding career. It is also due to different treatment regarding parental leave or taxes, and lack of affordable, good-quality, child-care.

The wage gap is the most persistent form of inequality between women and men, in all occupations, skills levels and countries. Moreover, the gap is larger at higher wages. What does this mean? It reflects the famous “glass ceiling” that blocks women’s careers, leading to personal frustration, a huge loss of talent, and economic inefficiencies.

Women also want to be bosses. Recent laws in Norway imposing quotas on boards show  growing impatience with the slow progress of the last 10 years. In Europe, women hold barely 12% of board seats.

Women also want to be entrepreneurs. But they are twice less likely than men to do so. And if they do, they are likely to own smaller firms, their business will grow more slowly, and they’ll have less access to capital.

To sum up, I don’t know if woman is the future of man, as the French poet Louis Aragon wrote, but women will be a very important part of the future of our economies. This is why, at the OECD, we have identified gender equality in economic opportunities as a key priority.

We already have a number of fascinating projects on gender, such as our GENDERNET, our WikiGender or our Women’s Business Forum in MENA. We want now to mainstream all this work, drawing on the expertise of all our directorates to strengthen gender equality in economic opportunities. We are working on the three dimensions discussed above: education, employment and entrepreneurship.

In the OECD Gender Initiative, we will investigate the persisting barriers to gender equality. We will also propose policy recommendations to reduce the gender gap. And, very importantly, we will develop indicators to monitor progress.

Crucially, we will cover not only OECD countries but also emerging economies, even though data are scarce. The early results of our work will be part of the upcoming Ministerial Meeting of the OECD, chaired by the US, in which we will also celebrate our 50th Anniversary.

Useful links

OECD work on gender

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