The world can’t wait for women’s economic empowerment

Justine Greening
Mar 15, 2016 · 4 min read

Last year was a big year for girls and women.

As the United Nations set out its action plan for international development over the next 15 years, with the landmark agreement of the Global Goals, we successfully fought for Goal 5 — the standalone gender equality target.

And not only this — we’ve made sure that gender equality runs right through the Global Goals, because no goal — whether on education, sanitation or health — will be considered achieved unless it’s achieved for everyone — women and men, girls and boys. No one can be left behind.

But that’s why this year will be even bigger. It has to be.

2015 was about getting the rights of girls and women on the world’s to do list.

2016 year is about doing that to do list. And we shouldn’t lose a single moment when it comes to making these Goals a reality.

In the UN Secretary General’s own words: “…to achieve the Goals, we need a quantum leap in women’s economic empowerment”

And that starts right now: today, I join the first meeting of the UN’s High Level Panel on girls and women’s economic empowerment.

It’s the first time the UN have ever put together a High Level Panel on this — and for me, it’s the key to accelerating the change we need to see.

I’m very proud to be a founding member of the Panel. And that’s because I believe women’s economic empowerment is a game-changer — both for tackling poverty and for building global prosperity.

UK aid helped Heba to find a job in Lebanon. Picture: Andrew McConnell/Panos/DFID

The case for women’s economic empowerment is not only about basic human rights. It’s also basic economics.

Imagine the potential economic impact it would have if the millions of potential female entrepreneurs, innovators and business leaders, who are right now being airbrushed out of the picture, had the opportunity to choose their own path?

A recent McKinsey Global Institute report estimates that if women in every country played an identical role in markets to men, as much as $28 TRILLION could be added to the global economy by 2025.

The same research finds that if every nation only matched the progress of the fastest-improving country in its region, it would add $12 trillion dollars, which represents an 11% boost to global GDP.

So for me, women’s economic empowerment is simply the best poverty-tackling strategy we have. We shouldn’t just be waiting for it to happen — we should turbo charge it.

Female market traders are moving up in Nigeria. Picture: Adam Smith International

We have made some significant steps forward — but the statistics show that there is still much to do.

Despite an additional 250 million women entering the global workforce since 2006, wage inequality continues, with women now only earning what men did a decade ago.

And today in 2016, just 50% of women around the world participate in formal labour markets, and have the financial independence that brings — compared with 77% of men.

In 17 countries, husbands can still legally prevent their wives from working.

In 29 countries, women are prohibited from working at night.

In 34 countries, women do not have the same inheritance rights as men.

And in the UK, where there are more women on FTSE 350 boards than ever before, we have only seen 9 more female chief executive directors since 2010.

Economic empowerment goes right to the heart of women’s rights — it’s about jobs but it’s also about access to bank accounts, tackling violence against girls and women, overcoming discriminatory laws and reducing the burden of unpaid domestic work. All things the UN High Level Panel must tackle.

Over the next few months we will be taking on the specific barriers and discrimination that stop women from getting decent jobs and setting up their own businesses — things like improving women’s access to bank accounts and land rights. We can tackle how we can reduce the burden of unpaid domestic work, which overwhelmingly falls on women.

We know how much all of this matters to women themselves. Wherever I go in the world women, and men, will tell me that their key priority is a job, and the power to shape their own future.

Meeting some inspirational women’s vocational trainers in Jordan earlier this year. Picture: Chris Radburn/PA

The High Level Panel will launch a global consultation; speaking to people all over the world and giving a voice to the most marginalised and invisible.

We will then report back to the UN, and all governments of the world, with bold and practical recommendations for improving the prospects of women.

Fundamentally it’s about accelerating all our efforts to deliver real and lasting change and I’m proud to be part of that.

Around the globe, there are still many glass ceilings for women to smash. But gender equality in the economic sphere is not just in women’s interests — it’s in all our interests.

When women lose out — we all lose out. And at a time when there is still much economic uncertainty in global markets, we can’t afford to lock women out of the workplace — we need them in board rooms, in offices, in industry.

It can’t wait. Girls and women can’t wait. The world can’t wait.

Now is the time to empower women.

Justine Greening

Written by

Secretary of State for Education and Minister for Women and Equalities

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