Women’s Economic Empowerment—Anything wrong with this picture? News Feed

By Louise Williams

Ames Room by Ian Stannard

Ames Room. By Ian Stannard on Flickr. https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/

This decade has seen a veritable revolution in public policy to strengthen women’s economic participation. That revolution is due in part to data that reveal severe disparity in how men and women experience work and entrepreneurship.

In 2006, about the time that The Economist declared the economic underutilization of women a “matter of consequence,” global institutions unveiled tools that reveal the depth and impact of that underuse. The World Economic Forum’s annual Global Gender Gap report and the World Bank’s Doing Business gender project (now the biennial Women, Business and the Law) show how failing to engage the economic potential of women undercuts prosperity. The UN, the OECD, the IFC and others have joined the chorus. And since 2010, a number of central governments have taken heed:

  • Recognizing the economic costs of women dropping out of the workforce, the government of Japan has created thousands of nursery school spaces to encourage women to work outside the home.
  • Nathan Associates has reported  on a burgeoning array of efforts to support women entrepreneurs in Malaysia—from improving access to loans and markets to increasing the number of women in public sector leadership.
  • Our 2013 gender inquiry describes how Chile is narrowing the labor market participation gap by training women for male-dominated professions (such as mining), supporting women’s business start-ups and networks, and linking women-owned enterprises to training and capital.
  • Even in Papua New Guinea, where social and economic conditions for women are notoriously harsh, the government has rolled out a popular and successful lending resource for enterprises owned by women.

One hates to introduce a “but” in response to all this good news on government support of women’s economic empowerment. But—

  • Many countries require employers of significant numbers of women (20 in Chile, 40 in Bangladesh, 100 in Egypt) to provide some type of nursery or childcare facility for young children.
  • In Chile, participation in a state-sponsored and free afterschool care program is restricted almost exclusively to women.
  • Taiwan’s 2011 Gender Equality in Employment Act includes a provision for “menstruation leave” up to one day a month, to be treated as sick leave.
  • In many countries women are prohibited from doing the same work as men: they may be restricted from working at night, or underground, or from lifting heavy objects.
  • And in others, such as Saudi Arabia, Mozambique, Romania, Russia, China, and Vietnam, they face  earlier retirement ages than men.

So what’s wrong with this picture?

As governments encourage women to join the economy and to enter the ranks of managers, entrepreneurs, professionals, board members, and public sector leaders, they must not forget the imperative of gender equality.

Those creating laws designed to support working mothers, for example, should be mindful that children also have fathers. If the goal is to secure childcare while both mom and dad are working, why tie the benefit to women only? Nor should government restrict women’s hours of work and other employment conditions in ways that do not apply to men. However well-intended, such restrictions reinforce stereotypes, drive up the cost of employing women, and even shut women out of certain jobs entirely.

Finally, why send women into retirement earlier than men? The one gap in women’s favor, and one likely to remain for decades to come, is that they tend to live longer. 

Louise Williams is a Principal Associate at Nathan Associates.  She studies women's economic empowerment and has designed and led reviews of conditions for women’s economic participation in Papua New Guinea, Chile, and the APEC economies and ASEAN member states.  Earlier in her career, Louise was a lawyer in private practice and with the U.S. Department of Commerce.

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