The gender gap is widening – what can we do to close it?

By Laura Downey Nov. 13, 2017

The World Economic Forum annual report on gender equality presents a bleak picture of efforts to close the gender gap – and shows it is widening, not narrowing. The report highlights evidence for increasing inequality at the workplace and in political representation, contributing to its calculation that it would take a century to reach overall gender equality. This is an increase of almost 20 years on its last estimate, indicating a back-slide in terms of gender progress. Indeed, of the 143 countries analysed, almost 58% experienced a regression in terms of closing the gender gap.

When Christine Lagard took over as the president of the IMF in 2013 and announced her commitment towards closing the gender gap, the international development community applauded the IMF for its stance on gender equality, and looked on with hope and bated breath. This week, however, the Centre for Global Development reported that the IMF was in fact “crawling the walk” in actively tackling gender equity in its policy reforms and investments, with little observable progress.

In September this year, the U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres formally launched his system-wide strategy for gender parity, calling for equality across the entire U.N., where males outnumber females 3-1 for top positions. Guterres has set the goal for achieving this policy rollout by 2030 – the same year earmarked for the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals – a series of targets set by the UN for countries to work toward to improve social and economic prosperity.  So are we to draw from this that Guterres deems the challenge of achieving gender equality in the U.N. on par with, for example, the Democratic Republic of Congo ending poverty? The WEF report suggests it will take significantly longer.

So why has the world been so slow to close the gender gap? In fact, if we are to believe the WEF – we’re widening that gap instead of closing it. The economic importance of ensuring gender equity is consistently undervalued. The WEF reported that if the gender gap in India was closed by 2025, an additional $1trillion could be added to the country’s economy. Keeping women from being adequately represented in all levels of the workforce is costing countries money, and a lot of it.

Change can happen, and it can happen sooner rather than later by using evidence for what works to reduce gender inequity and translating it into policy reforms. In Chile, the Inter-America development bank and the World Economic Forum have partnered to establish a gender parity task force. Companies that are part of this task force will draw on the principles of behavioural economics to “nudge” behaviour towards more women-friendly policies and practices. Behavioural nudges are an effective way to push people towards positive choices and are increasingly forming the basis of policy decisions in the UK through the work of the behavioural insights team, established under David Cameron. Companies that prioritise gender equity should be given public recognition for doing so, and transparency regarding people who fill top positions and how much they are paid should be a mandatory component of annual reporting across the public and private sector alike. Facebook is lauded as a champion of equal pay, where analysts complete thorough statistical analyses to compare the hiring and wages of men and women performing similar work, and publishes their findings annually. Other institutions should follow its lead. Evidence also shows that more family friendly working policies such as flexible working arrangements, and generous maternity and paternity leave, can make an important contribution to keeping women in work and supporting them to rise to top positions. A number of tech companies now offer to pay for women to freeze their eggs, though there is some controversy as to whether this is a positive move for protecting reproductive health, or an Orwellian intervention to exert greater control over employees and prolong productivity prior to childbirth. In any case, female employees should be consulted by their employers to ensure that any policy reforms are well-informed and in line with what women need to promote equity in the labor market. Plenty of companies are committing to gender-focused policies on paper. The difference between success and failure is in the planning and implementation. Policy reforms should be monitored and evaluated regularly for success and to identify problems, and adapted where necessary to promote meaningful change.

There is untapped, significant potential for women in the workforce. Addressing the gender imbalance would not only improve women’s economic empowerment, but would translate into significant GDP gains for entire populations. Smart, forward-thinking policies based on evidence for what works and consultation with women about what they need to enter the workforce and propel their careers forward, are essential to address the gender gap. The economic and social implications of capitalising on an under-utilised female workforce are enormous – equality benefits us all. So be the change, close the gap.