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Key ingredients to closing gender gap

Commentary@ITRealms:
Despite many countries passing the equal opportunity laws and adopted UN resolutions on women empowerment, education, access to finance, security, healthy environment, discriminatory pay packages among many other barriers still militating against equality in work places and its attendant economic growth. Kasie Abone, who just returned from World Bank IMF Spring Meeting held in Washington DC, USA reports that until these barriers were pulled down achieving comprehensive economic development will remain a mirage.
 
Gender equity and its economic implications were some of the key topics that engaged delegates at the recently concluded World Bank IMF spring meeting held in Washington DC, United States of America. The global issues which came under the theme “Gender and Macroeconomics: What Next?” had a team of high profile panelists that brought different countries and institutions perspectives on the causes and solutions to gender issues in work places. Among the panelists were former Nigerian Minister and now United Nations Deputy Secretary General, Amina Mohammed, IMF Managing Director, Christine Lagarde, Oxfam International Executive Director, Winnie Byanyima, Norway Minister of Finance, Siv Jensen and Coca Cola CEO, Mr. Muhtar Kent.

In their individual contributions, the panelists shared their experiences on the causes of gender inequality in work places and its dare implications on economies of nations while proffering solutions on ways to have more women engage in productive ventures with equal pay, security, equal education and access to finance.

Speaking on role of UN in bridging the gender gap, Amina Mohammed identified acquiring education and the right skill sets as some of the key factors necessary to pull down gender barriers in work places and women economic empowerment. She noted that UN had shaped a new developmental agenda over the last few years. She added “It was clear that the consultations we had and the agenda we came out with in the STGs including businesses, and we challenged them on how we can move gender equality from STDs to MDGs and what do they need to take down in terms of barriers. And I think that much of what we have today are playing out in the implementation stages. So, finding government policies will incentivize that, pushing targets and indicators that we set not just for countries but for businesses and partners that are involved. That it makes good business sense; and there is economic dividend to open up the space for women at all levels.” 

She went further to say that “Incentivizing the education because I think even if you get education, what type of education; what type of skill sets are you bringing to the work place. We can’t find women in certain positions because those skill sets are not there and that is why we have to start knocking at the door of education and development. We are work in progress. I think what we need now is how to put this into national plan; we have to deal with business, we have to open our space.  The really big challenge we have now is how to put this into national plan that will incentivize business.”

In her contribution IMF Managing Director Christine Lagarde said IMF was committed to the inclusion of women and gender issues in its surveyance work. “We have decided not just to analyze, talk about it but to walk the talk. So, what we do now, we have 22 pilot countries which have agreed to include women issues, women inclusion in the job market, women contribution in the economy as part of the annual surveyance. And that has helped us identify for each and every one of them what policies, whether tax measures, fiscal measures, structural reform measures that can decide what will actually improve the situation of women. Another area we are pushing women is in our lending capacity in line with countries programs, and we have traction when we do that.”

She noted that IMF was working with Egypt where most women do not join the job market due to security issues and transportation. She added that IMF intervention in such situation was to ask the authority to earmark particular budget item to transport, security and childcare budget so women can participate in work places.  

Speaking from the business perspective on how his company boosts women participation in leadership positions, Coca Cola CEO, Muhtar Kent, who described himself as a “proud feminist” said the situation he met on ground when he first became the CEO about eight years ago on women leadership positions was “terrible.”  In his words “When I first become the CEO almost nine years ago, I looked at who were the sharpest of our products. At this time we were connecting with our consumers years ago by 1.3 billion times a day, 66 percent times women were the sharpest. And I looked at inside the company; the numbers for women leadership were terrible. In middle level management there were low 20s, in senior management they were in the teens. And so there was a big disconnect.”

To address this imbalance, he said his company embarked on a multiyear policy program aimed at promoting and incentivising women to leadership positions. “The whole idea was how they are going to break down the barriers, how do we hire, train, retain and promote women leaders in the company. Since the last eight years the numbers have gone up to mid-30 to mid-level managers and more importantly, the pipeline for women leadership has gone up to 50 percent now.” The effect is an increase from two to four women I boards while working towards achieving parity in a board of about thirteen members.

Coca Cola has also created the largest women empowerment programme ever undertaken by a commercial enterprise called 5 by 20 in its 206 global markets in 2010. The goal was to generate and create five million women entrepreneurs outside of the four walls of Coca Cola system. “We select women leaders, then train them in basic accounting, logistics, distribution, retain and connect them to a total of $200 million IFC credit. They get launched as farmers, distributors, retailers. We now have 1.7 million and we are on our way to reach the five million goal.

But the situation varies in from country to country. In Norway, where women in 2008 surpassed men in acquiring higher education with 40 percent representation in parliament, government anchors the drive for more women in work place on three major touch points, according to the country’s Finance Minister, Siv Jensen. These are free education up to university level which has enabled more women graduates, family friendly working life that has to do with parental leave for both parents, paid leave for sick children, flexible working hours; and the third element was affordable day care. With ninety percent of Norwegian children in kindergarten at the moment, Jensen said it makes it easier for women to take part in the work place.

Executive Director, Oxfam International, Winnie Byanyima, in her presentation gave more insights into how women can be empowered besides education. According her, education was not much a factor in the informal jobs like trade, agriculture, unskilled workers, etc. “The big issue is to increase women participation in business and what can work for their rise in companies has much to do with corporate policies. When the policies put in place works for women to juggle the roles of the family and career, when they are given incentives to rise, targets and quotas in boards and senior leadership positions. But the big issue is that women are stuck in the middle by unpaid care work primarily.” She also concurred that countries with good child care policy, public transportation facilities, equal pay and healthcare facilities tend to have more women that stay in employment.  

The Law and women equality
Inequality under the constitution surprisingly was identified to be a big issue even among civilized world. Lagarde revealed that IMF team found out that 90 percent of advanced economies, developing, middle income economies countries of the world actually have sometimes in their legal system constitutional provisions that discriminate against women. She said when the constitution is changed to embed the principle of equality, the economy’s circumstances change, the participation of women in labour force and the perennial gender gap actually reduces. She added that a universal imperative was for each country to look at the legal system and from the top to the bottom decide that that has to change.

The challenge in changing the laws, according to Mohammed was that advocacy comes in the way. Since the men dominate the parliament, the decision to change the law by implication lies with the men.’ So, it comes to equal access, equality; how do we help the ones that understand that the law has to change in allowing that to happen. Until we get more women in parliament, in executive positions making the case for it, it will be still a work in progress.”

Practical solutions to closing inequality gaps
Kent argued that flexibility and creative architecture were also key elements in promoting women in leadership positions. With the digital high level of mobility among the leadership cadre, mobility can be taken care of. This has enabled Coca Cola to appoint for the first time two African American CFOs of Fortune 50 companies as well as appoint more women at high level functions because of intensity of mobility and travel countries to countries because of the children. With technology, Kent said in a few years, barrier of mobility and office spaces will be rid of as work can be done from anywhere at ones convenience.

Byanyima listed changing the rules of economic model must change, promoting equality and reducing economic inequality, payment of minimum wage that counts towards a living wage, restoration of collective bargaining, unpaid care work, healthcare and care services, transport and using advertising to tackle social norms are some of the policy measures that should be put in place to close the inequality gap.

But for Mohammed, though the policies are in place there should be measures to incentivize the actions we get through the budget spending.” If we budget on education, how do we measure the outcome of the education we want to see; so in real practical terms, how do you help policies become actionable with the results; how do we incentivize those resources to make things work for women.”
She also suggested that part of the flexibility in work place could be investing in young women to own businesses so that they will have the flexibility to have family, career and to put money in their pockets; to make better families, communities for it. And more importantly breaking the barriers of access to financial solutions, technology, like the menfolk is key.


On her part Jensen said that when companies convert the huge number of women working part time to full time, companies will be raising their resources in addition to reducing the gender gap in the regional economy.

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