Investing in Women is an Economic Imperative

March 8th, 2012

During the last century there have been many successes in women’s’ rights movements, but there remains a lot of work to be done in accomplishing gender equality. In the book Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide, authors Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn retell an experience had by Bill Gates during a speaking engagement in Saudi Arabia.  Women made up roughly one fifth of the audience during his presentation and were not only separated, but also partitioned off from the men in the room – ranking 131 out of 135 in the World Economic Forum’s 2011 Global Gender Gap Report, Saudi Arabia has a long way to go towards gender equality.   Near the end of the presentation,

“a member of the audience noted that Saudi Arabia aimed to be one of the top ten countries in the world in technology by 2010 and asked if that was realistic.  ‘Well, if you’re not fully utilizing half the talent in the country,’ said Gates, ‘you’re not going to get too close to the top ten.”

Gates’ comment touches on an important aspect of gender issues.  Not only is gender equality a basic human right, it is a necessary component of economic development, and growing economies must invest in human capital.  According to the World Economic Forum’s report,

“The most important determinant of a country’s competitiveness is its human talent – the skills, education and productivity of its workforce – and women account for one-half of the potential talent base throughout the world.”

Needless to say, 2010 has come and gone and Saudi Arabia did not reach their goal of being in the top ten.  This begs the question of what they might have accomplished had they also invested in their female population.

The World Bank recently updated its estimates  on poverty levels in the developing world, in which it highlights “dramatic progress in East Asia.”  In particular, “China alone [has] 622 million fewer people living in poverty by the $1.25 [global poverty line] standard.”  While China may have other issues to contend with, it still manages to rank 61 out of 135 overall in the Global Gender Gap Report.  In a breakdown by category, the country’s highest ranking is 50 in the economic participation and opportunity category, one component of this ranking is the 74 percent women’s labor force participation, which the report notes, is high.  In Half the Sky, Kristof and WuDunn single out “China as an important model [in gender issues] because it was precisely its emancipation of girls that preceded and enabled its economic takeoff.”  With this in mind, it is not at all surprising that China has emerged as an economic powerhouse and made progress towards moving people out of poverty.

In recent decades, the world has seen progress towards improving the gender gap, but we still have a long way to go.  Even in developed counties women remain widely underrepresented in governments, and there are still wage disparities between sexes for the same work.  With the deadline for achieving the Millennium Development Goals fast approaching, it is important to understand that gender equality is more than one of several objectives.   Gender equality is a necessary component of many different goals, and this is especially important in a time when countries around the world are focused on job creation and sustainable economic growth.  On this International Women’s Day let’s recognize the contributions, responsibilities, and potential shared by men and women alike.

Written by Sarah Bracht

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