By Ugo Blanco, UNDP Deputy Resident Representative for Barbados and the Eastern Caribbean and Randi Davis, UNDP Resident Representative for Trinidad and Tobago, Curacao, Aruba and Sint Maarten
8 March 2021 – This year, International Women’s Day will shine the spotlight on women’s leadership and the need for gender equality in a post COVID-19 world. Surely the pace of reform is too slow, and we know that the COVID-19 Pandemic is threatening to push women further away from the board room. Even before the pandemic, women’s leadership statistics around the world were at best “disappointing”. Despite being 25 years out from the adoption of the Beijing Platform for Action, women still only account for 25% of the world’s parliamentarians and less than 7% of the world’s Heads of State. When it comes to access to economic decision-making and financial power – in other words the stuff that really counts - the sad reality is that women comprise a miniscule number of the top brass in the corporate world (only 7% of the fortune 500s CEO’s are women). Their earning potential remains well below that of their male colleagues with a gender pay gap averaging 20%). Juxtapose this against women’s education: in nearly all regions, women make up a higher level of tertiary graduates, and despite this trend, continue to lag behind men when it comes to leadership in nearly all professions.
Now COVID-19 threatens to reverse years of progress for gender equality and women’s leadership in particular. Women who carried a disproportionate share of unpaid care work in the home (estimated at three times as much as men, are now also having to manage household hygiene, homeschool their kids, while also sustaining their livelihoods. This, in a context where they account for more than 54% of overall job losses while accounting for only 39% of formal global employment.
And everywhere in the world more and more women experience violence – in their homes, on the streets and in the workplace. The COVID-19 pandemic has only intensified this shadow pandemic of violence against women – in every region and cultural context. It is estimated there are at least 15 million cases of Gender Based Violence (GBV) for every three months of lockdown. Staying safe while feeding and educating their families in the wake of the pandemic is no small challenge that requires a host of skills that we will need as we manage through and beyond the COVID-19 crises. While right now women don’t have the time to put towards professional or political advancement, betting on women’s leadership is the best way to leapfrog our nations out of this pandemic and towards a path for a better tomorrow. And this requires concrete policies and action to get us there.
Pre-pandemic the World Economic Forum argued that closing the gender gap in economic participation by 25 percent by 2025 could increase the global GDP by U$5.3 trillion. Now this figure is likely greater. We now know that companies with more gender-balanced boards and stronger female leadership on average, report higher returns on equity, sales and invested capital. And look no further than New Zealand, Taiwan, Germany, Norway and some of the small island states led by women such as Barbados, Aruba and Sint Maarten to see how adept women political leaders are at managing through crises. In fact, a recent article by the Harvard Business review showed that in confirmed deaths in the first half year of 2020 from COVID-19 were six times lower in countries led by women.
The world is also counting on a group of outstanding women to steer our global economic recovery, with Janet Yellen heading the US Treasury; Kristalina Georgieva, Managing Director of the IMF and Christine Lagarde, President of the European Central Bank and Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala recently appointed to lead the WTO.
Imagine how much better off we would be if we had equal participation of women in all leadership positions and across all sectors and an equal sharing of the burden of care in the household. This would mean more women in non-traditional sectors such as policing, engineering, in executive management in the public service and private companies and as business owners and investors. More women in decision making effecting choices over health, education, wealth, social protection, foreign and defense policy.
Realizing this dream will require a whole of society approach from governments to private companies and individual people. It will require rapid changes in discriminatory laws and practices that deny women’s basic equal rights covering the gamut from decisions concerning their own body, to those effecting their economic rights. It would also mean policies that reduce the care burden on women, eliminate discrimination in tax and fiscal policy, and a radical increase in investments to ensure services enable women realize the right to feel safe in their home, on public transport, in public spaces and in the workplace. Here in Latin America and the Caribbean, where 39% of households are headed by a woman and 26% are single-parent households headed by women. Policies that enable women to safely re-enter the workforce are also the vital antidotes to preventing families from sliding back into poverty while safeguarding economic recovery.
“To move from ideas into results we need concrete actions and tangible outcomes. Gender equality is a key crosscutting priority for the work of UNDP in Barbados and the Eastern Caribbean. Since 2021 all new projects have specific gender empowerment activities, gender disaggregated indicators and at least 15% of the budget allocated for this purpose” said Ugo Blanco, UNDP Deputy Resident Representative.
The Beijing Platform for Action continues to provide the blueprint for what needs to be done. Twenty- five years later, as the world contemplates its way out of the dire situation COVID-19 has put us in, we should finally put the resources down to close gender gaps. Let’s look no further than to the women who have shown incredible resilience and skill in managing households while standing at the frontline of the pandemic. Let’s hope they aren’t left behind when some level of normalcy returns, and our economies start roaring.
Ugo Blanco, UNDP Deputy Resident Representative for Barbados and the Eastern Caribbean. Follow him on Twitter at @Ugo_Blanco
Randi Davis is the UNDP’s Resident Representative for Trinidad and Tobago, Curacao, Aruba and Sint Maarten. She was Director of UNDP’s Global Work on Gender Equality prior to joining UNDP in Trinidad and Tobago. Follow her on Twitter at @RandiDavisUNDP
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