The World's Women Are Still Left Behind

Karen Kornbluh
U.S. Permanent Representative to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development 
Op-Ed in The Huffington Post
Washington, DC
March 8, 2010

"Women are just men without money." On International Women's Day it is worth remembering Nobel prize-winning economist Paul Samuelson's 1975 quip because, sadly, it's still relevant today. Only 30 percent of the world's formal workforce is made up of women. Women make only 10 percent of world's income and own only 1 percent of the world's property. Of 1.2 billion people living in poverty worldwide, 70 percent are women.

Fifteen years after the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing established women's rights as human rights, it is still essential that the world take up this challenge, acknowledging that without economic opportunity, women are not free in any real sense to pursue their hard-won rights.

Today, although more women are employed than ever before -- in the U.S. women are about to become over half the workforce, and around the world, women's share of nonagricultural employment has at least stayed the same or risen from 2000 to 2006 -- women still lag behind men in employment and wages, access to capital, and economic security. No nation can succeed in spreading prosperity or increasing security if half its population is left behind.

Detailed country-specific and gender-disaggregated data on employment and wages is lacking in many cases. However, research by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) shows that while gender wage gaps in OECD member countries have decreased over time, an average difference of 18 percent still remains. Additional analysis of available data by the International Center for Research on Women (ICRW) finds evidence since 2000 that informal employment -- which often lack job security, benefits or adequate income -- continues to represent a larger share of women's employment than men's.

While the education gap has narrowed in many countries, other obstacles to employment remain. The ability to stay in the workforce is constrained when women lack access to childcare or paid family leave -- even in most OECD countries, women spend at least twice as much time on caretaking than men. In some developing countries, women and girls can spend more time collecting firewood or water than attending school or going to work outside the home. And gender-based violence is not only a human rights violation but an impediment to economic activity. Access to counseling and contraception is also necessary for economic advancement.

In many countries, women face restrictions on inheriting or owning property and have difficulty getting a loan from a bank.

Without the ability to earn, own, save or invest on her own, a woman -- especially one with children to support -- does not enjoy the freedom to leave an abusive relationship, escape sexual exploitation, or exercise political rights. She is not free to choose to send her daughter to school or care for her elderly mother; nor can she realize her own potential by starting a small business or furthering her own education.

Removing these barriers is important not only to women but to their families, communities and countries. Economists have determined that empowering women in their own right is key to economic growth, because women are more inclined to choose more productive uses for money -- including supporting their children. When women work, they invest up to 90 percent of their income back into their families. As U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has said, "women and girls are one of the world's greatest untapped resources." We cannot build a stable, global economy if we fail to leverage our human capital.

Making these changes requires political will. A better understanding of the economic challenges women face and the steps that can make a difference can help change political dynamics.

When President Obama signed the paycheck fairness legislation -- the first bill he signed into law -- he said, "I know that if we stay focused...we will make sure that our daughters have the same rights, the same chances, and the same freedom to pursue their dreams as our sons." To reach that goal, we must continue to make progress around the world on the economic empowerment of women.