Keynote Remarks at the Launch of the World Bank's Gender at Work Report

Catherine M. Russell
Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women's Issues 
Washington, DC
February 20, 2014

Thank you Kyle and good afternoon everyone. I am grateful for the opportunity to be here. It’s wonderful to see so many friends in the audience. This event—and your being here to launch the “Gender at Work” report—underscores the importance of taking action towards achieving gender equality.

Before I begin, I’d like to recognize the great work the World Bank has done in this area. Gender equality has become integrated into so much of the Bank’s work—from a renewed IDA strategy for gender equality with more ambitious targets throughout the project lifecycle, to assisting in developing gender specialists in regional offices—and the leadership of the Bank and President Kim have made that possible.

I’d also like to recognize the experts who contributed to this valuable report. To Kyle Peters, Sri Mulyani [Mool-yani], Jeni Klugman[Klueg-man], Jesko Hentschell [Hent-shell], and Matthew Morton—congratulations on this tremendous effort. We all look forward to hearing from you in a few minutes, and my team and I look forward to continuing our close collaboration with you in the months and years ahead.

The “Gender at Work” report gets to the heart of so many of the issues that we as a community strive to address. It explores how to bolster the roles of both the public and private sectors. And, more importantly, discusses just how critical it is for us to close data gaps if we hope to achieve our goals.

But, of course, this is much more than a report: it is a call to action.

As you know, investing in women isn’t just as the right thing to do, and isn’t just the moral thing to do: it’s the wise thing to do.

Secretary of State Kerry has made economic empowerment a centerpiece of American foreign policy. As he said last year, “The United States believes gender equality is critical to our shared goals of prosperity, stability, and peace, and [that is] why investing in women and girls worldwide is critical to advancing U.S. foreign policy."

But achieving shared global prosperity is only possible if—and this is a big “if”—if we make dramatic progress in reducing gender gaps in the world of work.

Our shared economic potential is bright—but in order to achieve it, we need to encourage, cultivate, and harness the untapped talent and productivity of women across the globe. It must happen in every country and on every continent.

Thankfully, “Gender at Work” lays out a comprehensive roadmap for how to do just that. It provides insightful analysis and key recommendations that policymakers and advocates can use to level the playing field for women around the world.

This information is essential to the team I lead as the Ambassador at Large for Global Women’s Issues. I was very encouraged to learn that recommendations in each of the report’s three key areas—the private sector’s role, the public sector’s role, and the need to close data gaps—are in sync with our office’s direction and priority areas.

Since I started my job, one of my primary goals has been to continue the momentum on women’s economic empowerment. We are focusing on this area because of the profound impact that economic empowerment—or a lack of it—can have not just on the lives of billions of women and girls around the world, but on families, communities and nations. And we see what a difference that makes on both the macro and micro levels.

I’d like to begin with how gender equality and equality of opportunity at work matters at the macro level. At the APEC Women and the Economy Summit in San Francisco in 2011, former Secretary of State Clinton said: “By increasing women’s participation in the economy and enhancing their efficiency and productivity, we can bring about dramatic impact on the competitiveness and growth of our economies.”

As was often the case, she couldn’t have been more right. To demonstrate the enormous potential that the economic empowerment of women can have on growth, here are a few telling statistics:

In the second half of the 20th century, the entry of women into the workforce propelled substantial growth for most of the world’s developed economies.

In the U.S., according to 2011 report by McKinsey & Company, women now make up nearly 50% of our workforce and own 30% of small businesses, which generate $1.2 trillion a year in sales.

In Europe, the OECD found that the narrowing gap between male and female employment has accounted for a quarter of the continent’s annual GDP growth over the past two decades.

In Latin America and the Caribbean, growth in female income made a crucial contribution to both extreme and moderate poverty reduction between 2000 and 2010. According to the World Bank, if income remained flat during that decade and the labor market held constant, extreme poverty would have been 30 percent higher in 2010 had female contributions not been more.

Further, the OECD recently reported that closing gender gaps in the labor market in the MENA region, where the ILO also notes particularly acute gender wage gaps, could increase per capita GDP by more than 25%.

In November, Vice President Biden and I traveled to Japan, the world’s third largest economy. I saw firsthand how Prime Minister Abe [AH-bay], is trying to remove constraints on women in the workforce to boost his nation’s economic performance. Not only did he recognize such steps made common sense, he also saw they made good business sense.

According to the IMF, Japan could see an additional 9 percent growth in their GDP if they addressed barriers and took steps to raise female labor force participation to that of males. And the UN found that the Asia Pacific region loses upwards of 47 billion dollars in GDP per year due to restrictions on women’s ability to fully participate in the economy.

If we shift from economic growth to global hunger and nutrition, the data is equally compelling. The Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that if developing countries removed constraints that prevent equal yields of land farmed by women and men—they could boost their agricultural output by enough to pull 100 to 150 million people out of hunger.

At the micro level, by virtually every global measure and in almost every country, women are more economically excluded than men. Gender gaps are persistent across all areas—from farmers, to entrepreneurs, to employees alike.

In some regions—notably Africa and the Middle East—labor force participation is as low as 21 percent. However, simply increasing the number of women in the global workforce won’t be enough.

As the 2012 World Development Report indicates, some of the poorest regions in the world have the highest levels of women’s representation in the workforce.

The challenge is that men are nearly twice as likely as women to have good, full-time jobs from an employer. And even though women represent 40 percent of the total global workforce, they represent nearly 60 percent of all unpaid work, and half of all employment in the informal sector.

This means they are less likely to be protected by existing labor law, to be able to organize or negotiate higher wages, and to benefit from social protection schemes.

Many women who are working are hindered by legal, social, financial, and educational barriers. As the Women, Business and the Law report indicates out of 143 economies surveyed, 128 have at least one legal differentiation that impacts women’s ability to participate in the economy. Now that is something that we should take note of.

It is also important to note that not only can reducing gender gaps in the world of work bolster economic growth and improve health and food security, not doing so can substantially hinder it. In fact, when jobs are limited and standards of living are low, the overall safety and prosperity of a community and a country are at risk.

Corruption thrives, security is threatened, human rights are at risk, and economic growth can slow and in some cases, even reverse.

While job creation is important, the report notes the importance of providing women with decent jobs – jobs that respect their rights and help improve outcomes for themselves, their families, and communities, as well as the need to close the gender wage gap.

And when women can both work and have a level playing field on which to compete, their opportunities grow, their productivity increases, and their potential is unleashed. Growth in women’s entrepreneurship boosts economies and a rise in the number of women leaders, in the boardroom as much as on the factory floor, improves the health of societies and governments.

That’s why we’re here today—that’s why gender equality at work matters. And that’s why this report is so important.

It looks at ways to level the playing field through government action, and takes into account the lifecycle of a woman—from childhood, to productive age, to the elder years—in long term policy planning. It examines ways to remove formal biases and discrimination, and link services to address multiple constraints.

It looks at steps the private sector can take through proactive leadership and innovation. With the private sector supplying the largest number of formal sector jobs in most countries, the importance of making gender equality, along with respect for the full range of rights at work, a priority throughout internal and external business operations is crucial.

And last, it looks for ways to close data gaps and invest in knowledge—with the goal of incorporating and using evidence-based policy making whenever possible.

Each of these components has become a core pillar of U.S. foreign policy on advancing women’s economic empowerment.

At the government level we have launched initiatives such as the Equal Futures Partnership, a multilateral initiative designed to drive action by member countries toempower women economically and politically. The platform engages country leadership at the highest levels, enables and promotes best practice exchange and accountability between member countries, and encourages the private sector and civil society to work together with member partners to realize success.

Launched in 2012 with 12 member countries, and expanded in 2013 to 25, we are now moving towards technical working groups that will leverage evidence based data and policy recommendations to advance our common objectives.

This March, on the margins of Commission on the Status of Women, the Partnership will be one of our first partner efforts centered on best practices to address gender based violence.

As this report highlights, gender based violence is an epidemic problem that not only infringes upon the rights of women but dramatically undermines women’s ability to participate in the economy, damages communities, and negatively impacts economic growth.

At the policy level, the success of the 2011 APEC Women and the Economy Summit, which elevated and integrated women’s economic participation as a key economic growth strategy-- is now being mirrored in other major trade, finance, and economic forums. Such as the Summit of the Americas, the G8 Broader Middle East and Northern Africa Initiative, and the G20.

When it comes to looking at how best to invest in women and girls, we believe strongly that this needs to be done in collaboration with both the private sector and civil society.

The U.S. Department of State partners on initiatives that support women and girls’ empowerment at all levels and stages of life, from programs such as:

  • Tech Girls, which provides tech training to aspiring computer scientists in the Middle East,
  • The Fortune Global Women’s Mentoring Partnership for women business executives,

To programs that aim at improving conditions for women workers, from regional initiatives such as Women Entrepreneurs in the Americas, the African Women’s Entrepreneurship Program, and programs in South and Central Asia to the over 170 small grants in 76 countries that the Secretary’s office has awarded to support women and girls in rural and marginalized communities.

We know that we cannot do it alone, but together we can drive action.

For all of us who work in this area, there are days that remind us of the enormity of the challenges before us. But for every challenge that seems insurmountable, there is a story that restores our confidence in our ability to have a real and lasting impact.

Let me tell you the story of Shah Rukh, a woman business owner of an interior design company in Pakistan called SMARTEK. I first met Shah at a Clinton Global Initiative event last September and recently visited with her about a week ago during my trip to Pakistan. In 2011, Shah participated in the U.S. Department of State’s program Propelling Women’s Entrepreneurship in Pakistan, which was developed in partnership with the Goldman Sachs 10,000 Women initiative.

Before participating in the program, she had been in operation for six years, had 1 partner and 13 employees. Six months after graduating from the program, Shah's business experienced a 20% growth in sales. And as of July 2013, Shah had hired four additional full time employees, built a team of over 12 part time workers, and has mentored many other women, three of whom have started businesses of their own.

Not only has she grown her business and given back to other women entrepreneurs, she also participated in our South Asia Women’s Entrepreneurship Symposium where she shared her hard-earned lessons with women entrepreneurs from across the region. Shah’s story represents the hope and the reality that we are making real progress.

And, thanks to the hard work of the experts who compiled this report, we’ll be able to make even greater progress in the journey ahead.

I am honored for the opportunity to be here, and I look forward to the expert panel discussion that will begin shortly. Thank you.