Along the Margins of the World Assembly for Women (WAW!)

Catherine M. Russell
Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women's Issues 
METLIFE "Shine Week Event"
Washington, DC
September 11, 2014

Thank you so much, President Shah, for having me here today, and thank you Mako for that kind introduction.

To my fellow speakers, including Ms. Kuni Sato, the Japanese Ambassador for Women, Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs and to all of you, it’s such a privilege to be here in Tokyo for the World Assembly for Women (WAW!) Symposium to address the challenges faced by women around the world.

My job as Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women’s Issues is to advance the status of women and girls as a critical element of all U.S. diplomatic efforts. This position was created by our government because the United States believes that investing in women and girls and helping them unleash their full potential is both the right thing to do for women and the strategically wise thing to do for the United States.

Women are critical to every issue we face, including countering security challenges like terrorism and weak rule of law, limiting the spread of HIV/AIDS and other infectious diseases, such as the Ebola crisis that is ravaging West Africa, and helping to foster the growth of strong and representative democratic governments.

Women are also central to the issue we are discussing here today– boosting economic growth and building more stable and prosperous economies. This is an exciting time to be discussing the issue of women’s economic empowerment, because an increasing number of leaders—both in the public and private sectors—now recognize that women are absolutely essential to economic growth.

That is why we are all here in Tokyo—because Prime Minister Abe is committed to the principle that empowering women is critical to boosting Japan’s economic performance. Our own President, Barack Obama, knows this as well. He recently told the United States Congress that “when women succeed, America succeeds.”

That is why the first bill he signed was legislation giving women greater flexibility to seek damages for being paid less for doing the same work as men. President Obama also recently hosted a White House Summit aimed at improving the work-life balance for working families.

Several women leaders from Japan traveled to the United States to attend the Summit, and I had the opportunity to meet with them in Washington to discuss our many common challenges and potential solutions.

While women in the United States participate in the workforce at higher levels than here in Japan, we continue to face a number of difficult issues, including a lack of affordable childcare, flexible work schedules to help care for children and other family members, and paid maternity leave.

In addition, we have a very persistent wage gap between women and men. In America, women earn 77 cents for every dollar that a male earns. And I know that Japan shares some of these challenges too. The failure to fully empower women economically is a reality for women in the United States and Japan, as it is, to one degree or another, in all parts of the world. And in every country and region, women are an essential part of the solution to improving economic growth.

At the 2011 Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (or APEC for short) Women and the Economy Summit, our former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, stated that 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.”

Let me share a few statistics.

In the United States, according to a 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.

And a recent report by American Express OPEN found that in the last 25 years, the number of women-owned firms has grown steadily at one and a half times the national average.

What’s more, since the depth of the recession that began in 2008, women-owned privately held firms have provided a net increase in employment.

We’ve also seen progress in Europe. In fact, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) found that narrowing the gap between male and female employment has accounted for a quarter of Europe’s annual GDP growth over the past two decades.

Unfortunately, in far too many places, the full economic potential of women remains untapped.

In fact, the United Nations has found that the Asia Pacific region loses upwards of 89 billion dollars in GDP per year due to restrictions on women’s ability to fully participate in the economy.

But there is reason for hope. Strategists from Goldman Sachs here in Japan recently estimated that closing the gender employment gap so that the female employment rate matches the male employment rate could boost Japan’s GDP by nearly 13 percent. Research finds that Japanese corporations with greater female participation in senior management consistently have higher performance.

So how do we harness this enormous potential?

First, we need commitments and high-level leadership from governments, much like the WAW! Forum Prime Minister Abe is holding here in Tokyo.

One initiative I am particularly proud that the United States and Japan have undertaken is the Equal Futures Partnership, a multilateral initiative launched by President Obama in 2012, which is designed for member countries to make commitments to empower women economically and politically.

Japan, one of 27 member countries, joined the partnership with strong commitments to break the glass ceiling, support male and female balanced work environments and childcare policies, and increase the percentage of women in leadership positions to at least 30% by 2020.

It is this type of leadership that is needed to realize change. And it is through partnerships and platforms like Equal Futures where best practices can be exchanged at the highest levels and where technical level experts, the private sector, and civil society can work together to amplify impact.

One of the very specific things we are trying to get governments to do is to remove legal barriers that prevent women from participating in the economy, such as tax structures that fail to treat women equally.

Legal barriers are a very real and persistent challenge. In fact, the World Bank’s Women, Business and the Law report indicates that of 143 economies surveyed, 128 make at least one legal distinction between genders that impacts women’s ability to participate in the economy.

Second, we need commitments from the private sector. And that is why I am so pleased to see this tremendous show of support from the private sector here today.

The reality is that the private sector is the largest employer in many countries around the globe. We need it to commit to ensuring that women have every opportunity to take their seats in the highest level of corporate boardrooms.

This past May at the 2014 APEC Women and the Economy Forum, Japan led the effort to get all 21 economies to agree to work toward establishing voluntary goals to increase women’s representation in leadership.

And it is Japan that is now collecting best practices from private sector companies in the APEC region so that those economies can better achieve their goals.

Third, we also need to improve access to credit because legal barriers and cultural norms in many countries inhibit women from accessing capital.

In developing economies alone, these barriers result in a $260 to $320 billion dollar credit gap for women owned small and medium enterprises. This is not only a missed market opportunity for financial institutions but also an enormous constraint on women’s ability to achieve the financial wherewithal to grow a business, raise crops, or protect against shocks.

In the United States, our government undertakes special efforts through our Small Business Administration to ensure that women have access to capital, because the reality is that the playing field for women is not yet equal.

And finally, we need to change cultural attitudes and norms that make it difficult for women to participate in the workforce.

The truth is, women are not only vital employees, but their participation in the workforce results in tremendous gains for families, communities and nations.

And the sooner we can convince people of this reality, the better off we, as a global economy, will all be. As our Secretary of State John Kerry often says, “gender equality is critical to our shared goals of prosperity, stability, and peace.”

There is no magic bullet in the U.S. or Japan, or anywhere else for that matter. But we’ve all seen what is possible.

We know the way forward. And with your leadership, and our mutual commitment, we can work together to create a future where the world will benefit from the contributions of each and every one of us, a world where each person can truly shine.

Thank you very much.