Advancing Women's Economic Opportunities: Lessons from Japan, South Korea, and the United States

Catherine M. Russell
Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women's Issues 
Washington, DC
September 27, 2016

As prepared

I’d really like to thank CSIS and the Asia Foundation for hosting us today, and for always doing excellent work in supporting U.S. foreign policy, particularly gender equality.

I’d like to start today, strangely enough, by talking about golf. I’m sure you’ve seen that, in the upper echelons of business and politics, golf is a way to get things done—and I do not play golf, just to be clear—both here in the United States and in other parts of the world as well.

People have actually pointed to golf as an important tool for leaders. You see the President playing golf. He’s not the only one. It’s a way to get to know people in a low-stress, low-stakes atmosphere. That way, when it’s time to make decisions together, or grapple with a difficult situation, there’s an established trust to build on.

Gender equality in foreign policy can be a lot like that. It’s is good for building relationships. It’s good for collaboration. But it does something that golf cannot. It makes the world a better place.

There is no doubt that, when it comes to gender equality, we need to do more than we’re doing now. Around the world, women are vastly underrepresented in politics and the workforce, particularly in leadership positions and other high-paying jobs, and that’s something we talked a lot about today at the trilateral meeting. Only one in five of the world’s parliamentarians is a woman, and one in every 23 Fortune 500 companies is led by women.

Meanwhile, women are vastly overrepresented in areas like poverty, literacy, and unpaid labor. I’ve heard people say that poverty has a female face, and that makes sense when you consider that women control just one-fifth of global wealth. I’ve seen the stories behind these statistics can be found around the world. I’ve traveled to more than 40 countries, and in each one I’ve met with women who are held back from supporting their families, pursuing their dream jobs, or making their own choices.

The fact is that no country has achieved full gender equality, and that means everyone comes from a place where these issues make a difference. The good news is that leaders are beginning to realize that everyone benefits from advancing gender equality. Studies have found that countries with less gender inequality are more secure, and peace agreements last longer when women are at the negotiating table.

The same trend can be found in economies. A recent McKinsey report showed that if the world closed the gender gap in workforce participation, global GDP would increase by $28 trillion by 2025—really, an extraordinary number. That’s about a quarter of the world’s current GDP, and almost half of the world’s current debt.

In other words, advancing gender equality is important for peace, security, or economic development. It’s also important for building relationships. That’s what we saw today at the trilateral forum on women’s’ empowerment between the United States, Japan, and the Republic of Korea. This was the first time we’ve done something like this, so our delegations had the chance to make a little bit of history. More importantly, we advanced the trilateral relationship between our countries—and we advanced gender equality.

For example, we shared best practices on how to tackle challenges in our own countries, from encouraging more women to run for office, to changing workplaces so that work in the 21st century makes sense for families. The forum included elected officials, emerging leaders, and members of the private sector and civil society. I know you’ll hear from some of them in a moment, but I want to say how important it was that they were a part of this forum. Because we know that we will not make the progress we need if we try to do this work with governments alone. We can’t do it by ourselves.

As part of the forum, we discussed how to better coordinate our work on global issues, particularly investments each country is making in adolescent girls around the world, which is a big priority for the United States and for others. In the past year and a half, the United States launched its first-ever global strategy to empower adolescent girls, as well as a presidential initiative called Let Girls Learn, which is focused on adolescent girls’ education. We’re very proud of both our programs and our policies on this issue, and today was an opportunity to share more about our efforts with our colleagues. We discussed how the United States can work with Japan and South Korea to better help girls around the world.

No matter what the mechanism—whether it’s multilateral fora like the Equal Futures Partnership that President Obama started several years ago and that Korea and Japan are a part of, which we’re really excited about, or the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation, or future trilateral forums on women’s empowerment—it’s clear that our countries have important opportunities to work together. And all three of us are truly committed to doing that.

What’s exciting about that work is how quickly it can strengthen the foundation for other joint efforts. Because women’s issues are truly everyone’s issues. For example, a conversation on women’s economic empowerment will naturally turn into a conversation on economic development, on supply chains, on trade policy. And that means our collaboration on gender equality can be a bridge to broader cooperation.

This is especially important for the United States, Japan, and South Korea, because our strategic interests are aligned across the board: from gender equality, to economic prosperity, to security in the Asia-Pacific region and beyond. Ultimately, we have much to gain by including gender equality in international relations and foreign policy. We can strengthen our partnerships with each other. We can improve and diversify our economies. And we can make the world a better place.

I’d like to end with a quote from the famous American golfer Arnold Palmer, who died earlier this week. He said that the most rewarding things you do in life are often the ones that look like they cannot be done. Gender equality sometimes looks like an impossible task—a pursuit without an end. But as we’ve seen today, we can make progress, and that progress is worth making. Little by little, discussion by discussion, step by step, we can improve the lives of women and girls, men and boys all around the world. And in doing so, we can reach our shared goals of peace, prosperity, and security.

Thank you.