Gender equality has come a long way since the emergence of feminism in the 19th and early-20th century. Yet, not much headway seems to have been made in terms of the economic empowerment of women. According to Women as a Valuable Asset a paper published by McKinsey and Company in 2012, women are “considerably under-represented in the senior management of companies all over the world”. For instance, in India, women represent 5% of executive committees and only 2% of corporate boards.
It seems that numerous obstacles have stifled the pursuit of gender equality in the workplace.
In “Giants of Asia: Conversations with Ban Ki-Moon”, the UN Secretary General talked about how difficult it was for him to appoint women to top positions or to promote them. Often, the managerial executives were men and tended to select males for promotions and advancement opportunities. It was only when a practice was instituted whereby managers and executives had to include at least a few women in their list of potential candidates that progress was made.
The UN example tells us how difficult it is to institute equal gender treatment. There are always certain elements of discrimination, whether intentionally or subconsciously. It takes effort and enlightenment on the leadership’s part to institute practices that can undo societal’s mental conditioning.
According to Delivering The Power Of Parity: Toward A More Gender-Equal Society, an annual report on advancing gender equality by the McKinsey Global Institute (MGI), there is “a large potential economic gain from narrowing the gender gap in the world of work”. The economic empowerment of women could create a potential economic gain of “$12 trillion in 2025”. Based on MGI’s research, that “represents an 11 percent boost to GDP” per country.
How then do we unlock the potential that is to be unleashed through the attainment of gender equality?
I believe that a multi-pronged approach built on social (education, provision of family support and childcare services) and corporate (human resource management, hiring practices) policies will help catalyse the economic empowerment of women.
Within the Commonwealth, the Secretariat’s Gender Equality Policy provides the institutional context for its work on gender mainstreaming towards achieving gender equality in the Secretariat’s mandates, policies, operations and programmes.
Specifically, the Secretariat has already identified the “lack of access to finance for women entrepreneurs, limited access to procurement and global markets, and underrepresentation of women on corporate boards”. The attention paid towards acknowledging and addressing these problems will hopefully reap dividends in the form of the economic empowerment of women.
Aside from setting broad policy directions, it is important to focus on the details as well. A key barrier to the economic empowerment of women is the stress of handling both work and domestic responsibilities. To address this problem, governments should work towards increasing childcare support services. In Singapore, the number of childcare centres has increased from 785 in 2009 to 1106 in 2014. Additionally, the total number of childcare centres offering infant care services has increased from 152 in 2009 to 336 in 2014.
Companies and employers can work towards instituting measures that promote gender equality in the workplace. They should institute rules to ensure that women represent at least one third of the candidate pools for any managerial positions. Companies can also run recruitment programmes targeted at women and arrange flexible working schedules for working mothers. A combination of such initiatives will help attract and retain talented women to forge strong, fulfilling careers.
Change Is now
The economic empowerment of women boasts numerous benefits for the world. Aside from generating significant value to global economies and companies, it will also help advance the cause of gender equality.
Coordinating policy across the public and private sectors is by no means easy. Yet, politics is after all the art of the possible. Though difficult, the pursuit of gender equality at the workplace is worth striving for. Empowering women within their careers will bring both prosperity and equality.