Address by ITC Executive Director at the Chatham House International Policy Forum

9 July 2018
ITC News
Speech delivered by ITC Executive Director Arancha González at the Chatham House International Policy Forum
No Going Back: Making Gender Equality Happen
London, United Kingdom
9 July 2018

Good morning Ladies and Gentlemen,

Next week the world will celebrate the fact that less than 50 years ago, we took “one giant leap for mankind”. On 20 July 1969, Apollo 11 landed the first human on the moon. We actually conquered outer space exploration – sadly we cannot say the same is true for gender equality.

“No Going Back” – the theme of this Policy Forum is a much-needed reminder. Despite incredible advances in communications, healthcare and other areas we are still struggling, even backsliding, when it comes to gender equality, particularly in the economy. In 2015, projections suggested that it would be another 118 years before we achieved parity in economic opportunities for men and women. Today the forecast is 217 years. By some measures, gender inequality is actually taking a giant step backwards for humankind.

A counterpoint to this is the positive efforts across the globe act to empower women – this Forum included. The International Trade Centre (ITC), which I head, and partner organizations like the World Trade Organization (WTO) and the United Nations are also devoting increased attention to women’s economic empowerment in trade and development policy and practice.

At the nexus of trade and development are two key areas worth raising. One, the current threat to multilateralism. Two, the rise of technology. Both play an important role in our endeavour to make gender equality a reality.

More now than ever, gender is becoming top of mind for an increasing number of multilateral institutions and initiatives. The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals have shifted ambition from promoting gender equality to achieving gender equality. As we will hear more on later, the G7 and the G20 have also given gender equality a prominent place on their agendas. The last WTO Ministerial Conference in Buenos Aires had its first collective call for more focus on women and trade. And governments such as Chile, Uruguay, Canada, the Netherlands and the Nordic countries are aligning their trade agreements and national trade and development policies with gender-sensitive priorities. On the multilateral front, we seem to be, for the most part, singing from the same hymn sheet for gender equality.

On the other hand, multilateralism and the multilateral institutions face strong winds. This in turn threatens progress in solving critical challenges including gender inequality. In allocating multilateral resources to firefighting, whether tackling unpredictable trade wars or their consequences for international peace and security, we run the risk of not being quick enough with framing new global rules that ensure fairer and more inclusive access to and distribution of benefits for women in the economy. It is critical we defend and preserve multilateralism by delivering results, impact and scale to our vision and ambitions of gender equality.

How we live is changing rapidly. Many of us are already living easier lives thanks to day-to-day automations, machine learning, mobile computing and artificial intelligence – sometimes without even knowing it! There is no doubt that the world as we knew it is changing and this rapid rise of technology is waiting for no one – be they female or male.

What is worth noting for the purpose of our discussion is that the activities most sensitive to technological progress are the ones where women are largely present. These include office and administrative support; accommodation; sales and retail trade, food preparation and serving to name a few. There are some who predict that half of today’s work could be automated in less than 40 years with women being the hardest hit. Men stand to gain one job for every three jobs lost to technology advances, while women are only expected to gain one job for every five or more jobs lost.

Even if not to the extent predicted, there is no way around it. Gender equality can only really happen if we ensure women are prepared across all sectors of the economy, for the wave of technological change already upon us. This is where inequalities in women's access to and use of technology matter.

The G7 and the G20 have already initiated important work on these complex issues. The G7’s commitment to raise $3 billion to support women’s economic participation in developing economies (the “2X Challenge”) and the initiative to bring together G7 private sector investment for international development are just a few examples. The G20 under Germany’s Presidency launched the eSkills4Girls initiative for digital inclusion, supported the We-Fi initiative for financial inclusion, and the W20 under the Argentinian presidency has provided detailed policy recommendations on labour inclusion, financial inclusion, digital inclusion and rural development. Given that the G20 accounts for about 85% of the global economy and 75% of global trade, if we can commit to maximum participation by G20 members along these areas of gender inclusion, we can make remarkable progress on a global scale. If we are intelligent, we will not stop at the G20 and will ensure this becomes the norm across the entire world.

The challenge ahead lies in actually implementing this agenda. While the operational challenges will no doubt be complex, here are three broad areas that are likely to pose challenges going forward.

The first has to do with the fact that we need context-specific solutions to the type of inclusion we want to achieve. Take the case of financial inclusion. The World Bank’s 2017 Global Findex Report shows that 515 million more people worldwide reported owning a formal financial account in 2017 than in 2014. Yet, there continues to be a 9 percent global financial gender gap in developing countries. The reasons behind this are unlikely to be uniform across different countries. In countries of Sub-Saharan Africa such as Kenya, one sees that gender gaps in mobile money account ownership are narrower than those for formal bank account ownership. But this significant difference is not seen in countries such as Chad, Uganda or Ghana, suggesting that other factors might be at play. Of course, women’s financial inclusion itself includes everything from banking access to business loans for entrepreneurs. Hence we cannot adopt a one size fits all approach, and we need to invest more time, effort and funds into collecting and analysing high quality, cross-country gender disaggregated data.

The second challenge has to do with how interlinked these different issues are, and the coordination required to ensure that they are addressed in a comprehensive manner. Take the case of digital inclusion. Education plays an important role in women having the skills and the confidence to leverage digital technology in their lives and their businesses. Hence as the digital economy becomes more prominent, women in rural communities with access to lower education are likely to fall even further behind economically. The W20 recommendations under rural development incorporate this understanding. But what this means is that multiple government agencies, departments and ministries which traditionally work in silos, have to converge and cooperate. This is not an easy task. This is where having more women in public sector leadership positions becomes necessary for creating the political will required to advance this agenda.

The third challenge has to do with digital infrastructure and digital business ownership being overwhelmingly concentrated in developed countries at present and China. How do we ensure that women-owned businesses in developing countries - which tend to be smaller in size - can be competitive within the international digital economy when the playing field is uneven? An initial answer is that we must strengthen the entire digital chain in developing countries – digital infrastructure, education and training, innovation hubs, and financial investment into digital businesses – and make it more gender inclusive and gender responsive. Platforms like the Broadband Commission and the Equals Partnership are trying to address this. South-south technology partnerships can also be valuable here, particularly with countries such as India where digital innovation has emerged in response to decentralized and infrastructure-limited conditions. It is critical to continue investing in physical infrastructure. Research by ITC and many others shows that small businesses are the most dependent on public provision of logistics such as transportation. Without this investment, these enterprises, especially in developing countries, cannot be globally competitive in the digital economy.

As they say, to be forewarned is to be forearmed. We must make plans to achieve the agenda of women’s empowerment with full awareness of the challenges but also rewards that lie ahead. Political will by the G20 is of critical importance for us to achieve the goals that we have set.

Thank you for your attention.