Why the G20 needs to tackle gender inequality: Brisbane and beyond

The G20 should listen to Oxfam and assess its agenda and actions based on how they support the fulfilment of women’s human rights and lead to gender equality. This is not a question of adding yet another issue to the G20 agenda.

Helen Szoke
13 November 2014

The leaders of G20 gather this weekend in Brisbane for the G20 Summit. We are hopeful there will be good news to report, with the summit communiqué expected to deliver commitments from each G20 country to reduce the gender gap in workforce participation by 25 per cent by 2025.

This target was agreed by G20 Labour and Employment Ministers in September and we are waiting on details of how this will be achieved when countries reveal their final growth strategies at the Summit.

Efforts from the G20 to close the gender gap in employment through targets to increase women’s participation in the workforce are unambiguously good news.

Just over half of the G20 countries exceed 50 per cent rates for female labour force participation. These policies should have a positive impact on economic growth – key to the G20’s mandate.

But – and there is a but - for the G20, this needs to be seen as the first step towards fulfilling the 2012 Los Cabos commitments to tackle the barriers to women’s full economic and social participation. It is a first step in the right direction. However, it is not the broad response to gender inequality that we need. 

During the boom days in the Asian Tiger economies, hundreds of millions of women came into paid employment. Employment is a good thing. 

But we have learned that the Asian miracle of growth was in many ways related to the suppression of women’s wages. In that part of the world - and in many other regions - women work with lower wages, poorer conditions and fewer rights.

In Oxfam’s work across the globe, we see first-hand the negative results of insecure jobs and informal, unsafe workplaces for women. We see women legally paid well below living wages to work hours on end. We see women’s control over land and assets often pale in comparison to that of men.   

A target to help move women into secure jobs is absolutely one part of the answer. But the G20 needs to do more to ensure their economic policies are inclusive of women.  

We’d like to see further steps taken by the forum to tackle the gender pay gap, not just the gender employment gap. The jobs created through this G20 target must come with a commitment of security, living wages, and the right to collectively organise and bargain for women.  

For the target to work, it will also have to be accompanied by truly bold social and political policies that, for example, support fully accessible and affordable child care for all mothers and families, and tackle unequal political representation.  

For it’s bold action that is required to tackle this pervasive problem that has dramatic consequences. Oxfam’s recent report The G20 and Gender Equality showed that it will take another 75 years globally for women to reach equal pay to men. 

The report found that across G20 countries and beyond women; are paid less than men; do most of the unpaid labour; are over-represented in part-time work and; are discriminated against in the household, in markets and in institutions.

Even in Australia, this year’s host of the G20, data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics recently showed that the gender pay gap at a 20 year high.

Oxfam is concerned with gender equality and women’s rights as ends in themselves. Oxfam is a rights-based agency. The universality of human rights means that every person is entitled to the same level of protection of their basic human rights no matter who they are or where they live and work.  As a result, these rights transcend national borders, economic paradigms and political structures.

We think the G20 should take a similar approach and assess its agenda and actions based on how they support the fulfilment of women’s rights and lead to gender equality. We don’t see this as adding yet another issue to the G20 agenda.

Yes, there are already key international human rights instruments dealing exclusively with removing the barriers to women's rights and empowerment. 

The Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) and the Beijing Platform for Action of 1995 Beijing Platform for Action (BPfA)  that  calls on all governments, bilateral donors, and multilateral financial and development institutions to review, adopt, and maintain macro-economic policies and development strategies that address the needs and efforts of women and eradicate poverty. 

These are two key international instruments specifically concerned with women's rights and empowerment. These instruments provide an agenda for women's empowerment and the elimination of discrimination against women in the enjoyment of their civil, political, economic and cultural rights.

G20 members have an obligation to fufill with regard to these commitments and they need to be active in supporting them within its agenda.

Beyond a commitment to women’s right and gender equality, the G20 needs to maintain a consistent and uncompromised commitment to pursuing inclusive growth – growth that is sensitive to its equitable distribution.

Extreme wealth inequality – the vast divide in the amount of money the richest people have, compared to everyone else or to the poorest – is a major issue. According to the World Economic Forum (WEF) 2015 Outlook, it is the number one global challenge.

Oxfam wants to see inequality discussed by world leaders in Brisbane. Just 85 of the richest individuals own the same wealth as half of the world’s population – 3.5 billion people. Inequality doesn’t only derail poverty reduction. There is growing evidence from the IMF, World Bank, OECD and others that it negatively affects economic growth itself, hence the concern of the WEF.

Income and wealth inequality can also lead to unequal and unfair political and economic influence and, importantly for the G20’s commitment to women, it can exacerbate other inequalities like the gender gap. Systematic discrimination against women and girls is both a pervasive cause, and a consequence, of the inequality in power relations that drives poverty.

Gender inequality is arguably the most acute and persistent example of inequality. It is the most fundamental obstacle to eradicating poverty and achieving economic and social development.

Two-thirds of the more than 759 million adults who lack basic literacy skills are women. 13 of the G20 countries rank in the bottom half of the 136 countries surveyed in the World Economic Forum’s Gender Gap Report. Eight of them rank in the bottom half in terms of women’s economic opportunities and participation. In no G20 country do women’s wages reach more than 80% of men’s.

Women consistently form the groups most marginalised from economic decision-making. The World Bank reports that countries that invest in promoting the social and economic status of women tend to have lower poverty rates.

In fact, it has been shown that over the past 30 years, no other indicator has demonstrated greater impact on development outcomes than gender equality. The G20 will not achieve its goals of inclusive growth and gender equality without actively promoting equality and women’s rights across its agenda.

The G20 also needs to develop a more systematic approach to considering gender equality in its policy formulation and monitoring. The G20 should commit to inclusion of gender equality goals across all of its decision-making processes. The forum should also commit to monitoring of the gender impacts of its decisions because we know that G20 decisions are rarely gender neutral.

Two priorities for the G20 this year are growth and infrastructure. On both counts, there is great potential for the poorest people to benefit, including women. But there is also the potential for both economic growth and infrastructure strategies to narrowly benefit those who already have high levels of wealth, power and influence.

Oxfam is all too familiar with examples of projects in mining, agribusiness and hydropower that are designed to benefit communities but can, and often do, leave women and other marginalised groups out. 

Our work has shown that these investments, often shaped by and driven by macro-economic imperatives, can often have a range of negative gendered impacts for women, including; increasing violence and sexual exploitation; removal of women from land and water-based livelihoods; and more formal employment opportunities and financial rewards going to men.

So, despite the welcome progress, we can expect that following the Brisbane Summit the G20 will still have a long road to travel on with regard to gender equality.

Beyond 2014 we hope to see the G20 take more concrete steps towards this goal, on a journey to support for women’s human rights and the pursuit of gender-sensitive, inclusive economic growth and gender-equal employment policies.



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