Priorities for women’s economic empowerment in 2017

Claudia Canepa Gender, Her Series, Women's Economic Empowerment

Claudia Canepa and Caroline Green reflect back on our Her Series blog, which highlighted opinions, research and learning on women’s economic empowerment. Here they outline the key lessons from the series.

This year has marked an important time for the political agenda on women’s economic empowerment, with the launch of a special UN High Level Panel back in January 2016. The panel published a report, which served as a global call to step up action on women’s economic empowerment to meet the deadlines set by the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Alongside the 2016 report members of the panel, including Oxfam, made a series of commitments for new actions and partnerships.

But the panel’s work does not stop here. 2017 will be critical for generating the additional partnerships and commitments that are needed. To keep momentum high, a second report will be launched by the panel in March 2017 to highlight additional best practices and the ongoing actions by Panel members and other stakeholders. This will coincide with the 2017 Commission on the Status of Women which will focus on women’s economic empowerment.

Currently the panel is forming working groups on key strands of their work to feed into this process, including on unpaid care, macroeconomic policies, social norms, collective voice, financial inclusion, changing business culture and practice. It is critical that all these groups are anchored by a transformative vision which will bring meaningful change for women in relation to all forms of work.

Her Series

Earlier in August, Oxfam launched Her Series, which aimed to take a look at the multiple causes and types of inequality, and the solutions proposed by different actors. So what lessons should the panel heed from Her Series in the coming months to understand where we want to head and how we can get there?

This gender bias constrains women’s ability to access decent job

Lesson one: It’s time for a radical vision to build a fairer economy which is structured to ensure gender equality

Economic policy and practice today is fundamentally biased against women and the types of paid and unpaid work they are engaged in. Women invest 2.5 times more time than men in unpaid care and domestic work (see ‘Why Care about Development‘ and ‘For women’s economic empowerment we need more caring men‘). In addition, women are concentrated in the informal rural and urban economy, associated with low average earnings and high average costs and risks. The full spectrum of women’s work is neither recognised nor respected, resulting in economic policy-making which undervalues women’s unpaid work and stigmatises women’s informal paid work.

This gender bias, linked to the bias against informal employment, combined with the negative social norms around what type of work is ‘appropriate’ for women, constrains women’s ability to access decent jobs on an equal footing with men. Together with often weak legal protections, this results in discrimination against women at work, unequal pay for equal work, and gendered occupational segregation. For example, research on Mexico shows that Women earn 15% less than men in comparable occupations (see ‘Strengthening and making Mexico’s working women’s political voices heard‘).

Economic growth is not necessarily good for women

Women’s contribution in the workplace may be good for economic growth, but economic growth is not necessarily good for women. The world’s poorest – the majority of whom are women – are failing to experience equal rewards from economic growth (see ‘Morocco’s strawberry pickers and women’s economic empowerment‘).

The panel’s 2016 report acknowledges this. It underscores that not all forms of economic growth are associated with expanding the opportunities for decent work and that ‘business as usual’ is not enough. It argues that macroeconomic policies such as austerity are exacerbating low-growth, and the very policies needed to boost growth would also contribute to making the economy fairer for women.

So we need to see wide scale shifts in economic policies, in how work is valued and in the social norms preventing women’s access to certain jobs. This won’t just happen through wishful thinking, and can’t just be achieved through increasing women’s participation it the workforce (See ‘An IMF that promotes gender equality?’). For this to happen, we have to build a fairer economy, remodelling macroeconomic policies, and challenging the negative norms which flow through our daily lives and the workplace.

Lesson two: It’s time for more considerate programme designs, innovation and a focus on neglected issues

Large scale shifts towards women’s economic empowerment are complex and must be done carefully. Programmes for women’s economic empowerment require strong safeguards to handle any backlash that might lead to an increase in violence against women (see ‘Don’t be naïve, power is a serious business‘). Yet greater economic independence can also reduce violence against women by increasing their financial autonomy and bargaining power. The 2016 panel report shows that programmes that focus on increasing women and girl’s economic empowerment, corporate action to prevent and respond to violence and an improved enabling environment of policies and laws, can reduce and stop violence against women.

More research and investment in innovative social norm change campaigns must form part of the broader agenda. But these must be designed in ways which recognise the contextual complexities and legacies surrounding development interventions (see ‘A note on the ethics of changing norms‘).

Programmes for women’s economic empowerment require strong safeguards 

With a target on unpaid care in the new Sustainable Development Goals, the need to understand and value roles women play as informal workers and carers has achieved a rightful place on the international development agenda. When addressing unequal unpaid care , we must see the linkages with the sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) agenda, in terms of how care work can impede access to SRHR services resulting in unplanned and/or frequent pregnancies, to understand the breadth of the response needed (see “Why we can’t talk about one without the other: sexual and reproductive rights and women’s economic empowerment and Women’s economic empowerment and the HIV and AIDS response“).

Lesson three: Leaving no one behind will take serious commitment

Step one is to invest in capturing better data, starting with a more comprehensive vision of work – including informal and unpaid care work – so we have a much better picture of the gendered nature of the economy. We must look at the intersecting forms of discrimination faced by different women – whether on the basis of age, ethnicity, race, sexuality and other factors through disaggregated data (see ‘Older women: Invisible linchpins of the household economy‘ and ‘The long road to fair employment‘).

But data must then be followed with political will to tackle the multiple and specific barriers which are inhibiting women’s choices and control over the work they do.

Greater economic independence can also reduce violence against women

Lesson four: Political will means supporting transformative pathways for change

Looking forward, Oxfam urges the panel to ensure that their commitments will contribute to three transformative pathways to ensure that all women, particularly those living in poverty, will gain and maintain control over opportunities for decent work and achieve economic empowerment:

  • Promote women’s collective organisations, voice and agency in economic decision making, the market, the community and the home
  • Promote and implement legal and policy environment which supports women’s economic empowerment in line with international human rights and labour standards
  • Implement positive business practices and market innovations to transform the gender bias in the world of work

There is much to do to achieve women’s economic empowerment. But there’s reason to be optimistic that we will see a step-change on this agenda in 2017. We know what a fairer economy should look like, and the pathways we must take to achieve it. So let’s start marching down them.