Engaging the private sector in advancing gender equality at work | Helen Clark

18 Nov 2016

 Photo: UNDP

Globally, young women and men entering the labour force today have nearly the same level of educational qualifications. But they often don't face equal opportunities in the world of work.

Women earn, on average, 24 percent less than men. In S&P 500 companies, women hold only 4.6 percent of CEO positions and take under 20 percent of board seats. Yet research suggests that increasing the proportion of women on boards of directors is linked to better financial results and higher levels of corporate philanthropy.

In rich and poor countries alike, women carry a disproportionate burden of unpaid work – for example, caring for young, elderly, sick and/or disabled family members; and in obtaining and preparing food. These tasks not only demand substantial time and energy but also can prevent women from fulfilling their aspirations and deprive economies of women’s full talents and contributions.

Women’s equality in the workplace is a critical component of gender equality and sustainable development. It would not only improve the prospects of millions of women, but would also have a profound impact on the development of countries.

The World Economic Forum’s recently released Gender Gap Report 2016 called for businesses to “prioritize gender equality as a critical talent and moral imperative”. It notes recent estimates suggesting that economic gender parity could add an additional US$240 billion to the GDP of the United Kingdom, $1,201 billion to that of the United States, $526 billion to Japan’s, and $285 billion to the GDP of Germany.

Conversely, gender inequality carries a steep cost. UNDP’s Africa Human Development Report 2016 estimates that total annual economic losses due to gender inequality in the labour market have averaged $95 billion per year since 2010 in sub-Saharan Africa and may have been as high as $105 billion, or 6 percent of the region’s GDP in 2014.

As part of its efforts to drive inclusive development and advance gender equality, UNDP is fostering public-private partnerships aimed at closing gender gaps in the workplace. Next week, UNDP and the Government of Panama are co-hosting a global forum, “Business for Gender Equality: Advancing the Sustainable Development Goals,” to bring together leaders from government, business, academia and labour unions from Latin America, Africa, Asia, Europe, and the United States to share good practices, innovation, and persistent challenges to advancing gender equality in the workplace. This event reflects the importance placed on both private sector engagement and gender equality in the 2030 Development Agenda and the Sustainable Development Goals.

The forum showcases UNDP’s work supporting governments in Latin America to develop Gender Equality Seal Certification Programmes. These recognize public and private sector organizations that meet high standards for gender equality in their workplaces. Since the initiative was launched in 2010, more than 400 companies in 12 countries in the region have been certified, having been recognized variously for eliminating gender pay gaps; increasing women’s roles in decision making at middle and upper management levels; implementing work-life balance policies, such as family and parental leave; addressing sexual harassment at work; and hiring and advancing women in non-traditional fields.

UNDP is now expanding this support globally. Next week in Singapore, our Goodwill Ambassador Michelle Yeoh will present the Gender Equality Certification Programme to business leaders from the Asia-Pacific region at the “Responsible Business Forum on Sustainable Development” that UNDP is co-hosting.  We are also promoting the initiative in Africa, where this summer Uganda’s Private Sector Foundation pledged to adopt the Gender Equality Seal Certification Programme.

Not surprisingly, participating companies in Latin America have found that providing opportunities and equal treatment at work for their female employees is also good for their bottom line. By addressing gender disparities in the workplace and establishing environments where women’s work and contributions are valued, companies have experienced benefits such as greater efficiency, improved staff performance, increased employee commitment to the company, and improved recruitment – not to mention an enhanced public image.

The importance of private sector engagement in advancing gender equality in the workplace cannot be overstated. How business does business, and to what degree it ensures that men and women can contribute and benefit equally, will have a huge impact on whether sustainable development is achieved. By making gender equality central to its business practices, the private sector can be a driver of progress that benefits all.

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