02/12/2015 05:47 GMT | Updated 02/12/2016 05:12 GMT

When It Comes to Gender Parity, We're Only Halfway There


What is power and where does it reside?

In today's world, power lies in our political systems and our economies. These two institutions, broadly speaking, control the way we live our lives. They carry huge implications for our freedoms, our human rights and our levels of security - financial and otherwise.

Now consider who has the greatest access to, and control over, these institutions. Overwhelmingly, it's men. This is the conclusion drawn by reams of research into gender parity across the globe. Take, for example, the World Economic Forum's new Global Gender Gap Report, which measures the gender gaps in four key areas - health, education, economic participation and political representation.

The report shows that developed and developing countries have made significant leaps in increasing access to education and improving health conditions for women and girls. Among the 145 countries measured, for example, the gender gap in health and survival is 96% closed, with 40 countries having closed the gap entirely, whilst the gap in educational attainment is 95% closed.

However, when you look at political and economic activity, the distance to parity is much wider. Even those countries which maintain consistently high scores for overall gender equality, such as the Scandinavian countries, suffer in these two areas. In developing countries, the gap gets even bigger. Worldwide, the gender gaps on political representation and economic activity are only 23% and 59% closed, respectively.

The message is clear: whilst progress on gender equality has been strong in some areas, we're only halfway there.

Based on the current rate of progress, it will take an astonishing 118 years before women gain economic parity with men.

The economic argument for empowering women and girls is well-worn and well-wrought. But it bears repeating. Countries that utilise the talents and skills of their full workforce will ultimately be more prosperous and successful. Research by the International Labour Organization shows that economies with high female labour-force participation rates are more resilient to economic shocks and suffer from slowdowns of economic growth less often. It also shows that countries and regions with the largest gender gaps in labour force participation incur income losses of up to 30% of GDP per capita.

Clearly, it makes financial sense to empower women. But there is also a moral imperative for enabling women's political and economic parity with men. Put quite simply, women make up half the human race. They deserve equal access to earning potential and decision-making power.

So, how to ensure this?

One crucial lever to increasing women's role in the global economy will be to create an enabling environment for women entrepreneurs. On this front, the news is not all bleak. A new report by the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor shows that women's entrepreneurship is gaining momentum around the world, increasing by 7% since 2012. There are now more than 200 million women entrepreneurs across the globe. The report also showed that women entrepreneurs are just as likely to innovate as men, playing a vital role in developing solutions that improve people's lives.

Yet the fact remains that across the world, too many women are still shut out of the economy because they struggle to access the tools, skills and capital needed to translate their ideas and talent into business success.

My Foundation supports women entrepreneurs in developing and emerging economies to realise their ambitions by providing access to business skills training, mentoring, technology and financial services. Of these, access to finance is perhaps the toughest barrier to dismantle. Over one billion women around the world still do not have access to a basic bank account, making up the majority of the world's financially excluded.

Bringing more women into the formal financial ecosystem will require a two-pronged strategy: encouraging financial institutions to view women entrepreneurs as viable clients and develop products that meet their needs, and working with women themselves, enhancing their financial literacy skills so that they feel confident enough to use those products and services.

Empowering women to enter the labour market can also have a knock-on effect on political diversity. Women who are financially independent have greater control over their own lives, a more influential voice in tackling injustice in their communities, and are better able to participate in political processes.

Mentoring is another way of helping women to make strides in the political and economic spheres. When men are 'over-represented' in the higher echelons of our governments and workplaces, it can be difficult for women to even imagine taking up a place at the table. Having a mentor can help to widen networks, refine skills and boost confidence - bringing the seemingly unattainable within reach.

Women and girls must be empowered to take up their rightful places in our economic and political systems. The balance of power must be set straight.