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Gender and Economic Development

Empowered Women Fight Poverty

It's nearly 100 years since the UK government passed the Representation of the People Act 1918 and over 150 years since women's suffrage started. The 8th March is International Women's Day, yet in 2014 the World Economic Forum predicted that it would take until 2095 to achieve global gender equality. While the last hundred years have seen considerable progress, women across the world should not have to wait until the end of this century to achieve gender equality.

This is an issue that cuts across rich and poor countries and is a Pandora's Box of injustice. There are just 22 female CEOs in the Fortune 500 and less than 10 per cent of executive directors of FTSE 100 companies are women. According to the Global Poverty Project, "women make up half the world's population and yet represent a staggering 70 per cent of the world's poor. We live in a world in which women living in poverty face gross inequalities and injustice from birth to death. From poor education to poor nutrition to vulnerable and low pay employment, the sequence of discrimination that a woman may suffer during her entire life is unacceptable but all too common".

One thing is clear to me, and drawing on my experience as a Commissioner for Racial Equality for the UK government and as a core adviser on improving inclusion within London's Metropolitan Police, equality doesn't just happen because of good will or fine intentions. It takes a combination of principle, rational and emotional belief in equality, and a relentless commitment to seek practical steps to improve inclusivity.

The Economics of Gender Equality

Women produce half of the world's food and work 70 per cent of the world's working hours, yet earn only 10 per cent of the world's income and own less than 1 per cent of the world's property.

Gender equality is more than a matter of social justice. When women have equal access to education, and go on to participate fully in business and economic decision-making, they become a catalyst to fight poverty. Their increased earnings improve household incomes and the well-being of children which subsequently helps reduce poverty for future generations.

According to the OECD, when more women work, economies grow. If a truly global movement to ensure women's empowerment and equality is the panacea to ending poverty, what are some of the roadblocks?

There are significant legal and legislative changes needed to ensure women's rights are upheld and cherished around the world. While a record 143 countries guaranteed equality between men and women in their Constitutions, another 52 don't. In fact, in many nations gender discrimination is still evident in legal structures and social norms.

Goal 5 of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) - to achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls - is a key enabler to overcome this historical injustice. In order to meet the Goal, significant actions will be required and laws changed. For example, there are still 26 countries that differentiate between men and women through statutory inheritance laws. This exposes women to greater vulnerability to poverty and food insecurity, and limited or no access to resources and credit, making them increasingly dependent upon men to secure a livelihood.

Furthermore, gender differences in laws affect both developing and developed economies. Almost 90 per cent of 143 economies studied by the OECD have at least one legal difference restricting women's economic opportunities. Of those, 79 economies have laws that restrict the types of jobs that women can do, and husbands can prevent their wives from working in 15 economies.

Climbing the education mountain

Structural changes allowing women access to business, property, inheritance and safe jobs are vital, as well as ensuring universal access to sexual and reproductive health. Another crucial solution is education. Furthering women's and girls' education contributes to higher economic growth. Increased educational outputs account for about 50 per cent of the economic growth in OECD countries over the past 50 years. Of this, over half is a result of girls having had access to higher levels of education and achieving greater equality in the number of years spent in school.

Since 2000, the UN with the rest of the global community, have made gender equality in primary education a central tenant to ensure women are able to contribute fully to their communities both economically and socially. More girls are now in school compared to 15 years ago, and most regions have reached gender equality in primary education. The impact? Women now account for 41 per cent of paid workers outside of the agricultural sector, compared to 35 per cent in 1990.

This is a great achievement, but there is still a mountain to climb. According to the UN, 9.5 million girls will never set foot in a classroom compared to 5 million boys. If this trend continues, by 2020, we can expect almost 16 million girls aged 6 to 11 to be denied the chance to learn to read and write.

Since 2009, KPMG has supported the Millennium Village Project (MVP) in Pemba, Tanzania. The MVP is designed to help sub-Saharan rural communities end extreme poverty by working towards improving health, ensuring gender equality and fighting diseases. Since 2009 we have invested over $2m in health, education and infrastructure. Most critically, however, we have empowered women and girls with improved educational and livelihood opportunities.

We have to be driven by our values, and our actions must be determined by our principles. I am committed to empowering women with improved education and livelihood opportunities not only to uphold their rights, but because it also makes economic sense.

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