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Gender equality is still sluggish at best

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Gender equality is still sluggish at best

Despite a great deal of hype and discussions on gender equality in all forms of life, including in the workplace, progress towards true equality is still faltering. Recent reports make for alarming reading. Report by Mushtak Parker.

The problem with the current Gender Equality and Empowerment (GEE) discourse sweeping the global community – largely a reaction to societal and NGO activism – is that it mostly consists of a lot of hype, with the rhetoric of aspirations and empty promises.

Recent reports on the state of gender inequality in finance, business and the workplace confirm that resource allocation to GEE is meagre and progress towards its implementation painstakingly slow and neglected. 

The IMF, in its recent Consultation Note on mainstreaming gender, conceded it is “a latecomer to the field of gender, and there is scope for Fund staff to collaborate further”. Their new strategy aims to integrate gender into the IMF’s surveillance, lending and capacity development, and to prevent gender inequality from worsening.

Women constitute about half the world’s 7.98bn population. Yet those responsible for policy change at national and multilateral levels remain, overwhelmingly, staunch members of ‘global patriarchy’, many with a stubborn attachment to misogyny and testosterone-induced self-entitlement. 

There has been some commendable progress across sectors, including in Africa, but neutralising gender-based prejudices and stereotypes entrenched since time immemorial, but it remains an uphill struggle. Gender equality and justice is not in the gift of men but an inalienable human right for women.

Women in emerging markets are disproportionately disadvantaged. According to the World Economic Forum’s (WEF) Global Gender Gap Index (GGGI) 2021, on the current trajectory, it will take 135.6 years to close the gender gap worldwide; 145.5 years to attain gender parity in politics, and a staggering 267.6 years in economic participation and opportunity. Only in educational attainment, health and mortality are the gaps nearly closed at 96%. 

“At the current relative pace,” says WEF, “gender gaps can potentially be closed in 52.1 years in Western Europe, 61.5 years in North America, and 68.9 years in Latin America and the Caribbean. In all other regions it will take over 100 years: 121.7 years in Sub-Saharan Africa, 134.7 years in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, 165.1 years in East Asia and the Pacific, 142.4 years in the Middle East and North Africa, and 195.4 years in South Asia.”

The 2021 GGGI rankings put Iceland as the most gender-equal country in the world. Only three African states made it into the Top 20 listing – Namibia and Rwanda in 6th and 7th position, and South Africa in 18th, ahead of Britain, Canada, Denmark and the US. This compares with seven African countries in the Bottom 20 listing of those with the least gender equality. 

Gender budgeting

Going forward, the emphasis is on policy options such as Gender Budgeting (GB), which integrates gender into national budgets to mitigate inequalities, Gender Impact Assessments and Gender Mainstreaming. 

An IMF survey of gender budgeting practices in G20 countries, including South Africa, concludes that while all states have “enacted gender-focused fiscal policies”, the impact evaluation of the policies remains limited. South Africa has a medium score for its gender budgeting. 

The World Trade Organisation similarly launched a research database on trade and gender, bringing together over 100 studies on how to make trade work for women by helping member countries integrate gender issues into trade policies and agreements.

The London-based think-tank, the Official Monetary and Financial Institutions Forum, teamed up with the IMF to launch The Gender Balance Index (GBI) 2022 which “measures, accelerates and certifies gender and intersectional equality in the workplace”. The Index shows that “progress is gradual but not fundamental in the representation of women in the upper echelons of global finance.” 

Of the 335 institutions ranked in the GBI, just 46 – or 14% – are run by women. The same percentage accounts for female CEOs at commercial banks, albeit 26% of pension funds have women in executive positions. South Africa’s Absa shows the highest progress in female representation in executive jobs, but in the global financial sector, “banks’ policies designed to promote women continue to have a limited impact”.

At the GBI launch in Washington, IMF Deputy MD and ex-Liberian Finance Minister, Antoinette Sayeh said: “Women were already bearing the brunt of the pandemic. As primary caregivers at home, they paid the price in the last two years with their jobs, incomes, and economic security. The war in Ukraine is adding to these hardships, as food and energy prices skyrocket. 

“These crises add to long-standing barriers that prevent women and girls from realising their full potential. Because of restrictions in laws, asset ownership, labour markets, or access to education, health, and financial services – women still do not fully participate in the global economy.”

Gender balance key to growth

Without gender-inclusive growth, she maintains, countries cannot achieve long-term economic resilience. IMF research shows that closing gender gaps can stimulate growth, strengthen macroeconomic and financial stability, and reduce income inequality.

Sayeh’s message is echoed by her peers. “Gender equality,” says Dr Hala El-Said, Egypt’s Minister of Planning and National Economy, “is a moral and economic imperative. Closing the gender gap must be a central part of any strategy to create more sustainable, inclusive and resilient economies and societies. Women’s economic empowerment is the most effective catalyst to growth and prosperity.”

What is important, she added, is progress in identifying the problem,  reducing barriers to women’s participation in the formal labour force, supporting business culture reform, and generating more role models throughout the world.

Encouragingly, Egypt’s development agenda is led by five highly effective women Ministers – Dr El-Said; Nevine Gamea, Minister of Trade and Industry; Dr Rania A Al-Mashat, Minister of International Cooperation; Dr Yasmin Fouad, Minister of Environment and Nivine El Qabbaje, Minister for Social Solidarity. 

Nevertheless, the mismatch between rhetoric and policy continues to pile up. South Africa is an early adopter of GB, but the IMF says this “has faded or is no longer applied systemically”. 

In June, President Cyril Ramaphosa appointed his 14-strong Broad-Based Black Economic Empowerment Advisory Council, complete with seven women members; yet the 2022 Progress Report for his flagship structural reform strategy, Operation Vulindlela, is bereft of any reference to gender equality and justice. South Africa has a constitution which has all the gender equality legal protections, which may give the impression the country is an epitome of gender tolerance and justice; in reality it has probably the highest rate of gender-based violence in the world. 

The future for GEE seems staggered progress at best and continued marginalisation at worst. The talk is about policymakers facing difficult trade-offs every day. The reality is a lack of political will. 

Women are faced with agonising workplace prospects. The pandemic accelerated digitisation and automation, which has created a scarring effect on economic opportunities for women, resulting in inferior ‘re-employment’ terms with lower income. Reducing gender gaps based on sex-disaggregated and broader gender data to guide effective and urgent policymaking is imperative.

After all, IMF research shows a strong correlation between greater gender equality, especially in the workplace, and better economic and societal outcomes.

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Written by Mushtak Parker

Mushtak Parker is Editor of Islamic Banker Magazine, one of the foremost journals in the industry with a global circulation in the major Islamic Financial institutions.

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