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A gender equality toolbox: These areas of society still need work—here’s how to do it

As the world ups the ante in the fight against gender inequality, all countries should back up commitments by using a wide range of
tools, including investment and immigration policies.

By: /
13 March, 2018
Protesters stage a demonstration as part of a nationwide women's strike against gender inequality to coincide with International Women's Day in Bilbao, Spain, March 8, 2018. REUTERS/Vincent West
Charles Kenny
By: Charles Kenny

senior fellow, Center for Global Development

Worldwide, the two most widespread forms of legally enforced discrimination based on the accident of birth are around place and sex — whether you were born in this country or elsewhere, and whether you were born a boy or a girl.  

Governments and international organizations around the world should highlight global gender inequality as a social and economic tragedy, as well as a moral scourge. That starts with promoting legal reform, but it also involves support for changing norms and beliefs where they clash with equal rights.

We live in an age when, for the most part, discriminatory laws against ethnic and racial groups are (thankfully) withering away. According to political scientists Victor Asal and Amy Pate, the proportion of countries with discriminatory policies against an ethnic minority fell from 44 to 19 percent between 1950 and 2003. 

Contrast that to World Bank data on discrimination against women, where 90 percent of countries in 2015 still had at least one law on the books impeding women’s economic opportunities. These laws stop women from taking particular kinds of jobs, or leaving the house for work or travel without a man’s permission. Fifteen countries have laws saying husbands may prevent their wives from accepting jobs.

It isn’t an exaggeration to call this legislation a form of gender apartheid.

“There is much more to equal outcomes than equality under the law.”

Changing the legal environment matters — World Bank and IMF research suggest countries with fewer legal barriers to women’s participation in society see higher rates of female labour force participation. Still, there is much more to equal outcomes than equality under the law. Evidence from surveys worldwide suggest that a considerable number of men and women alike share the idea that when jobs are scarce, men should have more of a right to a job than women, for example. Seventy six percent of men in Nigeria and 63 percent of men in the Philippines agree with that idea, as do 55 percent of Nigerian women and the same percentage of women in the Philippines.  

Like laws, norms against gender equality are significantly associated with worse outcomes for women — and, unsurprisingly, there is a link between norms and laws themselves.

Even though discriminatory attitudes can be a majority opinion in many countries, that doesn’t mean pushing for gender equality is merely a form of cultural imperialism. Not least, the claim of cultural imperialism rings hollow because these countries have made voluntary commitments to deliver more equal outcomes. Signatories to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights have committed to the equal rights of men and women. The 189 parties to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women have committed to undertake “all appropriate measures to eliminate discrimination against women in the field of employment,” and ensure “the right to the same employment opportunities.” 

Across the world, countries on every continent — signatories to the universal declaration and the convention — are not living up to these obligations and, indeed, are putting legal barriers in the way of their achievement.

Tackling both global and domestic goals, no matter the country

Again, common and explicit discriminatory norms in poorer countries doesn’t mean the world should simply ‘wait until countries are developed’ in the hopes that will solve the problem of bias. That’s because while rich countries tend to see considerably better legal environments for women alongside explicit norms that favour equality, factors including implicit and unacknowledged bias still drive a significant wedge between outcomes for men and women in those countries as well.

Take the performance of a recent cross-country study of women in banking leadership by the International Monetary Fund: in 2015, women made up only 28 percent of the board membership of Canada’s banks, and of the sample of Canadian banks that the IMF examined, none had a woman CEO. There were no women in the leadership of the country’s banking supervision agencies in 2015, either. (In Canada’s defence, the IMF’s sample of 800 banks across 72 countries and 12 years found just two cases out of 3761 observations where bank boards were 50 percent or more women).

So countries including Canada and Sweden are right to focus on a feminist foreign policy. And, in doing so, they have two principal aims and multiple tools to improve the status of women and girls. Those two aims are to fight gender apartheid and to promote greater equality of outcomes — not just freedoms. The tools should include aid, and it is great to see the rollout of Canada’s feminist international assistance policy, in particular the commitment to provide $150 million over five years to support local women’s organizations and movements that advance women’s rights in developing countries.

“It would smack of hypocrisy to push gender equality in aid policy while ignoring it when it comes to domestic policy.”

But the tools used should go far beyond overseas development assistance. That’s both because aid is only one of the many ways countries including Canada affect outcomes in the rest of the world, and because it would smack of hypocrisy to push gender equality in aid policy while ignoring it when it comes to trade, investment, migration or domestic policy. 

In particular, global economic empowerment of women involves active engagement with the private sector, including multinationals.  

All Canadian firms with subsidiaries or investments in countries home to some of the worst discriminatory legislation could be required to publish gender-disaggregated data on pay, positions and overall employment in those subsidiaries. And going forward, the country’s bilateral investment and trade treaties could include language that signatory governments cannot require an enterprise covered by the agreement to deny employment on the grounds of race, religion, gender or sexual orientation. 

Canada’s new Development Finance Institute and Export Development Canada could put conditions on support to firms seeking credits or investment for deals in countries with particularly egregious legal discrimination against women. They could be made to submit an operational plan regarding their proposals to mitigate the impact of discriminatory laws on their efforts to hire, promote and pay women equally with men and to purchase from women owned firms. 

And given immigration policy is at the nexus of the two largest global targets of legal discrimination based on accident of birth, it would be a particularly appropriate focus of Canada’s feminist foreign policy. Women make up 45 percent of Canada’s immigrant stock from the average sending country. But among emigrants from the seven countries that put legal barriers specifically on female migrants, women account for only 36 percent of Canada’s immigrant stock. Giving extra points under Canada’s immigration system to women from those countries could increase the domestic economic impact and the global development impact of Canadian immigration at the same time.

But statistics on the inequalities still present in Canada also suggest the importance of humility and partnership. Working together to foster global progress has produced results before: the “CEDAW effect” saw a global uptick in women’s political and social rights after the convention was agreed. That said, the impact on economic equality was more muted — and that is the area where rich countries, too, appear to be lagging.  

That suggests the possibility for Canada to lead a global partnership around women’s economic empowerment specifically, where it could share successful approaches with other countries, while learning about potential solutions to continuing equality challenges at home. Not least, many African countries do far better in terms of gender equality in the banking sector or the proportion of firms led by women than do rich countries, including Canada. Perhaps the Ottawa government could pick up some pointers on how to do better — and demonstrate global leadership in acknowledging its own challenges as a result.

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