On Friday in Osaka, Group of 20 leaders will convene to discuss the most pressing global challenges of our time, and that will include women’s empowerment. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s womenomics push has certainly impressed many, including myself, since it was announced six years ago.

We have come a long way. Gender equality has also become a key priority for the G20, starting in Brisbane in 2014 when leaders made a strong commitment to reduce the gender gap in labor force participation by 25 percent by 2025. This goal, which was championed by the Japanese sherpa and supported by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, triggered the work of the G20 and Group of Seven on gender issues, and then the creation of the Women 20. Since then, all the G20 presidencies have tackled a gender angle in their agendas.

For those who argued that gender was not a topic for leaders, the economic case was soon made clear. For all G20 countries, strong, sustainable growth will eventually depend on women developing their full potential. The OECD demonstrated the economic benefits of reducing the gender gap in labor force participation, by bringing 100 more million well-educated women into the workforce (as they are achieving a higher tertiary enrollment rate than men) and offsetting the negative impact of shrinking working-age populations in some G20 countries. Since then, the business case for gender equality has been well established.

Since the commitment was made in 2014, the OECD, together with the International Labour Organization, has been working with the G20 presidencies to monitor countries’ progress in achieving this gender target. And on Saturday at the G20 Summit, the OECD’s secretary-general will present our report to Abe.

But there is no time to be complacent. As they say, a picture is worth a thousand words, and when you look at the G20 family photo taken at every G20 summit, we are forced to acknowledge an uneasy truth. The number of female political leaders remains extremely low across the world’s major industrialized economies. At most, only four G20 leaders in this annual photo have ever been women. And this is just the tip of the iceberg in illustrating the uphill battle for women in all aspects of society and the economy.

Progress on G20 goal

The good news is that all G20 countries have experienced an increase in the labor force participation of women, with particularly large reductions in the gender gap in Japan, Argentina, Brazil and Korea. In around half of G20 members, the decline in the gender gap is in line with, or better than, the expected decline to meet the target. The actual decline was noticeably greater than the expected decline in Australia, the United Kingdom and Germany.

So the overall story is: Yes we are making progress, but not fast enough, and not everywhere. A much more mixed picture emerges for closing gender gaps in other outcomes, be it representation in certain professions and at managerial levels, career prospects and, of course, in pay, as documented in our report for the G20 leaders. There are indeed many barriers still for women to overcome to reach full equality.

Challenges remain

Gender inequalities are already visible in education. Despite gains in girls’ and women’s educational attainment, girls continue to be underrepresented in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math, as well as information and communication technology. In OECD countries, fewer than 1 in 3 engineering graduates and fewer than 1 in 5 computer science graduates are women. With the future of work arriving right now, there are further divides as women are massively underrepresented in the digital transformation, be it as consumers or producers of these technologies. Across the G20 countries, the share of female ICT specialists still ranges from just 13 to 32 percent. Only 10 percent of innovative startups have been founded by women, and 90 percent of software packages were authored by male-dominated teams. This is the focus for the G20, as our report for the G20 last year illustrated (“Bridging the Digital Gender Divide: Include, Upskill, Innovate”).

The quality of employment is critical, yet women continue to earn substantially less than men in most G20 countries, and little progress has been made over the past decade in closing the gap, which is still at 17 percent on average (between 30 to 35 percent in Korea, India and Japan, and down to about 10 percent or less in France and Italy). This is because women are over-represented in low-paying sectors, such as the care sectors, while men are found in larger numbers in more highly paid jobs, such as the digital sector. Even for work of equal value, women are paid less than men. This should be illegal and corrected through legal provisions, as many countries have started doing. Put in the context of an aging population, overcoming this challenge becomes a more urgent task, as the gender pay gap also leads to a larger gender pension gap. Ensuring equal pay throughout the working lives of women will have a positive cumulative impact on ensuring women’s economic security throughout their lives.

The glass ceiling is no myth. On average, only 1 in 5 board members of the largest publicly listed companies in G20 countries are women. Even in public service, where women are employed in up to 58 percent of jobs, they account for less than a third of senior positions. And, the number of women who occupy ministerial positions is still only 28 percent on average across the OECD. In fact, sexual harassment in the workplace is one of the reasons hindering women from thriving, creating an intimidating environment that discourages women from getting involved in employment or politics.

Progress in closing the gender gaps is so slow because, even when women do work, they are likely to seek less competitive career paths and more flexibility than men with similar qualifications. The most unfortunate finding is that motherhood — despite all its upsides — translates into a financial penalty for many women, contributing to the unequal share of unpaid work and preventing women from engaging fully in the labor market.

Gender equality starts at home

As the OECD’s Social Institutions and Gender Index shows, gender inequalities often stem from deep-rooted and normative gender beliefs. Gender stereotypes and norms are embedded everywhere in our cultures, societies, economies, workplaces and even schools and homes. They determine what women should aspire to, which leads to producing lower levels of ambition and self confidence in our girls, even if they are more educated. For instance, women are still often portrayed as primary caregivers.

In G20 countries, women still carry out the bulk of unpaid care work. And they are more likely to work fewer paid hours, while men are more likely to work very long hours. For example, women’s time devoted to unpaid work ranges from 5 hours and 30 minutes per day in Turkey to 3 hours and 8 minutes in Korea. In contrast, for men, it ranges from 2 hours and 52 minutes per day in Australia to only 31 minutes in India. These gaps are present to varying degrees in all G20 and OECD countries.

This reinforcement of gender stereotyping leads to the perpetuation of discrimination against women in employment opportunities, which translate into unfortunate outcomes as outlined before.

Breaking down stereotypes

We are halfway through to the end date set for achieving the Brisbane goal, and there is no room for complacency. We need to do more, we need to be smarter, we need to be more effective.

It is clear what tools and policies should be introduced to counter the persisting challenges, be it through anti-discrimination laws, dual parental leave systems, fair sharing of care work, affordable and quality child care facilities and affirmative action.

Most fundamentally, it is clear that we will not deliver the desired outcomes if we do not correct the gender stereotyping that affect both women and men. Schools should be free of materials that nurture gender stereotyping — textbooks, teaching and the national core curriculum need to be gender neutral. Media and social networks also have an important role to play in stopping any gender stereotypical imaging.

We also need something real and positive for girls to look up to. This is why, in 2017, I launched, in collaboration with the Mexican government, the NinaSTEM Pueden to involve women role models with successful STEM careers in mentoring, to encourage young girls to take up those subjects and to break down stereotypes.

And we also need men to be involved. Though easy to be overlooked, the same biased cultural norms that prevent women from fulfilling their full potential might also put a lot of pressure on men to over-perform in a highly competitive environment, and to be incapable of dedicating time to their children. But again, this requires a full transformation of our economies and workplaces to avoid long working hours and allow for better work-life balance, for men and for women.

All put together, we need strong political leadership to “walk the talk.” Leaders lead by example, in the actions that they take and the ambitious national gender equality strategies that they put in place.

Breaking gender barriers, creating equal opportunities for men and women, and encouraging gender equality in the workplace and in public life should not even be an issue in this day and age. It should be the new normal. G20 leaders have an urgent mission to send a strong political signal to empower women and girls.

Gabriela Ramos (@gabramosp on Twitter) is the OECD chief of staff and sherpa to the G20 and G7. A champion of gender equality, she launched the OECD’s gender strategy and provided the evidence for G20 members to agree on a gender target to reduce the gap in labor force participation by 25 percent by 2025.
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