NEW YORK - Around the world, gender bias is attracting renewed attention. Through protest marches and viral social-media campaigns, women everywhere are demanding an end to sexual harassment, abuse, femicide and inequality.
But, as successful as the Me Too and Time’s Up movements have been in raising public awareness, the struggle for parity is far from over. Empowering women and girls is key to achieving all 17 of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals by 2030. At the moment, however, gender bias remains a significant obstacle to global progress, and it is particularly acute in the workplace.
Today, only 5 percent of S&P 500 companies are led by women, according to Catalyst, a nonprofit CEO watchdog. That dismal figure is all the more remarkable when one considers that 73 percent of global firms allegedly have equal opportunity policies in place, according to a survey by the International Labor Organization (ILO). Moreover, while research shows a clear link between a company’s gender balance and its financial health, women occupy fewer than 20 percent of governing board seats in the world’s largest companies.
Addressing such deficiencies is both an economic and a moral imperative. A 2015 report by the McKinsey Global Institute found that if women and men played an “identical role in labor markets,” $28 trillion would be added to the global economy by 2025. These global gains would be in addition to the benefits for individual companies. Firms with greater gender equality are more innovative, generous and profitable. But, at the current rate of female empowerment, it would take nearly 220 years to close the gender gap. The world cannot afford to wait that long; we need a new approach.
To help chart a path for companies to hire, retain and promote female employees, we joined more than 400 global business leaders and government representatives in Santiago last month for the Fourth Global Forum on Business for Gender Equality. The gathering — organized by the Chilean government and the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), in partnership with the ILO and U.N. Women — highlighted the importance of gender equality in the private sector.
One solution on the agenda was the UNDP-backed Gender Equality Seal program, a unique initiative that certifies firms that have eliminated pay gaps, increased the number of women in decision-making positions and worked to end sexual harassment on the job.
Today, these UNDP-certified companies are leading the way in building a more balanced global workforce. For example, Chile’s state-owned copper mining company, Codelco, is increasing its ranks of female employees — and boosting productivity in the process. Similarly, Costa Rica’s Banco Nacional has promoted dozens of women into managerial roles; the bank is now a leading regional provider of financing to female entrepreneurs. And in Canada, Scotiabank has used a female mentorship program to become one of the industry’s most gender-balanced companies. Our hope is that many more firms will strive for gender equality certification.
Another initiative to be discussed is the Women’s Empowerment Principles, a set of operating guidelines developed by U.N. Women and the U.N. Global Compact that embodies the business case for gender equality. More than 1,700 CEOs have endorsed the principles, while nearly 300 companies in 61 countries have used the initiative’s free gender gap analysis tool to help managers implement them in the workplace.
To be sure, global meetings, certification systems and free software are only part of the solution. Women still bear disproportionate domestic burdens, and pressures stemming from social and cultural norms often rob them of the chance to attend school, start businesses or participate in public life. Moreover, women who do have paying jobs outside the home are on the wrong side of a gender wage gap that averages 23 percent, suggesting that equality is not only about opportunity.
Businesses, communities and families must work together to level the playing field. Fortunately, the cost of doing nothing is too high for any business—and economies as a whole—to bear, which is why we are optimistic that eliminating gender bias at work is possible. When companies make female empowerment central to their business strategies, growth and equality can be mutually reinforcing to leave no one behind.
Achim Steiner is administrator of the U.N. Development Program. Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka is executive director of U.N. Women. © Project Syndicate, 2018