Old Liberal Club, Whitehall, London
The title of this panel ‘No Going Back: Making Gender Equality Happen’ might, at first sight, appear rather puzzling.
Surely we no longer need to worry about ‘going back’.
Instead, we should be concentrating on the fine print of actually ‘making gender equality happen’.
After all, by now surely everyone agrees – and can see - that gender equality really is a major priority for governments and international business.
The G7 now has a Gender Equality Advisory Council.
The IMF and World Economic Forum both describe women’s input as essential to boosting the global economy.
And, through the Women 20 (the W20), G20 leaders have committed to promoting gender equality across sectors as different as infrastructure and manufacturing, trade and financial regulation, and tax systems, health and education.
What is good for women is good for the market is now a conventional wisdom.
And yet today I want to strike a note of caution.
I do so not because I want to be contrarian.
But because I think we can learn some very important lessons here about the workings of the open, sustainable market economies which we at the EBRD are building across three continents.
For the fact is that, in living memory, we at the EBRD did actually see gender equality go backwards in some of the countries where we work.
The EBRD was set up to meet the challenge of an extraordinary moment in Europe’s history, the collapse of communism in its East.
We have played a significant role in the continent’s success story since.
So much so in fact that our shareholders have asked us to expand into new regions, some of which have little or no experience of centrally planned economies.
Yes, many of these countries have been completely transformed.
But some of the progress made came at a price, particularly in the field of gender equality.
For example, the transition of the early 1990s saw a tangible decrease in female employment and stronger gender inequality in the labour market.
Some of our theories about the market and how it would work for all were, it transpired, incomplete.
Indeed, it seems that the market did not work as well for women as it did for men.
For example, one of the basic assumptions underpinning market competition is that labour is mobile.
In other words, people will move to take advantage of better opportunities.
But this did not seem to apply to women in the new conditions that prevailed in the 1990s.
Women across the newly independent countries of the former USSR emigrated at consistently lower rates than men, until at least the early-to-mid-2000s, highlighting how larger gender-influenced contexts influence individual mobility and labour market access.
This was despite the fact that women actually had greater incentive than men to emigrate – given that women bore the brunt of the decline in employment. By 1993 72% of all unemployed people in Russia were women.
And women still make up the majority of unemployed people across the region today.
The loss of state-funded child care infrastructure and provision, along with reductions in funding for education, meant that women also had less time to train and compete for what were fewer opportunities.
The percentage of children in child care facilities collapsed in the initial part of the transition period.
For example, in Russia, the percentage of children attending nurseries declined from 26 percent in 1989 to 14 percent in 1992.
And the notion of what was a suitable profession for a woman actually narrowed.
Despite women’s impressive levels of education, particularly in Maths, Science, Engineering and Technology, they found themselves shut out of areas in high demand.
And therefore less mobile, working in less productive sectors of the economy and in professions with lower levels of responsibility, income and status.
Another common assumption about market competition is that people are, in fact, willing to compete and believe they will be rewarded for hard work and ability.
Again, there is evidence that in some of the countries where we invest this is more true of men than women.
Research shows strong links between unequal opportunities, and views about what makes economic success or failure more likely.
If women do not believe that competition is fair, or that they will be rewarded for hard work and ability, there will be little incentive for them to ‘buy into the system' by, say, learning new skills or starting a business.
On the other hand, the more gender equality there is, the more the legitimacy of the market and political systems is enhanced. And the more effective the system is.
People make different choices depending on whether they believe the system is unfair or effort is rewarded with success.
The fact is that men are much more likely than women to believe effort is so rewarded.
Such findings are a wake-up call for those, like me, who believe that a well regulated market can and should deliver prosperity and happiness to the greatest number of men AND women.
For all the many advances we have made in recent decades, the situation I have just described is fraught with two major risks.
- That much of the population’s potential remains untapped
- And that inequality undermines social cohesion and stability.
The EBRD’s response to this dual threat is threefold:-
- First, to increase access to finance and business support for women-led businesses.
Our Women in Business programme, for example, has now reached more than 35,000 female entrepreneurs, providing finance of over €400 million in partnership with 30 financial institutions across 17 countries.
As an example of our work in this sphere, in Turkey our economists measured gender bias among bank loan officers. In principle, the economists found, the officers were willing to lend to male- and female-owned enterprises equally.
However, they were much more likely to ask female loan applicants to come up with one or several guarantors.
Thus female entrepreneurs without such guarantors suffered from financial exclusion.
But we also found that more experienced loan officers did not display this bias. They had learned over time that lending to women entrepreneurs makes as much sense as lending to male ones.
So we set about advising our clients to hire more experienced loan officers and provide better training to the less experienced ones.
- The second EBRD response to the dual threat is to seek to increase access to employment opportunities and skills for women. We now have 44 such projects across Industry, Commerce and Agribusiness, Energy and Infrastructure across the EBRD regions.
- And the third is to improve women’s access to services such as municipal and national transport, water and urban planning in the Middle East, Central Asia, and Turkey
In so doing we are, to return to the title of this panel, making gender equality happen.
Our history shows that political commitment to women’s full and equitable access to economic activity is important.
But, in the long run, it is not enough.
When political commitment wavers, gender equality risks being swiftly reversed.
We must look beyond social policy and programming towards the private sector, one of the EBRD’s specialities.
We will make gender equality happen only by investing in, advising and partnering with the private sector to spur innovation and push through change.
Only when we are all engaged in the struggle for gender equality, and are not just leaving it up to the State – or someone else - can we make sure there is no going back.
Thank you very much.