from Women Around the World and Women and Foreign Policy Program

What’s Next for Gender Equality?

January 05, 2016

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Voices from the Field features contributions from scholars and practitioners highlighting new research, thinking, and approaches to development challenges. This article is from Henriette Kolb, head of the Gender Secretariat at the International Finance Corporation (IFC), the private sector financing arm of the World Bank.

Reading newspaper and magazine reviews of the year that just ended, I was struck by how many expressed views on gender and feminism. Topics ranged from extreme violence against Yazidi women in northern Iraq to the gender wage gap in Hollywood. Slate mused about the confusion of celebrities when it comes to feminism and The Guardian outlined new gender definitions that came into the mainstream in 2015.

It seems that the voices questioning existing gender norms, legal frameworks, and discriminatory policies are growing louder. Rightfully so, given the large and persistent gaps when it comes to women’s full and equal political and economic participation. In 2015, dialogue about gender equality was not only amplified by the ongoing U.S. election campaign, but also by an array of widely-discussed reports and books like the McKinsey Global Institute’s The Power of Parity and Anne-Marie Slaughter’s book Unfinished Business.

But commentary alone won’t spur us into action in 2016 or beyond. One promising effort that hopes to move us out of inertia and promote action is the new World Bank Group gender strategy for 2016-2023. The aim of the strategy is to support governments and the private sector to close unjust and economically costly gender gaps. The strategy is firmly anchored in the belief that creating equal opportunities for all people irrespective of their race, sex, age, or location is beneficial not only for the individual, but for families, companies, and societies alike.

The World Bank Group developed its new strategy by listening to clients’ priorities, analyzing data on remaining gender gaps, and building on its own operational experience. Extensive consultations with over 1000 stakeholders, ranging from civil society organizations, to governments, to the private sector, in more than twenty countries, from Afghanistan to Uruguay, shaped the process. The resulting strategy highlights four pillars that the World Bank Group will focus on in the years to come: closing remaining gender gaps in health and education; reducing constraints to more and better jobs, especially in the provision of affordable and accessible care services and safe transport; closing gaps between men and women in ownership and control of assets such as land and housing; and closing gaps in finance. Men and boys will be engaged in working towards results. The strategy strongly emphasizes the need for governments and the private sector to work side by side, as barriers to gender equality cannot be resolved by one alone.

One example of the potential of public-private sector collaboration is in tackling gender-based violence, which affects one in three women across the world. In Papua New Guinea, a study by the Overseas Development Institute developed measures to evaluate the cost of gender-based violence—which affects 70 percent of the country’s women—on the economy. The Papua New Guinean government and the Business Coalition for Women, supported by International Finance Corporation (IFC), a member of the World Bank Group, decided to work together to curb widespread violence. The coalition of sixty companies understood that workplace absenteeism, often a direct result of violence at home, had negative consequences on productivity and profits.

Engaging the private sector in tackling gender inequality is not an issue unique to Papua New Guinea. Companies that were part of the World Bank Group’s strategy consultations confirmed that creating equal opportunities for women and men as employees, company leaders, customers, and suppliers was increasingly considered a matter of smart business and not an act of company charity. IFC’s clients realize that inequality leads to a loss of talent, a smaller number of potential customers, lower productivity, and unsustainable business practices. Company leaders confirmed that the question as to why gender equality matters for businesses had been sufficiently answered—firms now want concrete help with how to get there.

The World Bank Group’s strategy is well placed to support government and private sector clients with gender-smart approaches that generate equal opportunities for men and women worldwide. The World Bank Group will accomplish this through senior management commitment, a focus on results, a country-driven approach, analysis of what works and what doesn’t, measurement of gender gaps, and the leveraging of partnerships. The strategy will provide concrete examples on how to achieve better development outcomes for all.

I hope that, while reading the year-end reviews of 2016, I will learn about stories that show how the multitude of voices raising concerns over inequalities have translated into a year crowned by major achievements in gender equality. Innovative partnerships and commitment to the new gender strategy will have turned dialogue into action.