The problems that affect women around the world — issues such as lack of access to education, health care, economic opportunities, and security — are systemic and significant. We know the scale of the challenge that lasts from classroom to boardroom. What is perhaps less recognized is the size of the prize of success when the world achieves gender equality.
Achieving the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals by 2030 could add $12 trillion to the global economy, from growth in just four sectors: agriculture, cities, energy, and health. When all sectors of the economy are considered, the total growth achieved could be significantly higher. Mckinsey has given us a clue to how much bigger the prize could be and how to unlock it in their 2015 report, Power or Parity. If the world commits to gender equality, equal engagement in the workforce would add $28 trillion to annual global gross domestic product by 2025.
This data is just part of the huge body of evidence that proves women are the key to global prosperity, that in fact, without achieving Goal 5 — gender equality and empowerment for all women and girls — we cannot achieve any other goals. For example, a recent report showed that in the U.S. House of Representatives, women have consistently outvoted their male counterparts, scoring 70 percent to 44 percent, respectively, on ensuring environmental protection over a 10-year period. Yet today, women account for less than 20 percent of 535 congressional seats, further underscoring the importance of female leadership for reaching the global goals.
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Female education and empowerment should be the primary focus of any organization that wants to help achieve the SDGs and gain long-term prosperity. The world needs to have as many women leading men as there are men leading women to create the changes needed across all economic sectors.
The private sector is particularly well placed to lead this change, as it is adept at mobilizing resource and opportunity to respond to the market opportunities provided by gender-based equality. Diversity and gender equality improve profitability, such as the “diversity dividend,” which is is now a commonly accepted reality, and smart firms are investing in it. One such piece of evidence for this comes from the Peterson Institute for International Economics’ 2016 global survey of 22,000 firms. The survey found that a company’s transition from no women in C-suite leadership positions to 30 percent females resulted in a 1 percentage point increase in net margin — approximately a 15 percent increase in profitability.
Despite this evidence we still have a long way to go. Recent U.N. figures show that women hold less than one-third of senior and middle management positions in economies around the world. Women are also more restricted in the range of work that they do. International Labour Organization data, for example, shows that 60 percent of all working women in Southern Asia and sub-Saharan Africa remain in the agriculture industry, often concentrated in time- and labor-intensive activities that are unpaid or poorly remunerated. In middle- to upper- and high-income countries, women are largely employed in wholesale and retail trade services, manufacturing, health, and education, remaining highly under-represented in influential sectors such as finance, technology, and energy — areas critical to achieving the SDGs.
Improving access to quality jobs for women, equalizing the distribution of women across sectors, and encouraging more women and girls into growth industries that traditionally lack women, such as technology, industry, and energy, will greatly enhance the ability of the private sector to contribute to the global goals, and will create highly profitable companies.
The onus is on leaders of all genders in both private and public sectors to accept this challenge and to recognize that “little by little” is no longer good enough.
It has taken us hundreds of years to get to a point where women account for just one-third of leadership positions — and we have only 13 years left to reach parity. We need greater ambition and courage to meet this 2030 deadline. We need bold tangible actions that prove the business case over and over again, until a lack of diversity becomes seen as operationally anachronistic as the land line. Only then can we be sure that we have created a prosperous, sustainable, united, and peaceful world.
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