International Women's Day was celebrated yesterday, and there is cause for optimism with regards to progress in women's rights and important commitments undertaken to reduce gender inequality.
Many international organisations came out in strong support of the day, including UN Women and the IMF. In Australia, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop announced a partnership with the World Bank to reduce gender inequality in South East Asia through private sector partnerships to encourage women entrepreneurs, build women's business skills and improve workplace policies.
Another international grouping that is taking on the issue of female labour participation is the G20. The G20 is primarily concerned with the stability and growth of the global economy and it is no secret that increasing women's participation in global labour markets is key to global economic growth. Increasing labour market participation also has important flow-on effects that improve the lives of women.
But where does the G20 stand on female labour participation? It appears to be an issue of growing relevance.
At last year's Brisbane Summit, the G20 committed to reduce the gap between male and female labour participation by 25% by 2025. It is claimed that this will bring 100 million women into the labour force – a big promise. To achieve this, employment plans for G20 countries need to promote female participation.
Getting more women into the formal labour market is not an easy task. Even where women are entering the workforce, the quality of work and informal working arrangements are cause for concern. The International Labour Organisation has provided guidance on how to better incorporate gender considerations into employment policies, and the IMF has recently focused on removing legal restrictions that affect the economic standing of women.
However, there is still no coherent plan with timeframes to ensure the G20 can deliver the collective commitment by 2025. At the G20 Working Group meeting last month in Antalya the commitment was reinforced, but the implementation remains vague. The T20 group of think tanks urged the G20 to adopt 'milestones, timeframes, and country goals'.
Only half of the world's women of eligible working age are estimated to be in the global labour market (versus 76.6% of the male population). I have graphed the most recent estimates of female and male labour participation in the G20 countries from 2013 (see above), and included the world average for women as an indicative guide. Of course these are only estimates, and it is notoriously difficult to calculate the participation of women in the labour market because of the way it is measured. You can play around with the World Bank-ILO data here.
The G20 countries have varying degrees of female labour participation. The legacy of communism means China and Russia have more women in the labour market than the world average, with 64% in China and 57% in Russia. Australia also ranks well, with female labour participation just under 59%. Turkey, this year's G20 host, overtook India in 2011, but female labour participation still remains under 30%. Gender inequality in India and Saudi Arabia is particularly acute, resulting in very low female labour participation. Perhaps more surprising is that the EU average is only on par with the world average.
The G20 has also canvassed involving women's groups as part of its formal consultation with the international community, including a stand-alone 'W20' comprised of women's groups to exist alongside civil society, business, think tank, labour, and youth engagement groups. However, rather than an additional G20-based forum, gender issues should feed directly into the G20's agenda. For example, when the G20 summit last year deemed Ebola a global health risk, it overlooked the fact that women are disproportionally affected by the virus because of their roles as carers for the sick.
By considering the gender implications of global issues, the G20 can play an important role in drawing attention to discrepancies.