What will make the High Level Panel on Women’s Economic Empowerment a true game changer?

10 March 2016
Articles and blogs
Women take part in skill development training in Addis Ababa, July 2015. UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe CC BY-NC-ND

Women worldwide experience huge economic disparities. As a report launched on Monday by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) shows, women’s chances of participating in the labour market remain almost 27% lower than men’s. The ILO also identifies a substantial and persistent gender wage gap, estimating that women earn only 77% of men’s total earnings.

This is why the first meeting of UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s new High-Level Panel on Women’s Economic Empowerment at the Commission on the Status of Women next week will be an exciting moment. It brings together the gender and economic sectors, in a way never seen before, to start developing a strategy to fast-track women’s empowerment and economic development.

The immense collective power of the Panel to make decisions with global reach – and finance their implementation – means its work has the potential to be a game changer.

‘Turbo-charging’ efforts

UK Secretary of State for International Development Justine Greening is a founding member of the Panel, and her strong personal commitment to its work and success was made clear during her keynote speech at ODI’s #GenderDay. As she explained, ‘the UN High-Level Panel is fundamentally about turbo-charging all our efforts to deliver real and lasting change’.

Indeed, efforts to speed up women’s economic empowerment need to be given a massive – and immediate – boost if the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are to have any hope of being achieved by 2030. The challenge is enormous, but the timing of the Panel could not be better to build on the momentum of the start of the SDG era.

The Panel should take an integrated, ‘big picture’ approach

However, accelerating action requires a seismic shift away from the siloed, ‘business as usual’ approach to women’s economic empowerment. This issue is cross-cutting and multi-dimensional – as evidenced by the fact that relevant targets appear throughout the SDGs.

The Panel must look across the range of SDG commitments, and focus not only on the benefits of women’s economic empowerment for families, communities and economic growth, but also on the intrinsic value of women’s increased economic power in terms of fulfilling their rights and improving their lives.

This also means closely looking at the barriers to and enablers of women’s economic empowerment. As ODI’s ground-breaking new report clearly shows, women’s economic opportunities are severely limited by their disproportionate responsibility for childcare.

Solutions range from looking at the role of macroeconomic and social policy in supporting women’s work, right down to the gendered norms which define women’s control over financial resources in the household. Increasing women’s options for economic participation requires change from micro to macro levels, and across the economic, cultural, legal, institutional and political spheres.

Achieving women’s economic empowerment requires an integrated, ‘big picture’ approach. The sheer scale this implies may be challenging, both politically and practically – as we’re talking about challenging the status quo, not just tinkering about the edges. But it is a challenge the Panel must fully embrace if it is to make a bold contribution that lives up to its potential.

Considering ‘what happens next’ from the start

Finally, to achieve full impact the Panel must think from the start about the long term. Given its ambition to galvanise and coordinate action on a scale never seen before, it’s no surprise that its report is already hotly anticipated.

However it must be clear how the Panel’s recommendations will be turned into tangible action, and which stakeholders will need to be involved. Panel members must also make the most of their role this year, convincing the unconvinced  and forging alliances with diverse change makers – going beyond the ‘usual suspects’ such as the gender advocates already scattered throughout organisations and institutions.

Making the most of the current momentum and creating a critical mass for change is essential – another opportunity on this scale is unlikely to come around again.

ODI is also strongly committed to playing its part. In the coming months we will deliver new solutions-oriented research on women’s economic empowerment, and we look forward to engaging with the High Level Panel on this agenda.