Speech by Michelle Bachelet at the economics symposium “Critical Perspectives on Financial and Economic Crises: Why Gender Matters”
21 January 2013
Speech by Michelle Bachelet, United Nations Under-Secretary-General and Executive Director of UN Women, at the economics symposium “Critical Perspectives on Financial and Economic Crises: Why Gender Matters” being held in New York from 21-22 January 2013.
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It is great to be here with all of you! UN Women is pleased to co-sponsor this symposium with the International Association for Feminist Economics. I would like to thank the Editors of Feminist Economics, Diana Strassmann and Professor Guenseli Berik. I also thank guest editors and Professors Sakiko Fukuda-Parr, James Heintz and Stephanie Seguino.
I thank all of you for being here today for this important symposium with economists and policy experts to discuss the impacts of this ongoing crisis and why gender matters.
It is time to analyze not only the effects of the crisis, but also the effects of the measures undertaken by States to respond to the crisis in the past five years.
Since the start of the global recession in 2007, an estimated 30 million people have lost their jobs. The International Labour Organization warns of further job losses. Just last week the World Bank said the global economy remains fragile, as high-income countries continue to suffer from volatility and slow growth, and developing countries’ economies, while solid, still have a bumpy road ahead.
As we enter 2013, there is no certain prospect of rapid worldwide recovery. While the impact of macroeconomic tools to stimulate global economic recovery is still the subject of debate, some evidence of their effects is emerging.
In many developed countries as well as in some developing countries, the prevailing policy response is fiscal austerity. And we know that these measures and cuts in spending affect women in a different way than they affect men.
We know, for instance, that fiscal austerity negatively affects jobs in the public sector and also the provision of goods and services, with a disproportionate negative impact on women and their households.
On the other hand, monetary policy, or “quantitative easing,” has proved to be less powerful than expected in generating much-needed employment.
The labour market deregulations that followed the crises led to a general worsening of working conditions and a weakening of wage bargaining power that has pushed even more women into vulnerable employment.
We know that the financial and economic crisis has worsened gender gaps in unemployment across all regions and in both developed and developing countries. In 2012, the gap widened further and women lost an estimated 13 million jobs.
Women are losing jobs because they work in export-oriented, agricultural or other hard-hit sectors. They’re losing jobs because half the world’s working women still hold vulnerable, informal, or low-paying jobs that are susceptible to changes in the market. Women are losing jobs because of gender discrimination, and because they are often first in line to be let go and the last in line for stable, well-paying jobs with benefits.
Yes, women are being affected by job loss and unemployment. And women are also being affected by government’s loss of revenue. As governments struggle to balance their budgets, they are tightening spending. These budget cuts in social sectors such as education and health often fall on the shoulders of women, who are already burdened with the majority of unpaid care work often depend on public-sector employment and pensions to survive and care for their families.
The economic downturn has also caused significant setbacks in progress towards the Millennium Development Goals. The crisis has slowed progress in achieving universal primary education, in reducing child and maternal mortality and in improving sanitary conditions. While the target of halving global poverty rates by 2015 is within reach for the world as a whole, it will not be met in sub-Saharan Africa nor, possibly, in parts of South Asia.
The bottom line is this: It is becoming clear that fiscal austerity may hold back the very growth and restructuring that is needed and at the same time, erode hard-won gains for women. It is also becoming clear that policies to promote gender equality and women’s fair and equal participation in the labour force can boost economic growth and recovery.
We have learned that maintaining public investment and social spending can actually help to counter the worst effects of the recession and fuel economic recovery. There is a wealth of evidence to support this and to draw upon for a better policy response.
The State has a crucial role to play to proactively create the right conditions for inclusive job growth and economic recovery.
States can contribute to women’s economic empowerment by setting basic labour standards; creating laws for equal pay for work of equal value; and providing support for maternity leave and childcare, benefits that lessen the financial burden on private employers.
Taking an expansionary fiscal stance will allow states to extend policies and programmes such as social protection.
Public programmes and social protections are not just welfare measures—they are important policies that reduce or prevent downturns and enable faster economic recovery.
In 2011, I helped launch a seminal report “Social Protection Floor for a Fair and Inclusive Globalization”. The report was produced by an Advisory Group that I chaired and it was launched as part of the Social Protection Floor Initiative. This is a global coalition that includes UN agencies, the IMF, multilateral development banks as well as development partners and non-governmental organizations.
Social protection has helped to increase resilience against economic shocks, contributing to accelerated recovery and relieving more people of poverty and deprivation, delivering on the promises of the Human Rights Declaration and on the commitments of the Millennium Development Goals.
Policies must reflect the recognition that every person has the right to basic income security and universal access to essential social services such as health, water and sanitation, education, or food security.
We need a conversation about the role of government in economic intervention and policymaking, and what the right fiscal and monetary policies are to foster economic growth, create jobs, and drive sustainable development. We also need to examine how deep-rooted, structural inequalities—in particular gender inequality affect economic growth and recovery.
To move forward, this conference delves into many of the themes that are missing from much current economic research. To gain clarity, we need to examine the effects of the economic crisis and crisis response measures on both women and men. We need to expand our perspective by fully analysing women’s economic role in order to improve our policy responses and promote inclusive economic growth.
Understanding gender inequality is just as important as understanding how skill-based or household-income inequality influences economic growth and development. We must acknowledge the power relations within families and communities that affect women’s ability to earn a decent wage, control their own finances, and engage fully in the economy.
We cannot afford to sacrifice the progress that has been made for gender equality to austerity measures that bring new hardships to women and families.
We are here today to open and broaden these important and neglected discussions. UN Women is contributing to this conversation with new policy publications on women’s economic empowerment that are being distributed today. The workshop provides all of us the opportunity to refine our policy positions and recommendations and give momentum to a global debate on policy responses to the crisis.
Looking ahead, I see this symposium as an opportunity to consider the following:
- We need to know which policies can make a difference for the better immediately and in the longer term, and we need to advance the case that promoting gender equality is part of the solution – not an “extra,” not an addendum, not a footnote.
- We need to be clear about what we have learnt so far about macroeconomic policy and where there are gaps in our knowledge.
- We need to plan the research and work needed to fill those gaps and increase our knowledge.
All of us here know that gender matters, that gender equality must pave the way forward to help countries make a faster, stronger, and lasting recovery from the crisis.
We need to remove the barriers to women’s full participation in the labour market, strengthen institutions and enact the reforms needed to secure decent working conditions and human rights for all men and women. We need a policy response with employment generation, social protection, and basic human rights at its center to stimulate equitable and inclusive economic growth.
Your discussions will help us put the pieces together to act on the knowledge and the evidence that we have, now, and to confront the inequalities that hinder economic growth and recovery in so many countries.
I thank you and I wish you all a successful symposium. I look forward to hearing the results, and to continued cooperation with the International Association of Feminist Economics. It is up to us to push this global debate forward to the very centers of decision-making for a real policy change.