Women’s empowerment and the post-2015 development agenda: Achieving equality in the workplace, marketplace and community

Opening Remarks by John Hendra, Deputy Executive Director Policy and Programme, UN Women, at UN Global Compact event, 19 September, New York

Date: Thursday, September 19, 2013

Pierre, Amina, Senapathy, partners, ladies and gentlemen, 

Good afternoon. I’m very pleased to be here today, and I’d like to thank the UN Global Compact Office, ITC and IFC for their partnership, as well as our other partners present here. UN Women really values and appreciates these partnerships.  

As Amina has said, the Secretary-General’s report “A Life of Dignity” sets out an ambitious rights-based vision for a post-2015 development agenda. An agenda that addresses the challenges of sustainability, ending extreme poverty, and development in a holistic and comprehensive manner. An agenda that is universal, applying to developed and developing countries alike because so many of the challenges we face today are global and we can only make progress if we tackle them together. And an agenda that is transformative, that addressed rising inequality and that brings about real change in people’s lives.

In setting out such an ambitious agenda, the report reflects the views of literally hundreds of thousands of people the world over who have participated in 11 thematic, five regional and 88 country consultations. People everywhere are calling for transformative change, to eradicate poverty, achieve sustainable development, human rights, equality, justice and security, in line with the spirit of the Millennium Declaration.  

One of the issues that has emerged most strongly through these consultations is the need to tackle inequalities and structural discrimination in the new development agenda, especially gender inequality and gender-based discrimination which was identified as underpinning and reinforcing all other forms of inequality.  Hence, people are calling for the new development agenda to prioritise gender equality and women’s rights.

Indeed, there could not be a more opportune time to put gender equality front and centre. Simply put, the realization of women’s rights and empowerment is a very important end in itself.  But it also has synergistic impacts on other development goals. We know that women and girls participation in education and employment has a direct impact not only on the health and education outcomes of children, but on the wealth of economies.  The facts speak for themselves. Children of mothers with secondary education are almost three times more likely to survive than children whose mothers have no education.  

Booz-Allen estimates there are a billion women with potential to contribute more fully to their national economies. According to Goldman Sachs, closing the gap between men and women’s employment would boost GDP by five per cent in the US and nine per cent in Japan. And unlocking the potential of women could lead to a 14 per cent rise in per-capita incomes by 2020 in China, Russia, Indonesia, Vietnam and Korea.

What’s more, women’s education, together with access to sexual and reproductive health services, and an equal say in the number and timing of children, are essential to reduce maternal mortality, one of the MDGs where progress continues to lag further behind. And as Amina said, an equal say in decision-making leads to better, more inclusive decision-making, just as women’s participation in peace-building processes in post-conflict settings ensures a more sustainable peace. It’s no surprise then that, as the annual rankings on the WEF’s Global Gender Gap Index and UNDP’s Gender Inequality Index attest, countries with a higher level of gender equality and women’s empowerment tend to also do better on many other indicators of overall development.  

But if we are to make women’s rights and empowerment a reality, we have to address the structural inequalities and gender-based discrimination that perpetuate gender inequalities. This means tackling deep-seated and persistent stereotypes about what it means to be a woman or a man in a given society or culture. It means addressing the unequal power relations between women and men, and the attitudes and behaviours that perpetuate women’s subordination. It means addressing the epidemic of violence we see globally where one in three women around the world have experienced physical or sexual violence. And it means reducing the burden of unpaid care work on women and girls so that they can participate equally in economic, social and political life. This requires the collective effort of all of us, in partnership: governments, civil society, business and the international community.

That’s why UN Women is advocating for gender equality and women’s empowerment to be at the heart of the post-2015 development agenda, through a standalone goal on gender equality and women’s empowerment and robust integration of gender issues into all other goals and targets that may be developed. In order to do this, and to support real transformation in gender relations, we are proposing an integrated approach that addresses three critical target areas of gender equality, women’s rights and women’s empowerment:

  • Freedom from violence against women and girls
  • Gender equality in the distribution of resources and capabilities
  • Gender equality in decision-making power in both public and private institutions

There’s growing support for such a goal. As Amina highlighted, it was very positive to see the report of the High-Level Panel, the SDSN, and the UN Global Compact all recognize the central importance of gender equality.  

We were particularly pleased to see the recommendation in the Global Compact Report to the Secretary-General on Corporate Sustainability and the Post-2015 Development Agenda calling for a standalone goal on gender equality and women’s empowerment.

It is a truly transformative goal that the Global Compact has proposed. I’d like to highlight the impact that achieving just two of the targets set out in the Global Compact report could have.

First, the Global Compact proposed gender goal calls for universally recognized and enforced equal pay for equal work. According to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, closing the gender gap would grow the economy by three to four per cent, double the impact of the 2009 stimulus package. In Australia, a study estimated that closing the gender wage gap in that country alone could be worth around $93 billion of GDP. In Europe, where the average gender pay gap is 16 per cent, the EU has identified closing the gap as essential to a robust recovery. Importantly, it would also help offset the impact of austerity measures, which are negatively impacting women’s access to decent work and social protection the world over. 

Second, the Global Compact sets a target of 40 per cent or better participation in leadership positions in the public and private sectors. To take just one example, women’s representation on corporate boards ranges from 35 per cent in Norway to only two per cent in Japan, so there is a great deal more to do in this regard. Yet studies by Catalyst and CED, among others, show that more women on boards is correlated with higher profits and a more effective approach to risk. Similar benefits accrue to having more women in senior executive positions -- better leadership and a stronger bottom line.

As the Global Compact Report illustrates and as Amina has already highlighted, the private sector has a critical role to play in advancing a transformative post-2015 agenda, and I would argue, ensuring that gender equality and women’s empowerment are at the center of the next framework.  

As business leaders, I know you are looking for concrete actions to take, and in closing, I have three suggestions. First, join the Knowledge Gateway for Women’s Economic Empowerment. The Knowledge Gateway is an innovative global knowledge and partnership platform for driving women’s economic empowerment founded by UN Women and the Government of Canada but with many other private and public partners already. This key initiative will be launched during the UN General Assembly Session next week. It’s already online at www.empowerwomen.org and I encourage you to support the Gateway, register and actively participate in the platform, and promote it through your networks.  

Secondly, continue to implement the Women’s Empowerment Principles. As both Pierre and Amina highlighted, the UN Women/UN Global Compact Women’s Empowerment Principles (WEPs) have now been signed by CEOs of 600 companies around the world. On behalf of UN Women, I would like to express our deep appreciation to the many business leaders in the room that are among those who have demonstrated their strong commitment to the WEPs, and are making progress in their implementation. I really encourage you to continue to remove the barriers to women’s leadership and participation and ensure gender equality in decision-making roles in your business - and convince others of the clear value of doing so.  

Third, help take action to end violence against women. This really is the scourge of the 21st century. Whether it’s the most recent killing of women government officials in Afghanistan, or gang rape in India - or the recent Steubenville case here in the U.S. - we have to accelerate our efforts to prevent and respond to violence against women and girls. This is both a moral responsibility - and an imperative if we want to make progress towards gender equality and women’s empowerment. To do so, we need the dynamism, power of innovation and strength of the private sector.  

As you know, violence against women was left out of the MDGs, in part because there was limited data globally. Together we just can’t let that happen this time. We need to be able to measure the scope of violence against women and girls, changes in prevalence of violence and the effectiveness of our response.  Just recently the UN Statistical Commission agreed on nine universal indicators to measure violence against women.  We need your support to bring about the data revolution that’s required to roll out these indicators to every single country in the world and ensure they are used and reported on globally. That would really make a difference.

Because all of us have a responsibility to work together to ensure that the post-2015 agenda is truly transformative, tackles structural inequalities and gender-based discrimination, and delivers real change for women and girls. We count on you, and we look forward to building and strengthening our partnerships with private sector organizations and others to promote women’s rights and advance gender equality. 

It seems that every day there is a new story about gender equality and women’s empowerment here in the American media, whether it’s Barnard College president Debra Soar writing about the difficulties of “having it all” this past Sunday, Harvard Business School trying to close the gender gap and retain more women the weekend before, or Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg calling on women to “lean in.” 

That’s not surprising. If the 20th century saw many positive changes for women and girls, with the recognition of women’s rights in international norms and standards as well as in constitutions and laws of many nations, persistent structural barriers to the realization of women’s rights still endure everywhere. That’s why these stories continue to appear, and that’s why the 21st century must be the century where we make our commitments a reality and close the gender gap. All of us will need to “lean in” to do so. 

Thank you.