1 October 2015

Women and work: is there more to life than boosting GDP?

By Cristina Odone

A woman’s work is never done – so imagine if it were to fuel the world’s economy.

McKinsey Global Institute has published a report that shows what the world would look like, if women left home for the workplace. It’s a spectacular picture they paint  – until one realises that the bar graphs and colour-coded charts of the report, “The Power of Parity: how advancing women’s equality can add $12 trillion to global growth”, see only the positive repercussions of women going out to work.

The report has worked out, in dollar terms, the contribution women would make if they joined the workforce in the same numbers as men. The results are impressive: global growth would increase by $28 trillion, or 26 per cent by 2025. And even if every country just matched progress made in gender parity by its most improving neighbour, the global economy would grow by $12 trillion. The analysis covers 95 countries and finds that 40 have extremely high or high levels of inequality on half or more of 15 indicators including not only male-female equality in work but also in physical, social, political, and legal contexts.

In bar graphs and figures, the report compares how countries fare in terms of gender parity. Its findings include some surprises: US and Canadian women workers enjoy greater equality on the job, but women in western Europe feel safer and have greater political participation than those in North America. Women in Eastern Europe and Central Asia are closer to gender equality than other regions, but lack legal protection and a political voice. Women in Sub-Saharan Africa are worst served in terms of access to schools and hospitals.

McKinsey’s number crunchers zero in on the obstacles that hold back women from joining the labour force. Schooling, predictably, is one; as is the absence of role models. Women rate mentoring highly, in Blackpool as well as Brazilia: as an earlier report, by the Centre for Entrepreneurs, showed, women in England rate coaching from successful business women as indispensable to stoke their ambitions and support their endeavours. At a recent conference on African enterprise, Marieme Jamme, CEO of SpotOne Global Solutions in Senegal, highlighted the need for supporting girls on the continent: “Mentoring is key” she said, “if successful women could find half an hour, one hour per month to give advice, it would change so much.”

Other obstacles include maternal health (maternal mortality rates remain high in Africa and southeast Asia – and, shockingly, have increased inthe USA); child marriage, violence against women and access to finances and the internet.

The report makes policy recommendations – and invites the private sector to invest in some of the interventions:  funding better sanitation facilities for girls in school, which would boost attendance rates in a host of countries; establishing diversity quotas in firms; providing mobile phone packages targeting women. The report provides too some ingenious projects on the ground that already support gender parity. One is the Naning’oi Girls Boarding School project in Kenya, which substitutes the traditional practice of “booking” girls for marriage with booking them for school instead: in this programme, the traditional dowry of livestock or gifts to the girl’s parents is given in exchange for her going to school rather than getting married.

These findings will chime with the UK Government’s agenda. From its first days as part of a coalition, David Cameron’s government has wooed women out of the home with carrots (promises of better child care, better maternity and paternity leave), and sticks (continuing with a tax regime that punishes single-earner households).

But neither the Government, nor McKinsey’s, acknowledge that the drive to professionalise women’s work could have negative as well as positive repercussions. Get women to join men at work, and who’s left raising the babies, looking after the grandparents, volunteering for neighbourhood projects such as the village fete, the homeless shelter, scrubbing down the local place of worship? It is difficult to assign a value to such relationships, and hard to determine the impact their rupture would have on us all. But when prosperity is on every policymaker’s lips, surely no one believes that boosting the economy is our only goal?

In ‘Working Girls’, an article in Prospect magazine back in 2006, economist Alison Wolf dared raise the alarm: more women working outside the home would result in “the erosion of female altruism”, the service ethos that has been profoundly important to modern industrial societies. Here in the UK, her warning fell on deaf ears. Will it do the same elsewhere?

Cristina Odone is Director of Communications at the Legatum Institute.