Empowering Women through Skills and Workforce Development

Under normal circumstances, the heavily guarded Naval Support Facility Thurmont (or Camp David as it is more commonly known) would have had the opportunity to host the leaders of the Group of Seven (G7) powers this summer. And among their priorities would have been the opportunity to strengthen their collective commitments to tackle the pressing global challenge of enabling women’s economic empowerment. But with the widespread outbreak of the infectious COVID-19 shutting down borders and forcing populations around the world to stay home, the G7 Summit has been scrapped. The leaders will, instead, participate in a teleconference and will have a leaner agenda focusing on battling the ongoing pandemic.

Nevertheless, it is critical to reflect on the progress made by the international community in securing economic empowerment for women and consider the opportunities that lie ahead to further this agenda. It is helpful to note that that if the Summit had gone ahead as planned, it would have come at the beginning of the UN’s Decade of Action.

Multilateral Initiatives

Since 2015, G7 leaders have demonstrated a strong commitment to supporting women’s economic empowerment. In August 2019, the G7 Gender Equality Advisory Council released a series of recommendations calling on governments to establish initiatives that help women and girls overcome barriers to entry and full participation in the workforce. According to the Council, women’s economic empowerment is a “transformational process” achieved through, among other things, skills training, a positive workplace that allows for work-life balance, and access to public services including childcare. Women often face discriminatory laws (particularly those on workplace sexual harassment), which hinder their ability to realize their economic potential and prohibit them from having the same opportunities as men.

At the 2019 Group of 20 (G20) Osaka summit, leaders from around the world declared that “gender equality and women’s empowerment are essential for achieving sustainable and inclusive economic growth.” The G7 member states—along with Australia, Chile, India, Senegal, and Rwanda—committed to taking legal actions to support women and girls. At the same time, a few other countries committed to financially supporting female entrepreneurs in Africa. The declaration discusses the progress G20 leaders have made on fulfilling the 2014 Brisbane Commitments, which aimed to reduce the gender gap in workforce participation by 25 percent by 2025. Since 2012, there has been a decline in the labor force participation gap in almost all G20 economies except for Russia.

Moreover, about half of the G20 member countries are on track to meet the workforce participation goal fully by 2025. Yet for countries such as Mexico and Saudi Arabia, meeting this goal will continue to be more difficult due to the disparately large gap with which they started. The declaration references the progress report Women at Work in G20 Countries produced by the International Labour Organization (ILO) and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), which discusses the need for G20 states to accelerate their efforts in bridging the labor force participation gap. The declaration also addresses the gender gap in unpaid care work, which they claim, “remains a major obstacle to women’s participation in the labour market.” The declaration calls on the private sector “to promote women’s access to managerial and decision-making positions and foster women business leaders and entrepreneurship.” Lastly, it discusses the importance of increasing access to funding, skills training, and workforce development for female entrepreneurs.

U.S. Leadership

Meanwhile, the United States has been a leader within the international donor community and has piloted several initiatives to address women’s issues globally in a bipartisan manner across multiple administrations. For the Bush administration, these efforts were packaged into larger development assistance programs such as the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) efforts in Sub-Saharan Africa (HIV/AIDS has disproportionately affected women and children on the continent) and literacy and education assistance programs for girls and young women in Afghanistan and Iraq in the aftermath of major military interventions that deposed oppressive authoritarian regimes. The Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC), one of the administration’s signature achievements in global development, adopted the Gender Policy in 2006, which required all of its partnerships to center on addressing gender and social inclusion issues throughout the compact cycle. The Obama administration prioritized combating gender-based violence and securing basic education for young women and girls living in the most dogmatic communities in the world. In 2009, the Obama administration created a White House Council on Women and Girls, which had a dominant focus on protecting the rights of women subject to the brutalities of either violent conflicts or authoritarian regimes. That same year, the State Department also established the position of ambassador-at-large for global women’s issues to lead efforts to partner with non-profit agencies, private sector, and other grantmaking agencies.

The leadership on women’s issues continued under the Trump administration, which added an economic empowerment dimension to this issue. The Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC), now the US Development Finance Corportation or DFC, launched the 2X Women’s Initiative in 2018, which aimed to unlock the full economic potential of women in the developing world by catalyzing $1 billion toward women-owned or women-led businesses and funds and providing them the supporting infrastructure that empowers them in the economic sphere.

But perhaps the most significant response to the challenge of gender equity and inclusion in the global economy was the Trump administration’s launch of the Women’s Global Development and Prosperity (W-GDP) Initiative in February 2019. As the first U.S. whole-of-government initiative, W-GDP set itself out to achieve the goal of economically empowering over 50 million women in developing countries over the next five years by focusing its efforts on the following three pillars:

Pillar 1: Women Prospering in the Workforce with a focus on workforce development, vocational education, and skills training;

Pillar 2: Women Succeeding as Entrepreneurs with a focus on entrepreneurship and access to capital, markets, and networks; and

Pillar 3: Women Enabled in the Eeconomy with a focus on addressing laws, regulations, policies, practices, and norms to allow women to reach their economic potential.

Women’s Prosperity in the Workforce

Countless academics and researchers have long-established the lost economic potential carried by the global economy due to the lack of equitable and inclusive participation of women. If women engaged in economic activity on the same level as men, the world would add $11 trillion in annual 2025 GDP. Studies also show that women’s participation has positive spillover effects on health and other social indicators critical for the development of a country’s population. Despite these clear economic and social benefits, several challenges impede gender-inclusive economic growth and development. Girls face cultural and systemic barriers to accessing even basic education systems (primary/elementary and secondary/high schools), which are foundational to any medium- to long-term workforce development training. Layered on top of this are cost constraints experienced by women wanting to participate in training programs due to insufficient investments in vocational and technical education and lack of access to and equity in quality higher education institutions. Separately, women continue to face barriers outside of formal training in the form of information restriction, lack of financial literacy, and basic project and business management skills. Finally, as the global economic landscape undergoes tectonic shifts and as forces of the fourth industrial revolution continue to automate and digitize vast portions of the service sector, workforce training needs to emphasize on those unique virtues and skills that are “human” and that computers and artificial intelligence cannot effectively recreate. These skills and virtues include empathy, which is critical to driving the care economy as well as the travel, tourism, and hospitality economy; creativity for the entertainment, media, and other aspects of the creative economy; and critical thinking capacity and analytical reasoning.

From Aspirations to Action

As the world enters post-pandemic recovery mode, countries can act on their commitments to women’s advancement in the economy. Policymakers can use the frameworks from past summits to identify and address the major challenges to liberating women’s access to a more gender-inclusive economy. CSIS proposes the following four recommendations that can help leaders of the G7 and G20 to issue calls for action that can bring together official development partners, private sector, universities, and other key stakeholders:

Recommendation 1: Rethink Education and Training
a) Encourage Vocational Education

Developing countries need to leverage available domestic resources and foreign aid support to build up technical training and vocational education institutes that specifically aim at girls and women in their communities. As countries have a growing youth population that renews national aspirations and anxieties, the need of the hour is to fast-track women’s ability to play an equal role in economic growth without adding an unreasonable burden on resources.

Revitalizing vocational education is also in line with the capacity challenge many countries face. Currently, the gross enrollment ratio of developing countries’ population in university-level higher education is less than 40 percent, with the number dropping to 23 percent in India and 19 percent in South Africa. In order for increased impact, it is necessary to focus on workforce development institutions beyond the conventional university programs and supplement the latter’s efforts to fuel economic growth.

b) Push beyond STEM Training
The increased significance of the service sector has created a surge in demand for STEM graduates who typically must go through a well-rounded college (often graduate school) education with a training timeline of four to eight years. While STEM degrees often lead to higher paying jobs (certainly the case in the United States), it is not the only economic avenue available. Millions of women have high-income opportunities in the care economy (including nursing, childcare, and assisted living facilities), the creative economy, the hospitality sector, and the travel industry.

Women can access these alternative avenues within a knowledge-based economy after undergoing technical training and vocational education that also emphasizes the development of cognitive thinking and socio-emotional skills. Such training, usually completed in six months to three years, requires very little investment of significant financial or time resources while preparing them for entry into the workforce in less than half the time of STEM training.

c) Emphasize Industry Readiness
Development actors and government partners should also ensure that foundational skills such as financial literacy, numeracy, and interpersonal skills needed at the workplace are imparted upon those women preparing for the workforce at any level of education. According to the World Bank, the lack of these skillsets have a punitive effect on women in the economy and makes them most vulnerable to layoffs and labor market shocks. One-third of the working-age population in low- and middle-income countries lack these basic skills required to get quality jobs, prohibiting them from achieving their full productive potential and limiting economic investment and growth.

Recommendation 2: Invest in Infrastructure to Create the Enabling Environment
Globally, there is a multitrillion-dollar infrastructure investment gap that leaves over a billion without electricity, nearly 900 million without water and sanitation, and several hundreds of millions without easy and affordable access to transportation and shelter. Women commit over 200 million hours collecting water from sources that are a considerable distance from their homes, costing the global economy $260 billion annually, in addition to the $18.5 billion lost due to health issues posed to women due to these water-collection efforts. These have tangible and very direct consequences on education and workforce development—more acutely among girls and women. Effective and timely intervention through public-private partnerships is needed to ensure that these gaps are met and eliminate systemic and cultural barriers that are imposed upon girls and women in the forms of lack of toilets in schools, clean water supply in buildings, unsafe commute, and transportation options. Moreover, with the difference between internet penetration rates for men and women standing at 25 percent in Africa and 33 percent in least-developed countries, ensuring that investments in infrastructure are gender-inclusive is critical to contain the widening digital gender divide.

Recommendation 3: Given the Changing World, Focus on New Sectors
With the global economy undergoing radical changes, development actors need to ensure that women entering the workforce as new participants can quickly adapt to these changes and can sustain their newly found economic freedom in the winds of change. Thus, it is vital to prioritize the development of skills that cannot easily be replaced through machines and will be indispensable for an economy of the twenty-first century.

For instance, the hospitality sector created 313 million new jobs globally in 2018, accounting for nearly one-tenth of the total global employment. Meanwhile, the global creative economy generated 29.5 million jobs in 2015 (about 1 percent of all jobs in the world) and generated over $2.25 trillion (3 percent of the world economy). Besides its growing influence in the economy, the sector is also gender-inclusive. In the United Kingdom, more than 50 percent of the music industry are women employees while in Indonesia, about 55 percent of those in the creative industries are women.

Recommendation 4: Use the Sustainable Development Goals to Measure Progress
The principles and goals enshrined in the previously issued communique of the G7 and G20 signify the unanimous commitment of world leaders to end gender-related discrimination and violence. However, they seldom get translated into measurable indicators (critical to assess the impact of initiatives and strategies) for the development actors, community builders, volunteers, and public sector officials working in the field. That being said, the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the 230 sub-indicators that are used to measure a country’s progress in achieving those goals can be quite useful in putting the communique into action.

In particular, stakeholders can look toward the following SDGs to help invest in skills and workforce development strategically:

  • #4 (Quality Education): whose sub-indicators look at (among other things) access issues to education at all levels (by gender); number of skilled graduates in the labor force (by gender); equity issues such as reading, speaking, writing, and arithmetic proficiency at primary and secondary school levels; gender inclusivity of educational institutions’ infrastructure, including toilets and sanitation facilities; and availability of scholarships (by gender).
  • #5 (Gender Equality): whose sub-indicators look at (among other things) legislative provisions to combat workplace discrimination, state-sanctioned violence against women, cultural discrimination, violence against women, social welfare provisions for mothers in the workforce, political participation of women, and regulatory restrictions on women’s participation in the financial sector.
  • #6 (Water and Sanitation): whose sub-indicators look at (among other things) access to adequate and equitable sanitation and hygiene for all (paying special attention to the needs of women and girls and those in vulnerable situations). The lack of such sanitation facilities is a predominant factor why adolescent girls and young women drop out from participating in education and economy.
  • #8 (Decent Work and Economic Growth): whose sub-indicators look at (among other things) full, gender-inclusive, and productive employment of the population and equal pay for labor regardless of gender.

Daniel F. Runde is senior vice president, director of the Project on Prosperity and Development, and holds the William A. Schreyer Chair in Global Analysis at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Sundar R. Ramanujam is a research associate with the CSIS Project on Prosperity and Development.

This commentary is made possible thanks to the generous support from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan and their cooperation with the CSIS Project on Prosperity and Development

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

© 2020 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.

Daniel F. Runde
Senior Vice President; William A. Schreyer Chair; Director, Project on Prosperity and Development

Sundar R. Ramanujam

Research Associate, Project on Prosperity and Development