Negotiating Trade Agreements: Gender as a Priority?

This commentary is the fourth of a four-part series that examines the intersection between trade and gender. Though the term “gender” can encompass a variety of identities, the series has limited its focus to differences between women and men, due to limited data availability and other practical considerations. This installment considers the relationship between the number of women in negotiating positions and the inclusion of gender provisions in trade agreements. CSIS will publish its final report on trade and gender in late May.

Over the past six months, CSIS has studied the nexus of international trade and gender. In late May, this research will culminate in a final report that offers model gender-specific language for future free trade agreements (FTAs), as well as recommendations for trade negotiations and domestic policy. This commentary is a preview of that report. It explores the factors that bring gender to the negotiating table and suggests how best to include gender provisions in trade negotiations.

Gender-specific provisions in trade agreements can commit parties to take action to mitigate barriers to trade for women. Relative to men, women often face greater time constraints, higher border costs, and weaker domestic legal protection, as well as challenges posed by gender segregation of the services sector. (Women comprise 59 percent of employment in the global services sector but hold the majority of the sector’s lowest-paying jobs, including in trade.) Trade negotiations, which establish the language used in trade agreements, can therefore play an important role in determining the presence or absence of specific provisions that aim to boost gender equity.

In interviews, trade experts from the United States, Canada, and Chile agreed that a larger number of women in the negotiating room does not necessarily translate to more gender provisions in trade agreements. For example, anecdotal evidence suggests that the Office of the United States Trade Representative (USTR) has been staffed with at least 50 percent women since the late 1980s, but the United States’ first FTA gender provisions did not appear until the United-States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) entered into force in 2020—more than 30 years later. Similarly, representatives of Canada and Chile (two countries that have each entered into at least three trade agreements that include standalone gender chapters or strong gender provisions, including one with each other) have confirmed that though their trade offices are not noticeably imbalanced in terms of gender, their ability to include inclusive language in their agreements derives not from their staff’s gender parity but from the presence of political will to drive top-down change.

Though representation of women certainly matters—in the trade negotiating room just as much as in other contexts—increased representation does not seem to determine whether or not FTAs include gender-explicit language. With that in mind, this commentary, abridged from CSIS’s forthcoming report on trade and gender, considers why gender has been largely ignored in the negotiating process of trade agreements. Interviews with trade negotiators in the United States and abroad revealed that key barriers include insufficient social impetus, political salience, and the gender diversity of stakeholder consultations.

Social Impetus

Several U.S. negotiators said that gender provisions seem to be following a path similar to that of environment clauses in trade agreements in the 1980s and 1990s, when people who had grown up watching Flipper—the popular television program about two children and their pet dolphin—engaged in consumer boycotts to protest non-dolphin-safe tuna catches. In response to this bottom-up pressure, lawmakers directed the USTR to prioritize developing environmental policies that would result in “high levels of environmental protection and effective enforcement of environmental laws in trade agreements.” Today, as economists, legal experts, and other advocates have begun to recognize gender inequity in trade, policymakers have increasingly directed negotiators to incorporate gender in FTA negotiations—policymakers abroad, at least, with only a few doing so in the United States.

Political Salience

As hinted above, the political salience of an issue plays a key role in determining whether it is addressed in the negotiating room, and the executive branch may not consider gender salient. Furthermore, lawmakers’ views may factor into negotiators’ calculus when considering the content or strength of proposed agreement language, since lawmaker approval will be needed to implement the agreement; however, in the United States and many other countries, most lawmakers do not yet consider gender a salient topic for trade (or, put another way, a “material risk” to business interests).

This structure leaves trade negotiators with little flexibility to deviate from guidelines laid out by legislators. Therefore, the gender breakdown of the negotiating room does not seem to influence trade agreement outcomes, as trade negotiators are expected to pursue the priorities of the administration and lawmakers, regardless of their own stance on trade issues.

Gender Diversity of Stakeholder Consultations

Stakeholder consultations are conducted through advisory committees, whose members help negotiators better understand the needs of the private sector and thus serve as indirect, bottom-up contributors to trade agreements. According to membership lists available on the USTR and International Trade Administration (ITA) websites, women comprise only 25 percent of the nearly 550 committee members (across 26 committees). Additionally, though advisory committees focus on specific topics relevant to trade (such as the Trade and Environmental Policy Advisory Committee, or TEPAC), the United States has no trade committee dedicated to the importance of gender.

So, What Can We Do with This Information?

Negotiators can also work toward the goal of gender equity in trade in three main ways. Negotiators should diversify trade advisory committees, create a Trade and Gender Advisory Committee, and commit to collect gender-disaggregated data to measure gender impact.

1. Diversify Trade Advisory Committees

Trade advisory committees could benefit from broader diversity, as more diverse committees may lead to more inclusive trade practices, including the insertion of gender-specific clauses in trade agreements. As the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) suggests, in addition to new entrants and micro, small and medium-sized enterprises (MSMEs)—which tend to be underrepresented in stakeholder engagement processes—“women, who are less represented in industry networks and have less time to devote to networking, may also need to be prioritized when engaging stakeholders.” If lawmakers were to hear from and engage with more women small business owners, for example, they might better appreciate the challenges that women in trade face simply because of their gender, including the disproportionate impact of trade barriers on women. Therefore, government trade offices should prioritize diversifying their trade advisory committees to include 50 percent women, a criterion that, in the United States, only the Industry Trade Advisory Committee on Services (of 26 total committees) has met. The ITA and Office of Intergovernmental Affairs & Engagement (IAPE) within USTR, which oversee different committees (sometimes jointly with the Departments of Labor and Agriculture), should also consider expanding total membership per committee and set a reasonable deadline by which they can aim to achieve this goal.

Though the gender of trade negotiators may not determine the presence or absence of gender-specific clauses in trade agreements, gender parity in the committees that advise negotiators constitutes an important goal. If achieved, it would signal a commitment to gender equity in trade, which is a meaningful gesture—even if, in practice, the committees wield little influence over final agreements.

2. Create a Trade and Gender Advisory Committee (TGAC)

Governments with advisory committees should create a distinct Trade and Gender Advisory Committee (TGAC), comprised of gender-diverse members (women, as well as non-binary individuals and men). These members should be selected through a transparent, inclusive process that recognizes the statistically disproportionate demands on women’s time.

3. Commit to Collect Gender-Disaggregated Data to Measure Gender Impact

Government trade offices can take action to make trade more gender-inclusive by committing to collect gender-disaggregated data to measure gender impact, which will help isolate the disproportionate impact of some trade agreement clauses on women. Quantifying that impact using a “gender country review” and the quantitative impact framework recently published by OECD, for example, can specifically measure the impact of trade on women’s employment and wages, as well as barriers to trade for women-owned businesses and MSMEs (including access to credit and financing, time constraints that reduce ability to start businesses and build business networks, and price effects of trade).


As bottom-up advocacy for gender equity continues to grow, policymakers—and, in turn, trade negotiators—will be forced to take steps to respond. Increasing gender diversity on advisory committees, creating a TGAC, and committing to the collection of gender-disaggregated data will facilitate the inclusion of gender provisions in trade agreements. By prioritizing gender during trade negotiations, governments can demonstrate their commitment to gender equality and, in time, enjoy the increased social and economic benefits to be gained from women’s economic empowerment.

Jasmine Lim is a program coordinator and research assistant with the Scholl Chair in International Business at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Ally Brodsky is a former research intern and current temporary research assistant with the CSIS Scholl Chair. William Reinsch holds the CSIS Scholl Chair.

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).

© 2021 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.

Jasmine Lim

Program Coordinator and Research Assistant, Scholl Chair in International Business

Ally Brodsky

Former Research Intern and Current Temporary Research, Scholl Chair in International Business