The WTO Informal Working Group on Trade and Gender: What It Is, What It Should Consider, and What It Could Be

This commentary is the third 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 will limit its consideration of gender differences to differences between women and men, due to limited data availability and other practical considerations. This installment recommends that the WTO Informal Working Group on Trade and Gender incorporate gender-responsive clauses in trade agreements. Over the next several months, CSIS will consider three case studies to inform research on existing gendered trade barriers before producing gender-specific model language for policymakers’ use in future trade agreements.

The celebration of March as Women’s History Month has produced several announcements that shine a spotlight on the nexus of gender and trade. On March 1, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala became the first woman and African director-general of the World Trade Organization (WTO). On March 8—International Women’s Day—President Joe Biden signed an executive order to establish the White House Gender Policy Council, the first such forum for representatives from the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) and other federal agencies to report directly to the president on gender-relevant issues. On March 18, Katherine Tai became the first woman and Asian American to lead the USTR. During her Senate confirmation hearing, Tai committed to supporting women’s empowerment in trade in response to questions asked by Senator Bob Casey (D-PA) and Senator Catherine Cortez Masto (D-NV).

The conclusion of the preceding piece in this four-part series shared that the next commentary would focus on gender in trade agreement negotiations. However, a March 12 statement by the WTO Informal Working Group (IWG) on Trade and Gender led to a shift in the publication timeline. The announcement solidified a work plan for three meetings leading up to the Twelfth WTO Ministerial Conference (MC12) in late November, the first of which will occur on April 28. Following this article, the series will revert to the issue of trade agreement negotiations.

In advance of that meeting, and in line with ongoing research, this commentary will provide the IWG on Trade and Gender with recommendations to strengthen the efficacy of gender language in trade agreements. The use of gender-specific language—and meaningful follow-up, implementation, and enforcement—is not enough to achieve gender equity in trade. However, its incorporation into multilateral and free trade agreements (FTAs) remains a crucial component of the IWG’s overall goal of increased market access for women.

WTO Informal Working Group on Trade and Gender

At the WTO’s Eleventh Ministerial Conference in 2017, 118 countries (of the 164 total WTO members and observers) endorsed the Buenos Aires Declaration on Trade and Women’s Economic Empowerment, committing to reduce trade barriers that contribute to gender inequity. The IWG on Trade and Gender was born from this declaration on September 23. The United States is not a part of this group, though the Biden administration’s establishment of the Gender Policy Council has renewed hope that the United States will join.

Women’s empowerment is at the heart of building economies that are more economically prosperous and socially inclusive. The Buenos Aires Declaration has become a vital part of the WTO’s work to make trade more inclusive.

— WTO Deputy Director-General Yonov Frederick Agah, at the September 23 IWG on Trade and Gender Meeting

At the first formal meeting on February 26, the now-127-member group agreed to Canada’s proposed work plan and meeting schedule to discuss the following four pillars.

In the February meeting, Canada proposed drafting a ministerial statement to present at MC12—the biennial summit of member states’ highest-ranking trade representatives—which is scheduled to take place in late November.

Trade Recommendations to Work Toward Gender Equity

In preparing its presentation for MC12, the IWG on Trade and Gender can and should consider practical ways to work toward gender equity in trade. For example, it might recommend that WTO member states and observers:

  • Apply a gender lens to trade policy decisions made at a national level, in line with the trade policy already employed by Sweden, Canada, and a growing number of other countries.

  • Apply a gender lens to a review of members’ tariffs; then, consider launching a plurilateral negotiation to reduce tariffs on products that disproportionately impact women. Studies in the United States and in low- and middle-income countries have shown that tariffs place larger burdens on women than men. For example, under the U.S. Harmonized Tariff Schedule, women’s padded, sleeveless jackets face tariffs of 14 percent. Meanwhile, tariffs for the same products classified as “men’s” are only 8.5 percent.

  • Initiate the collection of gender-disaggregated trade data, which will help measure the impact of trade policies and ensure that they benefit women as much as men. For example, data separated by gender on wages and employment could help answer the question: do agricultural subsidies impact women’s wages and employment in the same way as men’s?

  • Expand and update Generalized System of Preferences (GSP) programs in participating countries to ensure that beneficiary countries afford equal rights and legal protection to all genders, as recommended by Senators Casey and Cortez Masto in their proposed Women’s Economic Empowerment in Trade Act. In the United States, the GSP program made possible by the Enabling Clause of the 1979 General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) allows developed countries to confer preferential treatment (e.g., reduced import duties) on products that originate in developing countries.

  • Consider domestic legislation to prohibit gender-based discrimination for countries that have not already done so. Only 10 of 190 countries studied by the World Bank’s Women, Business and the Law 2021 do not maintain any laws that limit economic opportunity based on gender. For example, legislation in Ecuador ensures that a woman can open a bank account in the same way as a man but does not prohibit discrimination in access to credit based on gender.

  • Work with public and private entities to improve infrastructure that bolsters and facilitates access to the digital economy, which serves as an opportunity for women entrepreneurs to bypass traditional market barriers—especially during the pandemic, as working from home may mitigate the role of cultural norms or gender segregation in determining women’s job prospects.
  • Incorporate gender-specific languageand meaningful follow-up, implementation, and enforcement mechanisms—in multilateral, plurilateral, and bilateral trade agreements.

Negotiations of preferential trade agreements and FTAs, which aim to reduce barriers to trade (e.g., tariffs or customs duties) among two or more countries, are crucial opportunities to increase women’s market access. As discussed in this series’ first commentary, women consistently face higher trade barriers than men, which severely limits potential economic growth. By removing these barriers through trade agreements, policymakers can increase women’s market access and start to unlock a possible $13 trillion increase in incremental global GDP.

To that end, the IWG on Trade and Gender should incorporate the following set of key recommendations for FTAs into its ministerial statement. CSIS’s full report, to be published in May, will provide additional recommendations and context.

CSIS recommends that trade agreements among WTO members:

  1. Mainstream gender by including gender-specific clauses in agreements’ preambles, exceptions, and standalone gender chapters. By referencing gender throughout the agreement, members increase the likelihood that instances of discrimination or other gender-based breaches in trade can be resolved through consultation and negotiation or brought to the appropriate dispute settlement body. Standalone gender chapters can provide needed clarity on the scope of cooperative activities, relevant international treaties, the presence or absence of gender committees, and whether or not they are subject to dispute settlement.

  2. Include gender-specific clauses in other relevant chapters, such as labor and services chapters. Despite the prominence of women in the global trade services sector, trade agreement labor chapters often fail to account for the possibility that service barriers impact women and men differently. Services chapters should explicitly acknowledge potential barriers specific to women, and labor chapters should require minimum legal standards for gender-based anti-discrimination, equal pay, and other criteria that help women to participate more fully in export markets.

  3. Make gender provisions enforceable by subjecting gender-relevant treaties and initiatives to dispute settlement mechanisms (DSMs). Provisions could reference the International Labor Organization’s Convention on Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and UN Sustainable Development Goal #5 (gender equality), to which nearly all UN members have committed. Inclusion of those references in the preamble or gender chapter will bolster the accountability of parties to the agreement. Subjecting gender provisions to DSMs will also compel trade partners to prioritize the provisions’ success since they know that consequences will follow any failure to conform. To this end, the DSMs must be accompanied by a meaningful follow-through and enforcement process.

  4. Commit to continued cooperative efforts to address gendered barriers and collect gender-disaggregated data. As more gender-disaggregated data is collected, more light will be shed on which trade barriers have a disproportionate gender impact and the scale of that impact. New data and research will enable countries to refine their cooperative efforts to mitigate gendered barriers and find new opportunities to increase women’s market access.

Challenges and Opportunities for the IWG on Trade and Gender

The WTO has previously convened working groups on specific issues, but the degree to which they have accomplished meaningful change varies—raising the question of whether the IWG on Trade and Gender can lead to actual impact.

The WTO established a multilateral Working Group on Trade and Investment during the 1996 Singapore Ministerial Conference. At the 2001 Doha Ministerial Conference, Working Groups on Transparency in Government Procurement and Interaction between Trade and Competition Policy were also established. However, after the WTO members could not agree on launching negotiations and absent substantive outcomes, ministers referred the working groups’ agendas to the WTO General Council. The General Council decided that the issues of trade and investment, transparency in government procurement, and the interaction between trade and competition would not form part of the Doha Work Programme, and since 2004, these working groups have been inactive.

The multilateral Working Groups on Trade and Transfer of Technology and Trade, Debt, and Finance, also established at the Doha Ministerial, have lasted longer and produced more deliverables than the aforementioned working groups. As of December 2020, the Working Group on Trade and Transfer of Technology has convened 64 sessions and authored several reports on its progress. The Working Group on Trade, Debt, and Finance has also drafted and presented reports of its activities to the WTO General Council and hosted two meetings in 2020. Consistent meetings and reports are good signs of progress. However, because both groups lack concrete timelines, actionable items, and specific commitments, it has been difficult to track any lasting impact of their work.

The IWG on Micro, Small and Medium-sized Enterprises (MSMEs) was born out of the 2017 Ministerial Conference in Buenos Aires, like the IWG on Trade and Gender. On November 5, 2020, the IWG on MSMEs “finalized the technical work on a package of six recommendations and declarations aimed at facilitating the participation of smaller businesses in international trade.” Ninety WTO members officially endorsed that package in December 2020; having achieved its stated goal, the IWG on MSMEs has not yet outlined new objectives.

The CSIS Trade Commission concluded that the WTO’s pillars of negotiation, dispute settlement, and transparency are broken, but the structure of the informal working groups may enable them to sidestep potential landmines. Both the IWG on MSMEs and the IWG on Trade and Gender exist as plurilateral groups with voluntary membership, which helps them focus their work and avoid the consensus requirement that prevents outcomes from being reached elsewhere at the WTO. The IWGs thus have an opportunity to produce results without the politics that consensus requires. In November, when the groups present their work to the full WTO—which does require consensus to make decisions—WTO members may find it politically infeasible to vote against supporting MSMEs and gender equity.

Regardless of its implications for the broader multilateral system, the IWG on Trade and Gender may be more successful than previous WTO working groups thanks to its exceptionally large membership, clear goals, and defined roadmap. If it produces a ministerial statement in November that highlights the role of gender in trade, develops all WTO members’ understanding of the issue, leads to actionable change in the multilateral WTO forum, and sees its work influence FTAs outside the WTO, the group will have made great progress toward its goal while raising expectations for what can be achieved by future working groups.

The WTO has gone from being gender-blind to gender-aware. It is not yet gender-responsive. This is what members of the Informal Working Group on Trade and Gender are trying to accomplish at MC12 and beyond.

— Anoush der Boghossian, Head of Trade and Gender, Development Division, WTO Secretariat

If the proposed deliverables of the IWG on Trade and Gender do fall prey to the jaws of consensus, however, WTO members—individually and in collaboration—must find another way to drive these goals forward. Now, more than ever, political impetus and economic rationale can hold actors accountable for their commitments to gender equity. As countries begin to recover from the economic consequences of the pandemic, the WTO should continue to support equal market access for half the world’s population as a means of building a stronger, more inclusive, and more just global economy. In the words of Anoush der Boghossian, head of trade and gender at the WTO, “Gender cannot be ignored any longer. The Buenos Aires Declaration put the spotlight on gender more than before, and the WTO can only move forward.”

The upcoming IWG on Trade and Gender meetings provide an opportunity for WTO members to consider women’s market access as key to trade policy decisions. CSIS recommends that the group consider the importance of including gender-specific language in trade agreements, which will help mitigate gendered trade barriers, improve market access for women, and lead to global economic growth.

In the next and final installment of this series, CSIS will consider the role that gender may or may not play in trade negotiations. Drawing on available data and primary research, it will broadly describe the extent to which the gender of trade negotiators—and of the decisionmakers who determine negotiators’ priorities—may impact the final language of trade agreements.

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

Ally Brodsky

Temporary Research Assistant, Scholl Chair in International Business

Jasmine Lim

Program Coordinator and Research Assistant, Scholl Chair in International Business

Jack Caporal