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Closing the Gender Gap: OECD Reflections

The conference center of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, taken yesterday in Paris.

Let me begin by saying that one cannot overemphasize the historical importance of having organizations like OECD giving public support to the cause of equality for women.  And, as I have often emphasized in speeches and blogs, the availability of detailed, global data has created a previously unparalleled opportunity to understand the nature of gender inequality–and to take informed steps to correct it.

So, regardless of what criticisms eventually may be made about the motivations behind certain organizations’ support and efforts–seeking growth, image cleansing, or whatever–we cannot lose sight of the fundamental value of major organizational endorsement and good data.  The issues surrounding gender inequality have for too long been ignored or dismissed to be complacent about the value inherent in this moment of world attention. And the ideological fights of the late 20th century that, in my opinion, hindered the women’s cause immeasurably, can be productively redirected by solid, global information.

The OECD report, "Closing the Gender Gap--Act Now!" was for sale in the bookstore (see upper left), along with other reports on germane issues, such as inequality and entrepreneurship.

So, the entry of the OECD into the world discourse on how to achieve gender equity is welcome and should be applauded.  In addition, it appears that the report they have produced (called “Closing the Gender Gap:  Act Now!“) will contribute importantly to the existing collections (the main ones being the annual World Economic Forum Gender Gap report, the UNDP’s annual Gender Inequality Index, and the new Booz & Company Third Billion report).  As I understand it from talking to a couple of young men who worked on the data preparation, the OECD has collected a limited amount of new data for this report, but had access to some data, mostly from governments, that has not been used previously.  In addition, it looks pretty clear from just a cursory glance through the booklet that they have delved deeply and analytically into the data in a way that will be enlightening for many (including me).  Further, the data are being made available online in a way that will allow other researchers to download and analyze interactively.  I asked whether it was OK to use some of the charts they have already made available on this blog–they were emphatic that it was more than OK, since  the whole point is to get this stuff  “out there” as widely as possible.  They also invited further comments about what might be missing or interrogated productively.  It’s a collaborative attitude.

The event to announce the availability of the report was held in Paris yesterday.  Three panels were offered; unfortunately, because of needing to catch an early evening flight, I was able only to attend the first two.  But those panels were both very high quality indeed and the discussions held made me think about some issues in a wholly different way. Over the next week or so, I will report on some of these issues thematically and will try to use both quotation from the panelists and information from the report to illustrate. So stay tuned!

The opening remarks for the event were particularly striking, at least for me.  Angel Gurria, Secretary-General of the OECD, pointed to the fact that the first OECD policy statement on gender had been made in 1980 and that all the key ingredients–equal education, equal pay, shared parental duties, and ending stereotyping–had been contained in it.  Yet, as Gurria candidly said, the results since 1980 are disappointing: “For thirty years, we have been trying with no results.”

Gurria noted that, today, before a woman even turns 30 and before she has children, she already earns 10% less than her male counterpart.  She also works fewer hours, due to part time and informal arrangements, and for industry sectors that chronically pay poorly.  She does the bulk of unpaid work.  She is disproportionately employed by the informal economy and much less likely than a man to have a formal job.  And, as result of all this, she is more likely to end her life in poverty, no matter where in the world she is.

The Secretary-General emphasized that “We have run out of excuses.  There are no more excuses.”  And, he went farther to observe that it is “no wonder the countries are saying, ‘It didn’t happen the natural way, so let’s apply policy to get the results.'” (Note my quotes may differ slightly from the official version, as I was writing things down as he said them, rather than working from a prepared text.)

I think it is something of an overstatement to say there has been no progress since 1980. However, I thought it was really important for Gurria, as the leader in that room, to be candid about the limited progress that has been made and the need for policy to push the issue further.  So I was impressed.  I also took his comments–as well as those made by several others during the day–to mean that the OECD would be supporting some regional and international measures (perhaps the recent quotas proposed by the EU) in recognition of the tendency for reform to drag at the national level.

This, I felt, was a very positive stance as a general principle, even though I realize it does not mean OECD would support every initiative.  Nevertheless, I thought it important to recognize, as Gurria very clearly did, that the national volunteerism that is often preferred by country governments (the UK being this moment’s poster child) only leaves politicians to succumb to powerful, but conservative and unsympathetic organizations on the ground (especially corporations).  It is going to take the unflinching insistence of the international community to get this done. It is good to know the OECD is siding with gender equality. As Gurria said, “Achieving gender equality is an imperative, not an option.”


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