In some places, an earthquake topples buildings. In others, it swallows farm animals. In yet others, it roils waters and breaks bridges. Yet we recognize that all these effects are caused by a single phenomenon—an earthquake—with consistent features and forces.
The economic exclusion of women also has consistent features and exerts predictable force—all over the world. When the force of exclusion hits the ground, however, the impact can appear local and even random or freakish. Just like an earthquake.
What we are missing is a coherent understanding of the women’s economy that can explain the various manifestations of its power—creative and destructive—in different places and times. Until we have that story nailed down, I believe attempts to gain a serious commitment from national and international economic policy-makers will be frustrated.
This week, the Women20—a “dialogue group” representing women’s interests under the Group of 20 (G20) organization—is meeting in Berlin. Though the W20 has had two previous incarnations—in China and Turkey—this meeting in Germany is likely to produce the first international notice that they even exist. This notice will be due in no small part to the participation of Angela Merkel, Christine Lagarde, and Ivanka Trump. Certainly it will not come from recognition of the massive impact women’s economic exclusion has on national economies.
The G20, an expanded set of nations once known as the “G8,” is comprised of the top economic decision-makers in the top national economies of the world. Originally brought together informally, the G20 today is an important economic governance forum. But this group, which ostensibly works to forward the collective prosperity of all twenty nations, has traditionally ignored the economic constraints on half the citizenry of each member state. It is a shameful circumstance, one that stems directly from the fact that economics, as a whole, has never paid any heed to the special conditions of its largest excluded group.
Because of this persistent blind spot in economic thought, I believe a new way of looking at nations, one that includes all citizens, is required. Without anchoring demands for inclusion, such as the W20 will make this week, in a clearly articulated vision of exactly how filling those demands will avoid damage and build growth, we will never get the attention we need from world leaders, including the G20 ministers.
Let me give you just a quick example. South Africa, one of the G20 nations, has 41% of its households headed by a female, one of the highest percentages in the world. That figure does not point to a culture where females are richer and more powerful, but one in which men are absent from homes. Yet, despite the huge responsibility they hold for preparing the workforce of the future, female South Africans still struggle under the same set of constraints that have dogged women everywhere for centuries: though the national laws give them rights to have bank accounts, own property, and so forth, the tribal and religious laws still exclude them. Not surprisingly, black females in South Africa (blacks are 80% of the population) are the nation’s most economically disadvantaged group—significantly more disadvantaged than black men.
Now think about it. How can a nation build a strong economy—and especially a prosperous future—when forty per cent of its households depend on a breadwinner suffering from an ancient system of economic constraints? You can imagine a whole raft of economic indicators that are affected by this one basic fact of life on the ground. Yet the many analytical reports of South Africa’s economy never even give notice to this single point. And that’s because economists simply don’t think about gender. They don’t believe that what affects women has an impact on economies.
We need to point the noses of the G20 in the direction of examples like South Africa, where the effects of women’s disempowerment have rather obvious implications for national development on a large scale. Then we need to do it again for another country. For regions. For the world. And, in the end, everything we say must “hang together” in an explanatory and predictive way, like the technology for tracking earthquakes.
Making the case that women’s conditions affect economies requires a lot of data—and we have some of that. But more importantly, it requires creative and intentional analysis, followed by a concerted and coherent effort to educate world economists out of their blinkers and into a 360-degree worldview. We must explain, illustrate, and demonstrate our case until they “get it” that pushing half the world’s population out of their economies is not good for them.
Such an effort requires a permanent location and a staff of thinkers and researchers who can do the analysis, make the case, and provide the policy reports that economic leaders read. It needs a full-time leadership who can advocate with the G20, as well as with the nations themselves. But such work cannot occur under the current structure of the W20.
The W20 was allowed to exist by the G20, but with more burdensome restrictions than any of the other so-called “dialogue groups” that represent business, youth, think thanks, and other (mostly smaller and, frankly, less important) interests. The W20 is forced to change its leadership every year, moving to a new country every 12 months. They are at the mercy of the gender attitudes of whatever nation comes up next—which inevitably produces a rollercoaster of conditions under which to operate. The W20 was assigned a bunch of delegates, many of which are men who have never shown up to a single meeting. They have no permanent employees and therefore no collective memory to take from one national post to the next. Under these conditions, it will be next to impossible for the W20 to organize itself into the sustained work that would be required to redirect the attention of the world’s economic leaders. The W20 will be left with little more than an annual event from which to issue lists of “demands.” And the G20, without an explanation as to why the demands will lead to better economic conditions, will be at liberty to ignore them.
The fate of the W20 is important. There has never in history been a group devoted to the governance of women’s economic interests at a global level. The W20 could be that group. The W20 team assembled in Berlin today, of which I am honored to be a member, is composed of brilliant and committed women. I have every faith in their intelligence and intentions. But someone must step up to create the conditions under which the W20 can truly lead—beginning with a workable structure that can produce the kinds of policy analyses and recommendations that are needed. I hope that will happen this week in Berlin.