Rx For Ailing Economies: Women

This post was originally published in the Pittsburgh Post on Wednesday, September 23, 2009 by Kavita Ramdas and Heather Arnet

Rx for ailing economies: Women To Solve the World's Problems, the G-20 Must Look to 60 Percent of the Workforce

This week two convocations of world leaders will focus on developing a plan for international collaboration to catalyze global economic recovery. Starting today the Clinton Global Initiative will meet in New York, and tomorrow the G-20 will meet here to discuss how to repair the global economy one year after the financial meltdown.

President Barack Obama has urged G-20 finance leaders to end the "reckless risk-taking and irresponsibility" that caused the economic crisis and to focus on economic reform and regulation efforts. Bill Clinton has urged CGI members to look to increased investments in international development, access to health care and the expansion of women's and girls' education and work force opportunities as keys to economic recovery.

What Mr. Clinton and other philanthropists and nongovernmental organization leaders throughout the globe understand is that when investments are made in women and girls, full communities and economies prosper. While Mr. Obama and G-20 leaders meet this week to consider the immediate steps that are necessary to end the current economic crisis, we hope they also will explore broader questions as to how they can create a more sustainable economic plan that puts women and girls at the center of recovery efforts.

A main reason women are central to the global economy is they make up 60 percent of the global work force. In ordinary times, women and girls are the majority of the world's poor and illiterate, but during recessions, the disproportionate burden is placed on women who are more likely in vulnerable jobs, are underemployed, lack social protection and have less control over financial resources.

Worldwide, women make up about 70 percent of those living on less than a dollar a day; add children, who disproportionately depend on women for their care, and you have the majority of the world's poor.

A new report by the international agency Plan International found that the global recession is hitting girls the hardest because they are the first in their families to go without food, to be pulled from school and to lose jobs. The report forecasts that 22 million women will become unemployed, driving more girls into the sex trade.

Mr. Obama said he selected Pittsburgh to be the location for the G-20 because it is a "world-class city"; this is true in many ways, including its similarities to the rest of the world regarding the challenges and opportunities facing women and girls.

While the Economist magazine calls Pittsburgh "the most livable city," it has one of the worst gender wage gaps in the country. While women's entry into the work force is what many credit as saving the Pittsburgh economy after the mills closed in the early 1980s, women still make less dollar for dollar in Pittsburgh than nearly any place in the country (earning less than 70 cents on the dollar compared with the national gender wage gap of 81 cents).

Women are also sorely underrepresented in local and state government positions and on corporate boards. A study conducted by the Post-Gazette in 2006 exposed that of the 50 publicly traded companies based in Pittsburgh, 26 had zero women serving as a board director.

But while Pittsburgh could be a case study for gender inequity, it is also emerging as a city that is taking the issue of gender inequity seriously as an economic development issue. Recently the mayor, City Council and Allegheny County Council collaborated with the Women and Girls Foundation of Southwest Pennsylvania to mandate that local governmental entities conduct a regular race and gender wage gap audit and immediately begin systemic improvements to eliminate wage inequities for government workers.

Also, a coalition of corporate leaders joined forces with the Women and Girls Foundation to increase women's representation on corporate boards. This "Zero No More" effort has taken the number of companies with zero women on the board from 26 in 2006 to 16 by March 2009.

Pittsburgh is demonstrating that when corporate, nonprofit and elected leaders begin to invest in women and girls' advancement, entire local, regional and eventually global economies can feel real impacts.

The G-20 should look to Pittsburgh, not just as a setting, but as a reminder as to how the local and global connect. To date, the main governmental response to the crisis, at least by 60 countries, has been stimulus packages for physical infrastructure, which have created jobs in sectors mostly dominated by men.

While roads and bridges need to be repaired, just as important for a healthy society are investments in social infrastructure, such as education, public health and child care. Social service sectors are where women are more often employed, but they are also critical to building sustainable communities.

Women need to be considered, not just as those being served by development programs, but they need to be at the decision-making tables in increased numbers. Research has confirmed that women are better at mitigating risk, and a recent study showed that banks with at least 30 percent women in senior management positions were far less likely to have made risky and unsustainable loans.

One of the only two female finance ministers of the G-20, Sri Mulyani of Indonesia, is credited for her work in putting Jakarta's financial house in order by dismantling the cronyism that plagued Indonesia's financial architecture from the Suharto era. Indonesia now enjoys one of the most conservative balance sheets in the world and over 4 percent economic growth -- and Ms. Mulyani is credited for her role as a tough regulator.

According to investor and philanthropist Jackie Zehner, the youngest Goldman Sachs partner ever, "If there had been a critical mass of women over a period of time at the decision-making tables, would we be in the place that we are in today? I don't think so." She says women and men consider risk differently -- that women are more measured.

While we cannot add more female finance ministers to the G-20 table this year, we can demand that our world leaders begin to respond to the overwhelming amount of data that points to the immediate and long-term economic gains of investing in the development, education and economic security of 60 percent of the world's work force.

Kavita Ramdas is President and CEO of the Global Fund for Women. Heather Arnet is executive director of the Women and Girls Foundation of Southwest Pennsylvania ( This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it ).


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