Gender equality as a cornerstone of sustainability

Gender equality as a cornerstone of sustainability

I recently had the pleasure of participating in an initiative here in Brussels celebrating International Women’s Day, where I was asked a set of questions about the progress achieved to date for women’s rights and equality.

One such question was what needs to be changed to achieve gender equality globally. This got me thinking further about how the issue could be better addressed at the political and policymaking level to ensure a sustainable future, as climate change is today.

Firstly, we should require more of our government leaders to make gender equality a key part of their platforms. While equality tends to get overlooked in sustainability discussions (the predominant focus on the “E” in ESG criteria over the S or G is illustrative of this), world leaders hold a large platform that can raise the voices of women across numerous audiences.

There are various ways leaders can do this outside the restrictions posed by pure law-making. They can award recognition of accomplished women, express public support for women’s causes or see to it that their Cabinets mirror the very societies they are governing. Both the current European Commission, led by Ursula von der Leyen, and the US Biden Administration have taken to promoting gender diversity, including the appointment of women to critically important positions such as Executive Vice President Margrethe Vestager or US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen. This, in itself, serves as a model for other nations.

Secondly, governing bodies should find ways to positively integrate gender issues into their policy work. Laws can be shaped and interpreted in ways that require recognition of this area, even if gender equality itself cannot be “legislated” in the traditional sense.

The EU can be a great driver of this as a relatively progressive body on gender issues. The European Commission Gender Equality Strategy for 2020-25 published last week aims to bring a “gender perspective” into EU policies, noting even its twin climate and digital transition plans have a gender dimension attached. The EU Regulation establishing the Recovery and Resilience Facility – the tool for recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic – also requires EU Member States to specify how their national recovery plans foster gender equality. Both set the scene for gender to remain a core part of Europe’s sustainability dialogue.

Thirdly, international organisations linked to economic stability or development must acknowledge the effect gender imbalance has on the economy. Laws and regulations around the world have a hand in limiting women’s access to jobs and opportunities, which inevitably worsens during economic downturns.

The COVID-19 pandemic serves as a perfect example. A World Bank report issued in February concluded that the pandemic heightened women’s inherent disadvantages in health, safety and economic security. In addition to furloughs and layoffs, many women were also forced out of work due to loss of child-care support. The first woman to head the European Central Bank, Christine Lagarde, has attempted to highlight the link these disadvantages have to the economy and reshape how the institution factors in such social matters. The pushback she received for venturing into political spheres considered outside the ECB’s mandate – despite the clear implications they have for Europe’s economy – shows a pressing need to shift the mindset around social versus financial economics.

For all the talk of sustainability today, the world has a way to go before successfully addressing socioeconomic developments, including, in addition to gender, disparities growing from climate change, wealth and digitalisation. The aftermath of COVID-19, while daunting, should allow us to consider orienting recovery around social issues. In view of women’s presence in society – from business, to politics, to trade and overall leadership – recognising gender imbalance, and seeking to correct it, is an important start.

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