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Outlook 2018: The Issues to Watch in Women’s Economic Advancement

From digital tech to data collection, this year we will be looking at how the momentum of the women’s movement could drive real progress in efforts to reach economic equality – and the challenges that still stand in the way.

Written by Jumana Farouky Published on Read time Approx. 6 minutes
The economic advancement of rural women in 2018 will require governments and groups to address other factors such as transport and IT infrastructure and patriarchal norms.Getty Images

If 2017 gave us the #metoo movement, which allowed women to stand up against abuses of male entitlement, 2018 could be the year the campaign for women’s rights addresses the fundamental economic inequalities that affect the world’s poorest women. After the World Economic Forum (WEF) told us in November last year that it will take 217 years to close the economic gender gap, the need to tackle economic inequality is more urgent than it has been in a decade.

Ahead of this year’s WEF meeting in Davos, which ends Friday, the organization called for 2018 to be “the year for women to thrive,” and challenged member countries to raise women’s participation in their labor forces to that of men. At Women’s Advancement Deeply, we will look at how policymakers try to meet the challenge – and what happens when they don’t.

Success will rely on a number of factors, including helping women move from the informal economy, where they make up a disproportionate percentage of workers, to the formal economy; implementing policies to make sure women don’t face discrimination during hiring and firing; and ensuring women are paid the same money for the same work – perhaps following the lead of Iceland, which last year became the first country in the world to oblige employers to prove they pay their workers fairly.

The Digital Revolution

From bitcoin to biometric IDs, digital technology is already helping women find new ways to reach economic autonomy. In 2018, it will become an essential tool in bringing women and men closer to parity.

U.N. Women’s five-point strategic plan for 2018-2021 includes ensuring women have “income security, decent work and economic autonomy.” Part of that plan is supporting member states as they increase women’s access to digital education and training. At the same time, the U.N.’s Commission on the Status of Women is focusing on empowering rural women and girls through improving access to media and information and communication technologies.

The next Alliance for Financial Inclusion Global Policy Forum, which is being held later this year in Sochi, Russia, will focus on how the latest technological innovations can help increase financial inclusion for the rural poor and women.

This year there will be a lot of focus on the role of digital technology and mobile banking in the push to increase financial inclusion for women. (NOAH SEELAM/AFP/Getty Images)

As mobile banking becomes increasingly popular all over the world, companies and organizations are starting to tap into the promise of blockchain – a digitized, decentralized and public record of all cryptocurrency transactions – as a secure, transparent way to pay and receive money. But women will only benefit if they have mobile access to the internet, and in low- and-middle-income countries women are 14 percent less likely to own mobile phones than men.

Governments and groups will need to overcome the obstacles that stop more women from owning and using mobile phones. Cost, social norms that discourage women’s use of technology, and women’s concerns over fear and harassment are all part of the problem, but so are illiteracy and lack of mobile phone, internet and electricity infrastructure, especially in rural areas.

India’s Rajasthan state thought it had the answer to universal financial inclusion for women with its Bhamashah ID system, which requires any family seeking to access welfare services to name a woman as head of the household and have her open a bank account.

But the system is linked to the country’s controversial Aadhaar program, a biometric ID system that is heavily criticized by privacy advocates. The Supreme Court is currently deciding whether or not factors of the Aadhaar program are unconstitutional – which will affect whether other countries look to India’s ID system as an example or a warning.

Over the next year, we’ll cover tech innovations from bitcoin and beyond aimed at boosting women’s economic participation.

The Growing Need to be Banked

Even the most advanced technology can’t do much to give women greater control over their money if they can’t get access to it. In April, the World Bank will release its latest financial inclusion index, the Global Findex, to reveal whether advances in mobile banking have had any affect on driving down the number of unbanked people, those without bank accounts.

The previous Global Findex, which looked at the period from 2011 to 2014, showed that only 58 percent of women had an account, compared with 65 percent of men. That gap hasn’t changed since the index first launched in 2011, even as the number of women opening bank accounts continues to rise. In April, we’ll see if the steady move toward mobile banking managed to narrow the gender gap in the unbanked.

A big theme for this year will be increasing women’s access to financial institutions – not just bank accounts, but services such as loans and savings. (In Pictures Ltd./Corbis via Getty Images)

Women’s World Banking sees the urgency, asking financial institutions to make a New Year’s resolution to focus on women. For some, that will mean opening up more of their services to women, through microloan programs or financial literacy training. For others, it means dedicating entire banks only to women.

Zimbabwe is the latest country to go down that route, with its first women’s bank due to open in February. The bank’s main objective is to give women more access to business loans. Most banks require assets as collateral on loans, but only 9 percent of women in Zimbabwe own a home and only 9 percent own land, severely limiting their access to loans.

We’ll watch the increasing trend for women-focused financial services, looking at what is effective and what is merely lip service.

If there is a theme for this year’s efforts toward economic equality, it’s progress over promises. International Women’s Day, held on March 8 this year, is calling on supporters to #PressforProgress towards gender parity. In trying to make real change, the importance of data collection – and the challenges of getting good data – will be more evident than ever, as governments, organizations and individuals work on sustainable ways to reach economic equality.

All of this happens over the background of the countdown to the Sustainable Development Goals. Economic equality relates to 13 of the 17 goals – not just those focusing on poverty, equality and economic growth, but also the goals toward industry and innovation, sanitation and the environment. The WEF says we need 217 years to achieve gender parity; the countries who adopted the Sustainable Development Goals promised to do it in 15.

To succeed, there is growing consensus that we need to think bigger. Just as economic equality has an effect on a range of other issues, this year experts say it’s time to go beyond looking for ways to help women make money and start seriously tackling the external factors that stop them from doing that in the first place. Factors such as transport and IT infrastructure (to make it safer and easier for women to travel to banks, or cut out the need for them to visit banks entirely); cultural bias and patriarchal attitudes; education and health.

“For a long time, debates about women’s economic advancements have been focused on individual-level intervention – ensuring that groups of women have training; targeting micro-finance interventions towards specific women; looking at mentoring schemes, things like that,” says Alison Holder, director of Equal Measures 2030.

“I’d love to see in 2018 the debate shifting more to system-level changes. Unpaid care and unpaid work, discrimination, basic legal protections and rights. Those real system-level issues I think are really important.”

Alison Holder will talk about the role of data in furthering women’s economic advancement on our Deeply Talk from the World Economic Forum in Davos on January 25 at 11am EST. Register here.

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