The factors that keep women out of the workforce are well defined by now. For decades, —the lack of affordable childcare, lower wages, erratic scheduling, gender discrimination, and sexual harassment have stubbornly kept the labor force participation gap between men and women in the U.S. at about 11%.
However, as other countries, such as Canada and Japan, have actively sought to close that gap, some solutions have emerged. Recently, Citi GPS, which has been studying the global impact of women’s economic empowerment, published its findings on these efforts in the report, “Women in the Economy: How Women’s Empowerment can Shape the Global Economy.”
“It’s about creating gender equality and removing barriers to entry into the workforce for women,” says Tina Fordham, Citi’s chief global political analyst and a coauthor of the report. “Empowerment comes from creating on-ramps for women to be able to work if they want to.”
Narrowing the workplace gender gap isn’t just a social issue, or a matter of what’s fair— it’s imperative for economic growth. OECD nations could see a massive 20% gain in GDP if female participation were raised fully to that of men.
Citi’s research brings to light valuable examples of short, medium, and long-term solutions that are being put into place by the private sector and governments alike. Many are fairly simple fixes that could bring rapid economic benefits, while others require complex social and cultural change. All, however, are achievable with the right leadership and motivation.
Here are some of the report’s key insights.
In the short term…
- Employers can attract more women to the workforce by eliminating erratic scheduling and insecure positions. Instead, they should implement consistent and, ideally, flexible scheduling that can accommodate the lifestyles of those raising children or caring for elderly family members.
- “Family-friendly policies at corporations are huge,” says Dana Peterson, a North America economist with Citi Research and a co-author of the report. “It takes senior people listening to people who aren’t so senior to get the message about this, and then actively working these solutions into their corporate plans.”
- Governments such as Canada have had success in narrowing the gap after making economic reforms that level the playing field for working women. One effective approach: revising the tax code to eliminate the so-called “marriage tax” that penalizes second earners and discourages many women from re-entering the workforce after having children.
- Private businesses can help close the gap by making supply-chain and procurement changes to support female-owned or female-run businesses. Businesses should also look at whether the contractors they work with are treating employees in a fair and ethical manner.
- Employers and the governments should come together to offer high-quality, subsidized child care to all families, as well as guaranteed parental leave for both mothers and fathers.
- Employers can track metrics on wage discrepancies and be transparent about their hiring and pay, especially with regard to gender. “Women are given a greater incentive to work if they know that they’re going to be paid adequately,” says Peterson.
- Investment in “back to work” training for mothers by both the public and private sectors can help more women re-enter the workforce after having families, and can help remove the stigma around extended mid-career absences.
- Employers should consider a wider range of performance metrics for employee success, beyond the traditional success markers of a male-dominated workplace, such as valuing the number of hours worked over productivity.
Long-term and continuing solutions…
- Organizations can improve visibility and create role models by building talent pipelines that support women, and by promoting more women to senior roles. “Female role models in business and in government, whether it’s women on the board, in the C-suite or heads of state, are part of what’s needed to move the needle,” says Citi’s Fordham. “But not just a few—there has to be critical mass.”
- Government, the private sector, and individuals need to work together to take action against discrimination and stereotypes that ascribe gender to abilities and roles and limit the choices women have available to them in the workforce.
- Within families and in society as a whole, reducing and redistributing the amount of care work—for children and the elderly as well as housework—that women are responsible for will enable them to work more consistently.
“It’s about having that national conversation where we’re changing the way we’re thinking about roles,” says Peterson. “It’s also about empowering men and helping them to understand that it’s okay to want to be more involved with your family, and that you’re not going to be penalized if you decide that you need to take time off.”
Although women’s economic empowerment remains a complex issue, the increasing number of viable, tested solutions—from immediate to far-reaching—are certainly cause for optimism. With committed leadership, tangible progress is possible. The economic rewards will not only be significant for women, but also for the global economy at large.
This story was created for and sponsored by Citi.