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(Lack of) Gender Equality at the G20

28 Aug 2014
Conrad Liveris
CC Flickr (Toban Black)

Madeleine Albright’s granddaughter once asked her why people thought she was special by being Secretary of State; she believed that “only women” held that position.

Following Albright were Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice and Hillary Clinton – these were all people who did not fit the traditional membership profile of US Government executive. Albright’s granddaughter had seen the diversity that was, and still is, missing in foreign policy.

Simply put, women are sorely under-represented in diplomatic efforts.

Take the G20, a leading economic forum bringing together the 19 largest economies as well as the European Union: There is an obvious under-representation of women.

The importance of this medium where key economic issues are discussed cannot be underestimated. Coming to real prominence in 2008 with a 47-point plan to tackle deteriorating financial markets, the G20 has since focused on central themes in global economy at each yearly meeting. The forum itself is no longer an economic war room. It is morphing into a global steering committee.

The various subsidiaries, the 20s tasked with job creation, have all met now. The B20, although having highlighted gender as an issue, would be better named as the “Blokes 20” rather than the Business 20. With a leadership base that is 80 per cent male, the diversity of the group remains questionable.

Sadly, international policy is historically notorious as being an old boys’ club. However, representative democracy demands that the G20 try harder to bring women’s voices to this level as these forums consistently fail to attain gender diversity. They pull together global industries, multiple generations and cultures but cannot claim to be gender equal in the slightest.

Last year, I was attending the Indian Ocean Rim Association’s meeting in Perth and apart from being the youngest person in the room at 20 (by what felt like a generation); I noticed that the Australian Foreign Minister, Julie Bishop was one of the very few female leaders at the table. I was sitting behind my boss and she clearly noticed this as well. To note, I was advised by many well-travelled practitioners that this was not uncommon.

It is often forgotten that Julie Bishop is the first Australian female foreign minister, no idle feat.

To illustrate the extent of the gender gap, only four of the G20 countries are headed by women, Argentina, Brazil, Germany and South Korea; none have a woman finance minister; and only one has a woman leading a central bank – the US. This means that only 12 per cent of formal G20 participants are women.

Women must be present at the international level, and the G20 can facilitate this. Ignoring the potential of women as major economic actors and negotiators on the international stage is not only unjust, but is also wasteful.

As the main providers of unpaid care, women are massive players in the economy through their control of household budgets. In fact, if women’s wages rose to that of men’s, the Australian gross domestic product (GDP) would expand by A$93 billion and the US GDP by almost US$500 billion. This is an unparalleled opportunity for economic development, which is currently floundering.

Every country has a gender pay gap. As a measure, it indicates a lack of equality in opportunity as well as the ineffective use of human capital. As noted in the 2011 International Labor Organisation report A New Era of Social Justice, it could take up to 75 years to reach gender equality. This gap hinders the many benefits of achieving gender parity. We want diversity at the highest levels because we know that women are some of the best CEOs, innovators, researchers and policy-makers we have.

Diversity at the decision-table also helps break the groupthink mentality. Empowered women at the global level can ask the hard questions previously left out from policy initiatives. To note, Credit Suisse found in their landmark study that more gender-equal organisations are more productive and effective.

When I speak with managers, they often retort with the same line: If women were qualified to do this work then we would hire them. The good news is that women are indeed qualified and capable to be represented at the G20.

The Federal Parliamentary Library’s 2003 report shows that women are attaining education at a rapid rate. Women meet education targets before men, even at the postgraduate level. In Canada, the proportion of women with a university degree more than doubled between 1990 and 2009.

The G20 should be making effective use of our resources, but is somehow failing to bring women and their talents to the table. The forum itself is in dire need to undertake initiatives to increase the representation of women’s voices. This can take a number of forms including:

  • The creation of a W20 summit for women;
  • Inclusion of women-focused recommendations at every summit;
  • Inviting UN Women, or a similar organisation, to be a permanent guest to voice the issues facing women; or,
  • Updates on the progress on women globally and in G20 nations.

The G20 has diversity in knowledge through its subsidiaries. What it needs is gender diversity to achieve its full potential.


Conrad Liveris is an advocate, adviser and researcher on the economics and politics of gender and generations. He is currently completing his Master’s degree at Curtin University.