The Commission on the Status of Women: Women in the Changing World of Work

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Secretary-General António Guterres addresses the opening meeting of the 61st session of the Commission on the Status of Women.
Secretary-General António Guterres addresses the opening meeting of the 61st session of the Commission on the Status of Women.

The Commission on the Status of Women: Women in the Changing World of Work

Over the past two weeks, thousands of representatives from government, international organizations, civil society, and the private sector descended upon New York City to discuss economic growth and sustainability. They came to take part in the sixty-first session of the UN Commission on the Status of Women (#CSW61).  The annual CSW convening is the United Nation’s (UN) largest gathering dedicated to the promotion of gender equality and the empowerment of women. This year’s theme, Women in the Changing World of Work, acknowledges a key component to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals: women’s economic empowerment.

A youth reporter records a story outside the United Nations in New York during the Commission on the Status of Women.

U.S. Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley echoed that same message in her remarks to the CSW, underscoring that safety, education, and fairness, and economic opportunity are critical to advancing women’s rights.  “We want to make sure that our governments support girls and support women so that they always feel like they can show the power of their voice and also be free to act accordingly. We should encourage every country to support these basic rights, and we should help them in any way that we can,” she stated.UN Secretary-General António Guterres acknowledged in his CSW opening address: “We are all better off when we open doors of opportunity for women and girls: in classrooms and boardrooms, in military ranks and at peace talks, in all aspects of productive life.”

When women participate at equal rates to men in the economy, everyone wins. Research shows that global GDP would increase by $28 trillion by 2025 if we closed the gender gap in employment.  The United States alone could add over $4 trillion to our GDP in that same timeframe.

Yet there’s still a long way to go in closing the gender gap. Women in many countries around the world -- including the United States -- participate at lower rates in the labor force, are disproportionately overrepresented in low-wage occupations and jobs, and earn less than their male counterparts for similar work.  The root cause of such disparity often stems from issues, like the disproportionate burden of unpaid care and domestic work, rigid workplace policies (such as lack of parental leave, or inflexible work schedules), and sexual harassment.

During a CSW side event, women engineers discussed mentorship, inclusive workplaces, and overcoming unconscious bias to encourage more girls and young women in STEM.

Partnerships are Key to Progress

It was apparent at CSW that progress towards gender equality in the economy requires efforts from all stakeholders: international organizations, government, civil society, the private sector, and citizens. Dozens of side events at this year’s session sought to address equality in the workplace, women in supply chains, and stereotypes that hinder women’s and girls’ equal participation in the economy, with participants sharing inspiring models to scale.  For example, Unilever highlighted their efforts to “unstereotype” their marketing, promoting gender-positive messages that contribute to culture change through the reach of corporate advertising.

Throughout CSW, corporate and nongovernmental organization leaders emphasized the business case for women’s economic empowerment: investing in women to achieve their full potential results in significant positive impacts on business productivity and the bottom line.  Many companies are championing change through diversity and inclusion initiatives aimed at empowering women in their workforce, and investing in the talent pipeline starting with young girls.  At the Women’s Empowerment Principles Forum on the sidelines of CSW, a new tool to assess gender equality performance across the workplace, marketplace and community, was launched to help stakeholders accelerate the pace of change.

CSW’s theme this year explored expanding economic growth through women’s entrepreneurship and women’s participation in sectors where they are underrepresented such as the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields. Discussions ranged from promotingequal access to education and capital, to the impact of increased mobility and informality, to empowering women to become creators and drivers of innovation.

Cherrah Giles, board chair of the National Indigenous Women's Resource Center, speaks on the impact of gender-based violence on indigenous women.

Gender-Based Violence Hinders Women’s Economic Participation

CSW is also a chance to examine interrelated issues that are policy priorities for the U.S. government, such as the link between gender-based violence and economic participation.

This year, the United States joined Canada in hosting a side event with the Equal Futures Partnership on violence against indigenous women. Women tribal leaders and advocates shared the experiences of indigenous women: because they face greater discrimination and vulnerability, they are less likely to seek employment outside their community and suffer long-term impacts. The Yukon Minister of Tourism and Culture Jeanie Dendys, a member of the Yukon First Nations, shared a model of community partnership to understand the rates of violence in their community and take ownership.  She reminded the audience: “Any solutions for indigenous women should engage them in the process.”

This side event was a reminder of the power of CSW: providing a platform to amplify the voices and experiences of women everywhere will help inform coordinated action towards achieving gender equality.

On the final day of the conference, UN Member States did just that, closing CSW with a pledge to ensure women’s full and equal participation and leadership in the economy, as well as women’s right to work and rights at work, with the adoption of the CSW Agreed Conclusions.  As Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, the executive director of UN Women summarized, “This is a message about leaving no one behind.”

The White House reiterated the importance of women’s economic empowerment in its March 8 International Women’s Day statement, reiterating, “The United States remains committed to empowering women around the world to realize their full potential within the global marketplace. Our policies will work to advance the economic empowerment of women by promoting entrepreneurship and equal access to education, employment opportunities, and training adapted to a new economic landscape.”

UN Women Executive Director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka and delegates celebrate the adoption of the CSW Agreed Conclusions.

About the Author: Robin Lerner and Aldrinana Leung serve in the Secretary’s Office of Global Women’s Issues at the U.S. Department of State.

Editor's Note: This entry is also published on Medium.com/StateDept.

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Robin Lerner
Aldrinana Leung