Huffpost WorldPost
Elisabeth Braw Headshot

UN Women Head Michelle Bachelet: 'Gender Equality Is Good Business'

Posted: Updated:

Michelle Bachelet is a crusading feminist: she was Chile's first female president (and first female defense minister). Two years ago she was appointed the first-ever Executive Director of UN Women, the UN organ representing the world's female population. And gender equality isn't just about doing the right thing, she says: it makes economic sense.

Gender parity policies much more likely to be adopted if they bring financial benefits. Is gender equality good for the bottom line?
One of the factors a country's economy depends on is human capital. If you don't provide women with adequate access to healthcare, education and employment, you lose at least half of your potential. So, gender equality and women's empowerment bring huge economic benefits. The 2010 global gender gap report by the World Economic Forum shows that countries with better gender equality have faster-growing, more competitive economies. Norway and some other European countries has a 40% quota for female board members, and now after five years the boards' performance is better than among companies without a female quota. And the FAO [the UN Food and Agriculture Organization] shows that 54% of farmers in the developing world are women. If these women had access the same access as men to resources like credit, water, technological support and storage capacity, it would increase the food production by up to 4%. That could reduce the number of hungry people in the world by 100-150 million. So, there are big economic benefits. On the other hand, we know that when women are educated, work and have an income, they dedicate 90% of their income to food, health, education, and their children's education. And look at violence against women: of course it's a human rights violation, but it also comes at a high economic cost to governments. For example, violence against women costs the Australian government an estimated 13.6 billion Australian dollars every year. At the same time, the Australian government has a 10.4 billion dollar plan to stimulate the economy. Violence against women is a huge cost, even bigger than the cost of stimulating the economy! Gender equality is the right thing to do, but it's also a smart thing to do.

Countries say that the UN has no business promoting women's rights, and that their gender roles are a cultural issue. What's your response?
Violence against women in all its forms is a human rights violation. It's not something that any culture, religion or tradition propagates. As a matter of fact, in some countries of the world we work with religions leaders to tackle issues like female genital mutilation and early forced marriage, and these leaders have become our biggest champions. UN Women was created with a unanimous UN vote. Of course, I know that there are many challenges regarding culture and traditions, and while we don't endorse any practices that are harmful to women, I recognize that there are different perspectives. But whenever we talk about women's rights, we should also acknowledge that there are gaps in every country's and every culture's interpretation of women's rights. For example, just look at the worldwide pandemic of violence against women, and women's access to economic opportunities. What's important is that women have the right to make their own decisions, and that these decisions are not controlled by anyone else. And we have to recognize that there may be a variety of paths towards the goal of gender equality.

In most of the industrialized world, women now make up more than 50% of university graduates, and they have access to great careers. Mission accomplished?
Yes, it's true that many women are getting a great education worldwide. But is that enough? Of course not. Educational equality doesn't guarantee equality on the labor market. Even the most developed countries are not gender-equal. There are still glass ceilings and "leaky pipelines" that prevent women from getting ahead in the workplace. And if you're a mother of young children, economically it may not be worthwhile to work fulltime. In addition, the workplace often penalizes women who take a break to look after their children or elderly relatives. As long as women continue to be in charge of the economy of care, by which I mean unpaid household tasks and caring for family members, it's very difficult for them to realize their full potential in the workplace.

But many women have reached the highest political office in their countries...
Yes, but we need more women in decision-making positions. Globally less than 20% of parliamentarians are women, and we only have 18 elected female heads of state and government. Across the world, only 31 countries have parliaments where women make up at least 30% of the members. And among the Fortune 500 companies, there are only 18 female CEOs. It's far from mission accomplished!

Many women now opt not to have children. Is the gap now between women and mothers?
The issue isn't just time and responsibilities. In a recent study, the World Bank Advisory Board for Gender Issues looked at inequalities between men and women -- and between women who are married and those who're not. The issue isn't just the care you have to give. In over 80 countries around the world, women lose rights when they marry. And in many countries, people think, "that's life; that's how the world works". But it doesn't have to be that way.

Rio+20 is about to begin. If world leaders don't address development issues like clean water and biodiversity, how will women be affected?
Women's daily lives are affected by sustainable development -- or the lack of it. Women are dependent on oceans and rivers for fishing and on agriculture for their food security and their livelihood. Women are the ones who have to walk to collect water and firewood. Often young girls do these tasks, at the risk of being raped. Each year two million people die from smoke inhalation because they use traditional stoves. 85% of them are women and children. Renewable energy would benefit not just such women, but would also be a catalyst for economic development, environmental protection and gender equality. And imagine the development that would be possible if each village had a small healthcare clinic with access to electricity! Then medicines could be refrigerated, and medical equipment could be operated. Today as many as 400,000 healthcare clinics in the developing world lack reliable electricity. And 800 women die every day from complications of pregnancy and childbirth. The majority of these deaths could be prevented with proper healthcare, for which electricity is usually required. I see a close link between women and sustainable development. They can become the drivers of it if they have access to proper opportunities -- and if they're part of the decision-making process. If they are, they include the actions that address issues affecting women. At Rio+20 we'll put forward a Call To Action from a wide range of women -- from grassroots activists to prime ministers -- asking for some key actions from the world's governments. Gender equality is vital for sustainable development.

Is there's a particular country where this is happening?
There are lots of smaller examples. For example, in terms of political participation the country that has the highest percentage of female parliamentarians is Rwanda, with 55%; it also has many female cabinet ministers. India has a "Barefoot College," which trains illiterate women as solar engineers. They learn to produce solar panels, then go back to their villages and build them, and teach other women to do it, too. It's a success story, and it's supported by the government of India. In Senegal, women got the right to fish. Now they're catching more fish than the men!

Sigmund Freud famously asked what women want. What do they want? And do they want the same thing?
Of course women are not homogenous. But we all want the basic things. We want freedom of choice and certain basic rights, like access to education and equal pay for equal work. Some women are in a better position than others, but in the Scandinavian countries women want equal salary for equal work, too. And they'd like to live free of violence in their own lives. Even in Europe, rape victims don't have 100% access to justice. They want the right to educate their children. They want access to good healthcare. They want access to safe drinking water.

Which country, would you say, is "women's nirvana"?
The Scandinavian countries are good, of course, but there's no country that has complete equality. There are wage gaps, there's violence against women. And when it comes to women's opportunities for political participation and leadership, every country can do better.

What motivates you?
I always tell myself, don't forget who you're working for. My job is to improve women's lives. And if their lives improve, men benefit too.

Previously published in Metro www.metro.lu.