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Mohamed A. El-Erian

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Equality and Empowerment for Women Around the Globe

Posted: 03/ 9/2012 4:06 pm

This post is drawn from remarks at the launch of USAID's Policy on Gender Equality and Women Empowerment in Washington, DC onMarch 1st, 2012.

I am both honored and thrilled to be here. I would like to thank Raj Shah, USAID's Administrator, and Gayle Smith, Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director at the National Security Council, for inviting me.

Thank you for this privilege. And thank you for the opportunity to catch up with some old friends, including two individuals -- Caroline Atkinson here at the White House and Geeta Rao Gupta at UNICEF -- who patiently and effectively taught me a lot when we all served on the board of the International Center for Research on Women.

I am here with my PIMCO colleague, Libby Cantrill. We are thrilled to have the opportunity to interact with you on a topic that we, at PIMCO, believe is a win, win, win: A win for the individual; a win for the unit, be it the family or a company; and a win for society.

Now, some of you may be wondering why people from the private sector were invited to speak at this function. Well, only the organizers know for sure! We can only guess.

It may be because we work for a firm that is committed to gender equality and women's empowerment. PIMCO is a meritocracy that works hard to create a level playing field for its staff, including when it comes to hiring the best talent, empowering, mentoring, training, enabling and investing in them so that they are better able to fulfill their potential. And by doing so, the organization is better placed to deliver for millions of people around the world that have entrusted to the firm the management of their hard-earned savings, pensions and investments.

Our talent management experience is consistent with lots of the research that shows that an appropriate focus on diversity of gender, culture, thought and perspective helps attain excellence. And recognizing this fundamental truth, we are continuously strengthening efforts to enhance diversity -- not only directly, but also through how our colleagues in every one of our offices around the world volunteer their time and financial resources to help those less fortunate members of society, including in the developing world.

Yes, PIMCO is fully committed to engaging, enabling and investing in people. This may be the reason we were invited this morning. But let me also suggest another reason, though this one is unlikely to be known to the organizers!

Until six months ago, I was under the strong impression that we as a firm -- and I as an individual -- were doing well in our diversity efforts; that our multi-year program was helping us overcome impediments that afflict many other firms, especially in the financial sector. So imagine my own surprise when, in the context of a periodic workshop, I was brilliantly confronted by evidence that I may still be vulnerable to a trap that could inadvertently undermine a culture of superior performance and a meritocracy1 -- the trap of unconscious bias.

This recognition has led us to expand further our efforts and training. It has also made us appreciate even more the enormous challenges that girls and women face in developing countries -- the topic of the gathering here today and the focus of USAID's updated policy .

I suspect, though have no evidence, that I may not be the only one in this room when it comes to the risks of unconscious bias. You see, even informed and committed people in the pursuit of good outcomes can, and do, end up falling victim to unconscious biases.

The reality is that, notwithstanding our best efforts, we may not be as neutral as we think we are. We can and do have blind spots. And there are genuine and well-established scientific reasons for this, including the manner in which our brains are wired, how we have evolved over time, how we interact, analytical shortcuts and the way we frame issues.

Unconscious connections, including those centered on gender and culture, can become ingrained in us and for a very long time. As a result, they can impact our behavior, our processes and our decision making.

Now imagine these challenges and multiply them by a very, and I mean very, large number. That is the reality that girls and women face in way too many developing economies, as well as in some segments in advanced countries.

There, girls and women struggle against both conscious (overt) and unconscious (hidden) biases. And the result is a lose, lose, lose situation.

The losses to the individuals are significant. It is not just about foregone opportunities. Research has shown that it is much more than that. Such biases are positively correlated to domestic violence, teenage pregnancy, underage marriages, malnutrition, child mortality and deep and intractable poverty.

The family is also worse off. You see, empowering girls and women is not reducing boys and men. It is about strengthening families.

And then aggregate across many families and imagine the magnitude of the costs to societies that are least able to afford them. They are huge -- in absolute terms and relative to the struggles that too many people face daily in securing food, shelter, health and opportunities.

Yet this is the unfortunate reality of way too many people in way too many countries. And it need not be like this. And it should not be like this.

Many of us have a responsibility, indeed an obligation, to do whatever we can to ensure that both conscious and unconscious biases are better identified and minimized. This is a multi-year, multi-faceted effort. As illustrated by the USAID policy, it involves research, education, advocacy and action; as well as measurement, accountability and mid-course corrections.

For all these reasons, we admire the important work being done on gender equality and the empowerment of women. We strongly endorse the importance of greater and equal opportunities. We fundamentally recognize the importance of fair representation of women as voters and elected officials, as well as the emphasis on labor rights, equal treatment under judicial law, equal and enhanced property rights and proper access to health and education. And, through the efforts of the PIMCO Foundation and PIMCO volunteers, we have started to support initiatives aimed at promoting women's economic wellbeing through small and medium enterprise development, microfinance and workforce development.

Fundamentally, all this is about stronger and healthier families, and about economies that are better able to meet their potential.

Being the parent of an 8 year old, I would emphasize the importance of providing girls with access to high quality education in developing countries. To use a sports analogy, this is not only a form of offense, including providing a critical foundation for higher education, workforce development and greater opportunities. It is also a form of defense, to counter teenage pregnancy, underage marriage and domestic violence.

In closing, allow me to thank you all again for allowing us to participate in this special event. There is much more work to do around the world, in our workplaces, in our communities and in our homes to equally value the contributions of women and girls in society and therefore fully realize the benefits of gender diversity.

We are deeply encouraged by the work of USAID and by many others who are focused on raising the stature of our women and girls to be equal partners and contributors. It is by moving towards greater gender equality and empowerment that we really unleash the power of human excellence and help millions of people - men and women, boys and girls - to escape the curse of poverty, violence and failure to exploit their tremendous potential.

In a world starved for growth and jobs, and in a world subject to worrisome increases in income and wealth inequalities within certain countries, this is also in the global best interest.

Thank you very much.

1 - This PIMCO workshop was conducted by Mahzarin Banaji who is the Richard Clarke Cabot Professor of Social Ethics in the Department of Psychology at Harvard University.

I would like to thank Kim Stafford and Gayle Tzemach Lemmon for their great help in putting these remarks together.