Former UK International Trade Secretary, Dr Liam Fox says the World Trade Organization needs ‘more input for women, by women’ When most people think of trade they probably don’t immediately leap to gender as a key issue.
Well they should. What could be more counterproductive then failing to utilize the talents, innovation and creativity of half of the planet’s population.
As someone who trained and practised as a medical doctor I was used to half (and sometimes more) of my colleagues being female. Yet, in many parts of our world, women are excluded not just from the professions, but often the world of work itself.
So, how do we deal with these issues?
I, and many others, have often recited the fact a rules-based system to govern world trade has helped to lift over 1bn people out of extreme poverty over the last 30 years. No-one can deny that this is an extraordinary achievement and I will never tire of repeating it.
We also know that, in 2016, McKinsey estimated that creating more opportunities for women to work, including in export-led sectors, could add $12 trillion to the global economy by 2025.
But, despite real progress being made, women continue to face disproportionate barriers in accessing trading opportunities and markets due to discriminatory attitudes, poor conditions and harassment, as well as unequal access to inputs such as credit and land.
So, there is still a great deal of work to do.
And as we look around us at the rising levels of unilateral actions and protectionism, we know that the remarkable achievement of the last three decades is under threat and that those bearing the brunt will be women.
We know further that the unwinding of the spread of prosperity through trade can have wide effects. Women’s economic empowerment through trade can and has played a key role in creating political stability and so the conditions for wider economic progress. This matters to all of us, wherever we are.
So, we urgently need to ensure that those women engaged in such trade can reasonably expect that the rule books on trade are being adhered to. And if we want to attract more women in developing countries into trading, we must continue funding the many programs that exists to help them do so in a myriad of different ways. But those of us involved in trade in particular, have to ensure that there is a stability of expectation as to what markets they can access and how.
Don’t think that this is solely a matter for women in developing countries. In developed economies, rising protectionism will see prices rise for consumers. We also know that in any given economic downturn job losses are seen more prominently amongst those in temporary or part time work, jobs predominantly occupied by women.
In short, rising protectionism and a stuttering ability to advance the rules governing trade and even apply the existing ones, threatens us all but threatens women in particular.
As to attracting more women into the architecture of trade, we need to make changes at all levels.
I also wholly understand the case being made that it is time for a female Director General of the World Trade Organization (WTO) with all that means for my application for the post. Of course, I believe that I have the qualifications and skills to back my candidacy; I would hardly have applied otherwise. At a time when the WTO’s challenges are political rather than technical, it seems to me that to have someone who is politician first and technocrat second is the right answer. But I accept that we need more women at the top in trade and, if a woman was identified as the best candidate for the job I would have no objection.
What is for certain however, is we need more input for women by women if the WTO is to play its part in taking another 1bn people out of extreme poverty. This is not just empty words as I have pledged that, if I am successful in my candidacy, at least half of my senior leadership team will be female.
I hope my words have served to demonstrate just how important gender is in trade.
It turns out that, when you look closely, gender is a key dynamic and one that anyone in charge of the WTO will need to tackle.