The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed fault lines in the global economy. On one side, we’ve seen resilient businesses and entrepreneurs quickly adapt to changing business conditions and thrive, using digital trade and e-commerce to reach their customers. On the other, the COVID-19 crisis has caused as many as 2 million women, particularly mothers with young children, to leave the workforce or step back from their careers, according to a McKinsey report.
But we have a chance to bridge that divide.
We’ve all heard the expression, “a crisis is a terrible opportunity to waste.” A crisis like we’re experiencing now provides a chance to drive overdue change. Improving outcomes for women should be at the top of the global COVID-19 recovery strategy. Helping women adapt to the new normal and providing them with tools to operate their businesses and engage in international trade will be critical for rebuilding economies and communities.
We need to start by acknowledging that trade is a force for good that has created opportunities for women around the world to enter the formal workforce. Trade also has increased healthy competitive pressures that reduced systemic bias against women in traditionally male-dominated industries. Through trade, women entrepreneurs have finally had the opportunity to achieve greater financial independence by expanding the markets where they can sell their goods or services.
But there are still many forces that continue to limit women’s ability to engage fully in trade. According to the World Bank’s 2021 Women, Business and the Law report, women have only 75% of the legal rights afforded to men, and 40% of countries have laws that restrict women’s participation in the labor force. Even in countries with full gender parity under the law, women face challenges due to limitations on their ability to hold property in their names, difficulty in accessing finance, or lingering bias in certain occupations.
The 2017 Buenos Aires Declaration on Women and Trade was an important step toward ensuring gender was a part of trade policy discussions. Since that time, there have been many advances toward enshrining gender equality in the World Trade Organization (WTO) and among its members, including the expansion of Buenos Aires Declaration signatories to 127 members and the 2020 creation of the Informal Working Group on Trade and Gender. But more must be done.
The private sector also has an important role to play in empowering more women. In 2018, UPS and The UPS Foundation launched our Women Exporters Program to enable women entrepreneurs to engage in international trade and provide a supportive community for their business ventures. As of today, we have trained more than 16,000 women and small business owners in 89 countries.
At UPS, our purpose statement is “moving our world forward by delivering what matters.” We want to deliver what matters when it comes to the empowerment of women entrepreneurs and business owners. So beyond our own export programming, we have also partnered with other companies to advance policy recommendations that can support women entrepreneurs. Together, we have published a call to action on how WTO members can support women entrepreneurs.
A universally applicable action that all WTO members can take is trade facilitation, which reduce the time, cost and complexity of trade. But women are often not part of the customs and trade decision-making bodies in their countries. We call on WTO members to commit to including women in National Trade Facilitation Committees and the consultation process.
Another area that needs specific focus is support for women-owned businesses that have been hardest hit by the pandemic and now face some of the biggest obstacles to recovery. Capacity building and aid that is targeted to women is critical.
Finally, we need to change the many domestic laws and regulations that make it difficult for women to engage in the global economy. A great start toward that effort is the language in the Domestic Service Regulation Agreement. We should encourage countries to make additional commitments on market access for services by eliminating discrimination on the basis of gender as part of their country-specific services schedules.
The postponement of this year’s WTO Ministerial must not be used as an excuse to delay critical progress. We urge decision makers to act on these recommendations, rather than continue to endlessly discuss them. The U.S. took a key step in joining the Joint Declaration on the Advancement of Gender Equality and Women’s Economic Empowerment Within Trade, and the WTO’s agreement to include a gender equality provision in Services Domestic Regulation is an incredible development. But it’s time to take this march toward progress and transform it into an all-out sprint for women’s global economic empowerment.
Trade will continue to drive prosperity, innovation and opportunity around the world. We need a global initiative to make it easier for women to reap these benefits. We can supercharge the global economy by unlocking the power of women entrepreneurs and ensuring that gender is no longer a restriction on trade.