Investing in Gender Equality for Growth

by Gabriela Ramos

Chief of Staff and G20 Sherpa


Across the world women made great strides in their level of education over the past decades, and this helped increase their participation in the labour market. Nevertheless, women still often experience more difficulty than men in finding a first job, earn less than them, and are more likely to work part-time. The low participation of women in the economy represents an untapped economic resource and a high cost to both the economy and the family. This is particularly true in the MENA region where only 23% of working-age women participate in the labour force, lagging far behind men in the region (78%) and women in OECD countries (62%).[1]

There is much to gain from increased female labour force participation in terms of economic growth and increased welfare. Recognizing this, G20 leaders in 2014 agreed to set a target to reduce the gender gap in labour market participation rates by 25% by 2025, taking into account national circumstances. The “25 by 2025” target is a major breakthrough and the OECD is proud to have been closely involved in its development. This target is very important because it will deliver a “double dividend”.

First, it will introduce more than 100 million women into the labour force. Boosting labour force participation and/or mitigating its decline is essential in many countries. The world’s population is ageing and all available talent must be mobilized to secure our future prosperity. In G20 countries, female labour force participation rates were, on average, 10 percentage points lower than their male counterparts in 2012. And there are pronounced differences at the country level. For example, in India and Saudi Arabia the gap is more than 50 percentage points. In some MENA countries, including Algeria and Iraq, the gap exceeded 60 percentage points[2]. In several emerging countries, the “25% by 25” scenario would have a very large effect on the size of the labour force. In India for example the labour force would be 11% larger as a result of around 64 million more women entering it.

Second, considering the tremendous progress registered in women’s educational attainment, achieving the 25×25 objective can help deliver higher labour productivity: on average less than 10% of women in current OECD countries, obtained a tertiary education degree in the decade following Second World War. This number has increased to 34% today!

In most OECD countries, girls are ahead of boys in education: in 2012, 34% of women across OECD countries had tertiary-level education compared with 30% of men. In the MENA region women are on average the majority of students enrolled in tertiary education. Women are also participating more in advanced research programmes: in 2010, the proportion of advanced research degrees awarded to women ranged between 40% and 50% in OECD countries.

Boys are 4 percentage points more likely than girls to be low-achievers in reading, science and mathematics according to the Programme for International Student Assessment, aka the PISA survey. They also have significantly lower performance in reading among all countries and economies participating, with an average gender gap in favour of girls of 38 score points in 2012. The gender gap in performance is considerably larger in Qatar, Jordan, and the United Arab Emirates.[3]

Nonetheless 15-year-old girls lag behind in mathematics performance in most PISA participating countries and economies, with average gender gaps in favour of boys of 11 score points in 2012. There is very little difference in science performance between boys and girls.[4] The MENA region is actually an exception here as girls in Jordan, Qatar, United Arab Emirates – but not Tunisia – actually tend to perform better than boys in mathematics.

OECD evidence shows that these gender disparities in performance do not stem from innate differences in ability, but rather from students’ attitudes towards learning and behaviour in school and at home. Girls are less confident about their ability to do mathematics and experience more anxiety towards it. On average, girls are 9 percentage points more likely than boys to declare they are “just not good at mathematics”, according to 2012 PISA data. But girls are good at mathematics! PISA data shows there is no performance gap among boys and girls who are equally confident about their ability in mathematics. Girls express lower levels of confidence even in science, where their PISA performance is as good as that of boys.[5] Closing this confidence gap is necessary to achieve gender equality, not only in education but in economic empowerment more generally.

For our societies and economies to fully reap the benefits of women’s enhanced education performances, women need to be fully integrated into the labour force. Integration means women must have equal opportunities in terms of earnings, career progression and choice of occupation. These opportunities can be secured through wide-ranging policy interventions including employment-protected paid maternity and paternity leave for working mothers and fathers, access to affordable and good quality childcare and long-term care for other dependents, and measures to promote equal pay and career progression for women. Countries in the MENA region have room for improvements in these policy areas; one starting point can be extending maternity leave to international standards and ensuring that employers do not bear the direct cost of maternity leave payments.

In the MENA region women face additional legal and social limitations. Many countries in the region have now ratified the CEDAW[6] and included gender equality principles into their constitution. But women still face discriminatory legal provisions and social norms that restrict their mobility, the hours they can work, and the occupations they can have. This not only restricts women’s choice; it also makes employers perceive them as less productive and more costly to hire. In addition to lessening these restrictions, MENA countries also should support women’s entrepreneurship, which remains a major untapped resource of employment for women and job creation. Only 12% of adult women are entrepreneurs in MENA countries, compared to 31% of men. Support for women entrepreneurs can include training on legal requirements, business planning, budgeting, access to finance and technology. Women’s access to finance also needs to improve; a priority in this area is ensuring equal rights in access to property that can be used as collateral to secure loans. Work should also be done to raise awareness among financial institutions and more generally about the importance and benefits of female entrepreneurship.[7]

All in all, achieving the 25 by 2025 is challenging, but possible. And more importantly, it is necessary. We must work together to reduce gender gaps in attitudes, behaviours and fields of study to give equal opportunities to all. Let’s build a world in which everyone can follow their interests, harness their talents, and fully realise their potential, without fear. Let’s do it for all of us.


[1] World Development Indicators, Labor force participation rate, female (% of female population aged 15-64), modelled ILO estimate

[2] World Development Indicators, Labor force participation rate, female (% of female population aged 15-64), modelled ILO estimate

[3] OECD (2015), The ABC of Gender Equality in Education: Aptitude, Behaviour, Confidence, PISA, OECD Publishing, Paris. DOI:

[4] OECD 2015, The ABC of Gender Equality in Education.

[5] OECD 2015, The ABC of Gender Equality in Education.

[6] Convention for the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women.

[7] OECD/CAWTAR (2014), Women in Public Life: Gender, Law and Policy in the Middle East and North Africa, OECD Publishing, Paris. DOI:

OECD (2014), Women in Business 2014: Accelerating Entrepreneurship in the Middle East and North Africa Region, OECD Publishing, Paris.DOI:

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