Women’s Empowerment: An Economic Game Changer

November 14, 2016

Good afternoon.

Thank you, Cindi, for your generous introduction, and thank you to Glamour magazine for bringing us all together for lunch today.

I see a lot of young people here in the room, and I am delighted to meet a new generation of advocates for gender equality. Your energy and commitment are what we need in a world that still has many obstacles for women and girls to achieve their full potential, and where gender discrimination is still an issue that we have to deal with.

No doubt, we have already come a long way. In education, we have seen impressive declines in gender gaps around the world. In colleges, women are catching up in science and math, and businesses are realizing that a more diverse workforce adds a lot of shareholder value. [1]

And of course, having women in leadership positions—in business and public office—is a powerful signal for both men and women. Just think of the role Chancellor Merkel is playing in Europe, for example, or the inspiring example of Aung San Suu-Kyi in Myanmar.

We certainly need more women who can raise awareness and lead by example. And I am looking to your generation to carry forward this torch. Pressing ahead, leaning in, making yourself heard, and making a lasting impact on your world: that is what you do, for the benefit of all.

That is also what I have learned on my personal journey—and I am grateful for the opportunity to share some of my experiences. Of course, my experiences may not be the ultimate jewels of wisdom. But as Mark Twain once said: “It is better to have second-hand diamonds than none at all.”

1. My journey

So, here is where my journey began.

As the eldest daughter in a family of boys, the concept of gender biases never crossed my mind, at least not consciously. Our loving and supportive parents believed in equal opportunity and always encouraged all of us to take on risks and responsibilities, and suffer the consequences of it.

In other words, my starting point could not have been more positive and empowering.

I fell in love with water and synchronized swimming, and had the stamina and good fortune to qualify for the French national team at the age of 16, when my father passed away.

I felt brave enough as a 17-year-old to move to the US as an American Field Service student, learn more about the world, and about myself.

When I returned to France, I decided to go to law school in Paris to become a criminal lawyer and defend death penalty cases. It never occurred to me not to try.

It is through cracks that you see the light , would Leonard Cohen say. So let me highlight three pivotal “gender moments”, or cracks, that shaped my life.

The first one was a job interview at a top French law firm 35 years ago. I was told that I was hired at a good salary, but that I would never make partner. When I asked why, they told me it was because I was a woman. So I walked out the door, ran down the stairs, and never looked back. In that moment, I was an unemployed 25-year-old lawyer, but I felt much stronger and quite a bit wiser.

The second crack was in Chicago. I was to become partner at a big law firm—and I was also a new mother. So I decided to change my working hours and stopped working on Wednesday afternoon. Oh boy—that did not resonate well with some of the male partners in the firm.

Too bad! It was important for me and my son. So I let them defer my partnership by one year. And it was important for the other female lawyers to know that it was okay, and they, too, could do it.

The third—and perhaps most important—pivotal moment has been my gender-related work at the IMF. Over the past five years, I have had the privilege of working with outstanding colleagues to make the strongest possible economic case for gender equality.

Five years ago, when I began at the IMF, the institution was not heavily engaged in this area. Today, we support our 189 member countries in breaking down the barriers that keep women and girls from achieving their full potential.

2. Empowering women is good economics

Of course, the IMF has been promoting fundamental change for more than 70 years. We provide financial assistance to countries in need and help them get back on their feet. We assess the economic health of all our members and provide them with recommendations on economic policies.

With all these issues on our plate, why do we care so deeply about gender? Not just because it is a moral issue, but because gender equality is critical for the economic well-being of both men and women, of society as a whole.

We know—based on a wealth of research and experience—that empowering women can be an economic game changer for any country. For instance, if women were to participate in the labor force to the same extent as men, national income could increase by 5 percent in the U.S., 9 percent in Japan, and 27 percent in India. [2]

Equal pay and better economic opportunities for women boost economic growth—creating a bigger pie for everyone to share, women and men alike. Better opportunities for women also promote diversity and reduce economic inequality around the world.[3] It is an economic no-brainer.

To put it differently: if you discourage half the population from fully participating in the labor market, you are essentially behaving like an airline pilot who shuts down half his engines in mid-flight. Sure, your plane will likely continue to fly, but it would be such a crazy thing to do.

And yet, that is precisely what many countries do.

Across the globe, women are still facing a triple-disadvantage. They are less likely than men to have a paid job—in fact, only half of the world’s working-age women are employed. [4] If they do find paid employment, it is more likely to be in the informal sector. And if they eventually get a job in the formal sector, they earn, on average, three-quarters as much as men[5]—even with the same level of education, and in the same occupation.

Here in California, for example, in Hollywood, we know that even top female actors earn significantly less than their male counterparts. We also know that some of the hottest tech startups have yet to understand that giving women a fair shot is good for innovation and good for business.

But before I move on to what we can do, let us not forget that far too many women are still fighting for basic human rights—including safety, health, and liberty.

I would like to pay tribute to the incredible courage and humanity of Nadia Murad, who stood up to ISIS, and who is now leading efforts to bring that group to justice for the crime of genocide.

Women like Nadia—who is also a Woman of the Year honoree—remind us of the importance of standing up for what is right.

3. How do we get there?

When it comes to economic incentives that provide women a fair shot in the labor market, governments have a key role to play.

For example, we need to promote affordable childcare, parental leave, and workplace flexibility. We need to increase women’s access to finance and remove legal barriers that still exist in most countries.

We also need to push for smarter tax policies, including here in the United States. Think of tax reforms to help low-income families, which are disproportionately headed by women. And think of the benefits of reducing taxation on secondary earners in households, who are—again—mostly women.

So if you add up all things that can be done in each country, you get a powerful global impact. A global economic game changer.

The good news is that the most important countries have understood the need for gender equality—and that includes a group of leading economies—known as the G-20—that account for 85 per cent of world GDP and two-thirds of its population.

These countries—including the U.S.—have pledged to reduce the gap in women’s labor force participation by 25 percent by the year 2025—which would create an estimated 100 million more jobs by 2025. This would be a huge impetus to growth and would reduce poverty and inequality.

This objective is critical, and yet – even in the most progressive countries, progress towards gender equality has been painfully slow.

A good example is Iceland, which elected its first female president long ago, in 1980—and yet women still earn 14‑18 percent less than men. In protest over that pay gap, thousands of Icelandic women recently left their workplaces at exactly 2:38 pm—because they are effectively not being paid for the rest of the day. [6] We saw a similar protest in France last week—and for good reason.

New research shows that global efforts to close the gender gaps in pay and labor force participation have slowed so dramatically over the past year, that full economic equality may not be reached for another 170 years. [7]

Are you prepared to wait until 2186? Certainly not! Your generation has the opportunity—and the power—to bend the arc of history towards greater gender equality and more inclusive global growth.

You can vote with your time, your wallet, and your social media accounts. You can run for office, climb the corporate ladder, and start your own venture.

You can mentor others and build coalitions with those who share your view. And you should certainly learn from those who disagree with you.

And one more thing: as you move into leadership positions, you can be the best possible version of yourself—by hiring women, promoting women, investing in women, and by promoting civility in public and private discussions.


So much remains to be done—but I am convinced that it can be done. And I am looking to you as the next generation to keep the momentum going, and to make further strides toward equal rights for women.

Thank you!

[1] Adding one more woman on a corporate board is associated with between 8 and 13 basis points higher return on assets (IMF Paper: “Unlocking Female Employment Potential in Europe: Drivers and Benefits”, 2016).

[2] IMF Staff Discussion Note: “Women, Work and the Economy: Macroeconomic Gains from Gender Equity”, 2013

[3] IMF Staff Discussion Note: “Catalyst for Change: Empowering Women and Tackling Income Inequality”, 2015

[4] UN Women Report : “Leave No One Behind”, 2016

[5] World Bank Gender Data Portal.

[6] New York Times article .

[7] World Economic Forum: The Global Gender Gap Report 2016

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