Expert insight

Smart economics: the dividend of gender equality

8 March 2019

This blog was first published on Pharma Boardroom on 8 March 2019.

The jury is still out there regarding the impact of technological advancements on our overall life styles, but it’s hard to deny the positive impact technology has had on women’s social, political, economic and religious status in societies across the globe.  Though we are still a long way from reaching equality, nevertheless campaigns such as #SheDecides #heforshe, and #MeToo would not have gained worldwide traction and brought the silent majority to speak up and demand change, if it was not for the global cyber village that we now live in.

For a vast majority of women across the globe, access to information and thus to their rights is comparatively easier now than before.  The changing trends are obvious and not just in high-tech industry or glitzy showbiz but also very much across the political and economic landscape.  Equally, a number of socially conservative societies are changing their legislature to facilitate women participation in the mainstream, whether its exercising suffrage, acquiring a driving license or having the right to travel.  Even theological discussions are cognizant of the devastating impact of absence of women from high echelons of decision making.

But we need to go further: promoting gender equality in health, as an investment and a pre-requisite for creating more sustainable economies and equitable societies around the globe. It is a valuable and shared social asset.

Promoting gender equality in health, as an investment and a pre-requisite for creating more sustainable economies and equitable societies around the globe.

To quote Michelle Bachelet, ex-president of Chile, now UN high commissioner for human rights, ‘’one of the factors a country’s economy depends upon is human capital. If you don’t provide women with adequate access to healthcare, education and employment, you lose at least half of your potential. So, gender equality and women’s empowerment bring huge economic benefits.”

The UN Women has long been pushing that closing gender gaps are key to achieving the 2030 agenda for sustainable development, including health. Likewise, the World Economic Forum puts health at the heart of reaching the sustainable development goals; healthy, educated women are more likely to have healthier and more educated children, creating a virtuous circle of development.

According to the European Institute for Gender Equality, improving gender equality/empowering women would increase EU GDP per capita by 6.1-9.6% or €1.95 to €3.15 trillion. So, just imagine what the impact would be in a region such as Africa where the gender gap in the sub-Saharan part alone costs $100bn a year.

Despite the available data and empirical evidence, health expenditure especially in the low-and middle-income countries remains the lowest priority, and not surprisingly women and children bear its impact the most. Either due to poor physical infrastructure that impacts access to healthcare or simply due to lack of political will to make health a priority!

Having worked across the globe with diverse sectors ranging from multilateral to private and the development sectors, I find that by far the most sustainable model in terms of scale and direct impact to communities has been from public-private partnership programmes.  Investments in community engagement programmes that promote easier, more widespread access to education and healthcare are helping to bridge the often appalling gaps.

The pharmaceutical industry has been helping to close the divide by investing in medical research and also investing in access to improved healthcare and schooling. The MomConnect initiative in partnership with South African health ministry has since 2014, trained 34,887 health workers to improve access and diagnostics support to pregnant women. Another initiative listed under Access Accelerated, for instance, is focusing on improving girls’ STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education in Liberia high school where students like Theresa Nagbe and Omue Jaaliah feel they are nearer to their dream of becoming medical doctors. Likewise, companies are investing in behaviour change programme to control growing incidents of NCDs .

In poorer societies and regions empowering women to become healthcare professionals is crucial. Millions of jobs in the sector are at risk of going unfilled unless this is undertaken as a priority. Globally, women make up as much as 70% of the healthcare workforce, including as nurses and, increasingly, as doctors. Women contribute $3 trillion to global healthcare.

Yet the evidence is still incontrovertible that globally, over 2.7 billion women are legally restricted from having the same choice of jobs as men, are more likely to be underpaid, at risk of unemployment, over-represented in vulnerable jobs – including those worst affected by climate change or more liable to sickness, without access to health benefits, and more likely to die young. They bear the brunt of poor sanitation and fuel poverty at home where they provide the overwhelming bulk of (unpaid) caring. And all of these disadvantages translate into poor health.

So, empowering women and girls is not just good for their health. It is, as IMF researchers put it, “smart economics” by improving productivity and making institutions more representative and accountable.