We Must All Work Together to Ensure Gender Equality in Trade



Harald Aspelund and Javier A. Gutiérrez | IISD

A lot has changed since the World Trade Organization (WTO) was created in 1995. Global trade volumes have become roughly 40 times larger, and the multilateral system has had to adapt to myriad emerging trends and challenges. From trade in services to the governance of intellectual property, countries around the world have been harnessing increasing gains from trade.

The year the WTO was founded also marked a watershed in the fight for gender equality. In September 1995, the world celebrated the Fourth World Conference on Women, which adopted the Beijing Declaration and Platform of Action. This is, to date, the most ambitious global agenda to advance the rights of women and girls. Tremendous progress has been achieved since then, closing key gaps in health, education, political participation, and income.

But much more needs to be done. To continue delivering on the platform’s promise of an equal world, we must renew the commitment to fight for the rights of women and girls to participate on the same footing as men in all areas of life and ensure the conditions are in place for them to release their full potential.

Trade, in particular, is an area of policy that has many challenges ahead to ensure women can participate actively, on equal grounds with men, in existing and future economic opportunities. The world has recognized the importance of women in promoting economic growth and development, but it has yet to make a transformative commitment to gender equality. This will require moving away from the idea that gender equality is a cause that interests women alone.

What efforts have been made recently to prioritize gender equality within trade policy debates? To ensure sustained impact from these talks, we need to begin looking at gender equality as a common cause. Women stand to gain the most, but the multiplier effects will benefit the global economy more broadly.

Today, there is unprecedented momentum for this agenda as women for the first time lead the three trade-related agencies in Geneva: Pamela Coke-Hamilton at the International Trade Centre, Rebeca Grynspan at the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, and Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala at the WTO. Under their leadership, we must continue to make strides to ensure women’s rights and create pathways for them to release half of the world’s full potential.

Impact of Trade on Gender Equality

Gender equality is a central concern for several of the multilateral system’s key agendas—sustainable development, peace and security, and humanitarian interventions. Yet many in the trade sphere have been slow to recognize its importance.

Policy must start by addressing the barriers that prevent women from getting access to trade—and the economy more broadly.

A landmark 2020 study by the World Bank/WTO shows that businesses involved in international commerce employ more women—33% of the workforce in these firms, compared to 24% in non-exporting firms—while offering better quality employment. Countries that are more open to trade, as measured by the ratio of trade to GDP, also have higher levels of gender equality.

To take advantage of these opportunities, however, policy must start by addressing the barriers that prevent women from getting access to trade—and the economy more broadly. Around 1 billion women remain disconnected from the economy, despite the potential increase of USD 25,000 billion that including them could mean for the global economy. By another metric, women own only 20% of firms that trade overseas.

What Can We Do?

What can the world do about it? This was the guiding question for a group of pioneers who kicked off the movement that led to the adoption of the Buenos Aires Declaration on Trade and Women’s Economic Empowerment at the WTO’s 11th ministerial conference of 2017. Among them were Caitlin Kraft-Buchman, co-founder of the International Gender Champions, Arancha González Laya, then executive director of the International Trade Centre, and the former permanent representatives of Sierra Leone and Iceland, Ambassadors Yvette Stevens and Högni Kristjánsson, respectively.

Early results of their work included the creation of the Trade Impact Group (TIG), through which a group of around 15 permanent representatives outlined a roadmap to bring down barriers preventing women from entering trade. This strategic vision included, among other activities, the vision to adopt a ministerial statement.

To garner support, the group presented its ideas to the General Council and consulted with the 11th ministerial conference’s chair, Susana Malcorra, in the run-up to the event. It also approached most WTO members and observers, including through the regional groups. It was through this persistent labour that a critical mass of support was built among WTO members, which the TIG expected would create a domino effect, ensuring women’s economic empowerment would become to a priority concern in trade diplomacy and policy talks.

Through efforts by active participants in this early movement, the first domino pieces fell: the number of supporters for the declaration grew rapidly, from about 40 in October 2017 to around 80 the week before the ministerial conference. In the end, it secured 118 signatories, but the ball kept moving: the number of WTO members and observers that support the Buenos Aires Declaration has risen to 127.

Where Are We Now?

Anyone in the multilateral community knows a declaration is only as good as the action it rounds up to deliver on its stated goals. That’s why, since then, a group of WTO members has continued to build on the work of the TIG. In December 2021, the Informal Working Group on Trade and Gender settled on the text of a joint ministerial declaration on gender equality and women’s economic empowerment that would be adopted in the 12th ministerial conference, and would point the way forward.

What does this declaration say?

First, members must continue to review, develop, and improve data on trade and gender. A lack of gender-disaggregated data and inadequate understanding about the impact of unequal power relations on trade continue to hold back research on women and trade. This includes an analysis of the many ways that different forms of discrimination against women affect their ability to participate in the global economy. This brings us back to Beijing, where basic commitments guaranteeing women’s autonomy—physical, economic, and decision making—have yet to be fulfilled.

Second, this research must be used to inform trade policy instruments and programs to ensure that they support women’s economic empowerment. Fresh data can be the basis for gender-responsive policies that seek to transform the underlying inequalities that hold back women’s participation in an increasingly knowledge-intensive economy.

The third element is more inward looking. The ministerial declaration calls on the WTO to ensure a gender perspective becomes the backbone of its entire operations. This is important because it does not involve mere consultations with women, but an eye for the differential impacts of all its decisions, programming, and debates on women.

Last but not least is the promotion of collaboration between international and regional organizations, as well as WTO members, on the promotion of gender equality in trade—not least by incorporating these goals into Aid for Trade.

A Call to All Men in Decision-Making Spaces

Progress on these goals requires one last thing: equal commitment by everyone to the goal of gender equality. Women led the process leading to the original Buenos Aires Declaration. They secured support, built momentum, and ensured the backing of 118 delegations—most represented by men. That is commendable, but we must do more—as men—not only to support this common cause, but to take active leadership in it.

We are beginning to see progress. After Buenos Aires, a group of 19 WTO members and 4 observers—known as the “friends of gender” group—involved 13 women and 10 men in the creation of the first draft of the joint ministerial declaration. Its finalized version of the declaration was to be presented in December 2021 to the ministerial conference, which, according to estimates of the WTO Secretariat, comprised around 20% women.

Let’s remember the words of UN Women Goodwill Ambassador Emma Watson at the launch of the HeForShe campaign: “How can we effect change in the world when only half of it is invited or feel welcomed to participate in the conversation?”

Women can continue to lead the way forward, but men must do our part. Taking responsibility to educate ourselves, ending our indifference or even blindness to gender inequalities, and taking action to transform them is an ethical imperative in our day and age. Men, still overrepresented in decision-making spaces, must commit and ensure that global trade and the WTO serve all of humanity—not just half of it.

Harald Aspelund is the Ambassador and Permanent Representative of Iceland to the United Nations in Geneva. He is also one of the co-chairs of the WTO’s Informal Working Group on Trade and Gender.

Javier A. Gutiérrez is a diplomat and trade expert who works at El Salvador’s Permanent Mission to the WTO in Geneva.

To read the full commentary from the International Institute for Sustainable Development, please click here