How Greater Trade Freedom Advances Women’s Economic Empowerment



Anthony B. Kim | The Heritage Foundation

A new study by the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, “Gender and Trade,” considers the impact of trade on women and notes that effective trade policy “works in tandem with domestic policy to support women’s economic empowerment.”

More specifically, the report highlights the importance of market structure and institutional quality in shaping the impact of international trade. That in turn, as the report notes, affects opportunities for women to secure employment and benefit from international trade.

The report focuses on developments in Canada and the European Union, and in both places, women are falling behind men in enjoying the benefits of trade. In the EU, in 2017, only 38% of jobs dependent on exports were held by women. In Canada, only 11% of small and medium-sized enterprises owned by women engaged in exporting.

Similar trends are likely in the United States, and the imperative for women’s economic empowerment here is quite clear.

As articulated in the Trump administration’s National Security Strategy, “Societies that empower women to participate fully in civic and economic life are more prosperous and peaceful.”

Greater empowerment of women enhances economic dynamism and leads to broader development outcomes. It tends to contribute to boosting economic diversification and, in turn, supports overall economic resilience.

Empowering individuals—women as well as men—with greater economic choice and control is really about advancing their economic freedom.

The globalized economy provides historically unprecedented opportunities for individuals around the world to trade freely in pursuit of better lives for themselves and their families, enhancing their economic freedom and increasing their prosperity.

In recent years, however, opposition to trade has come from both the left and the right, casting doubt on whether the old consensus favoring freer trade can hold. The impact of free trade has been the subject of intense and contentious debate both in politics and in the media.

Particularly in the context of the current coronavirus pandemic, defending and advancing trade freedom is more critical than ever.

Context matters in such heated debates, and one needs to acknowledge that the context in which people think about trade has shifted.

As tariffs have come down, trade negotiators have turned their attention to a much wider range of issues, such as labor and environmental standards, currency manipulation and investment regulations, and even human rights conventions.

So, it’s not just about whether to trade more or less, but about many aspects of the quality of life. Those issues are at least as important to women as to men, and the best trade policies will be those that maximize the economic and social benefits of trade to both men and women.

All in all, trade agreements are becoming ever more comprehensive, and their regulatory reach has become quite sweeping. Such managed trade could actually be counterproductive, as it can make countries less competitive.

Good trade agreements, by contrast, can and should be simple, transparent, and straightforward. The only essential component is that they dismantle barriers and advance the freedom to trade to empower people with more choices and opportunities.

That will help men, and it will help and empower women, too.

In the ongoing process of revitalizing America’s economic dynamism, and particularly in the context of recovery from the devastating impact of the coronavirus, the Trump administration has a unique opening to become an effective advocate for greater trade freedom to empower women and men.

It should not let the opportunity pass.

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