The top Indian-American economist made the comments in her keynote address on Monday at the Inaugural Dr Hansa Mehta Lecture which is named in the memory of the pioneering Indian reformer and educator.
“We are meeting amidst a global health and economic crisis which threatens to roll back years of hard-won economic and social gains for women. Women have been affected disproportionately by the pandemic because they work predominantly in sectors such as restaurants and hospitality that have been hit hardest by the lockdowns, and as the main caregivers at home, they have had to drop out of the labour market as schools closed,” Gopinath said.
Mehta had served as the Indian delegate to the UN Commission on Human Rights from 1947 to 1948 and is widely known for ensuring a more gender sensitive language in the landmark Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR).
She is credited with making a significant change in the language of Article 1 of the UDHR by replacing the phrase “All men are born free and equal” to “All human beings are born free and equal.”
Gopinath pointed out that in developing countries, women are over-represented in the informal sector where they face lower pay, less job security and lower social protection. In these countries, girls have dropped out more from school to help in households and there is a disturbing fact that violence against women and girls has intensified since the outbreak of the pandemic.
“As countries around the world struggle to grow their economies— grappling with ageing populations, and buffeted by trade shocks, social unrest, weather-related disasters and now, the worst peacetime crisis in a century— tapping into the huge potential of women is unambiguously a win-win for both women’s empowerment and inclusive global economic growth,” she said.
Even as the pandemic demonstrated excellent contributions of women as leaders, health professionals, first-responders and caregivers, it is concerning that women have been hit “disproportionately hard” by this crisis, Gopinath said, adding that much more needs to be done to achieve gender equality.
Elaborating on how gender equity can lead to inclusive and stronger global economic growth, she underscored that gender equity in the labour market can deliver significant gains to national income as she cited research that said if women were to participate in the labour force to the same extent as men, national income could increase significantly.
“With female labour force participation falling in many countries during the pandemic, targeted policies such as hiring subsidies may be needed to swiftly bring about the reintegration of female workers into the labour force,” she said.
Gopinath further stressed that better economic opportunities and equal pay for women not only lowers gender inequality but also lowers income inequality and women’s empowerment enhances economic resilience.
“The empowerment of women is an important channel by which we can obtain stronger, more inclusive, and more resilient growth,” she said, noting that women globally account for less than 20 percent of board seats in banks and banking supervision agencies, and account for fewer than 2 per cent of bank CEOs.
“This suggests tremendous room to achieve greater financial sector resilience while also increasing banking sector profitability,” she said.
Gopinath called on governments to use fiscal policy to assist with the advancement of women in education, health, financial inclusion and economic empowerment.
“Gender budgeting can ensure that tax and spending policies transparently and adequately include provisions for women’s access to opportunity in education and the workplace,” she said.
Well-designed workplace regulations that protect women under the law— including parental leave policies that encourage greater parity between men and women, access to affordable childcare, equitable treatment of women in courts and protection against violence— have all been shown to significantly raise women’s participation in economic activity.
She also underlined that governments must take concrete actions to level the playing field for women.
“In many regions of the world, a key obstacle to women’s empowerment are outdated legal, regulatory and institutional impediments— all of which are in the hands of governments to reform,” she said.
Underscoring the role of the private sector, she said businesses can promote gender equity by ensuring equal pay for equal work.
“Even where governmental regulations do not mandate it, firms can take the initiative to put in place work-life policies that support women’s labour force attachment,” Gopinath said.
India’s Permanent Representative to the UN Ambassador T S Tirumurti said that Mehta has left an “indelible mark” on the Indian Constitution and on the UDHR of the United Nations.
Quoting Swami Vivekananda, he said, there is no chance for the welfare of the world unless the condition of women is improved.
“It is not possible for a bird to fly on only one wing,” Tirumurti added.