Narrowing gaps

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By Lohini Moodley

Ethiopia has made considerable strides to narrow gaps between its male and female citizens. Indeed, it stands out in Africa for having a female president. But gender inequality remains high. This is a major missed opportunity not just for Ethiopia’s women but for the overall health of its economy.
New research from the McKinsey Global Institute and McKinsey & Company in Africa finds that if every country were to match the progress toward gender equality of the African country that has progressed the fastest over the last 5 years, Africa could add $316 billion to GDP by 2025 or 10 percent of current GDP. This is a prize worth having.
But right now, this scenario seems only a distant possibility. Progress towards gender parity in Ethiopia, and on the continent has as a whole been disappointingly slow. At the current rate , Africa could take more than 140 years to achieve gender parity. This is a missed opportunity. The research looked at 15 indicators of gender inequality in work and in society—progress on one is not possible without progress on the other.
In work, Africa’s has higher female participation in labor markets than any regions, but this reflects economic necessity rather than opportunity. The fact remains that most women work in low-paid jobs in the informal sector with low levels of education and skills and little opportunity for advancement. African women continue to undertake most unpaid care work including household chores and caring for children and the elderly. The largest gender imbalance within Africa on unpaid care work is in North Africa where women perform 6.7 hours of unpaid care work for every hour done by men.
This compromises women’s economic opportunity. Many African women cannot work far from home because they are the primary caregiver in their family or because their work as a market trader requires them to stay in a single location all day. It also makes accessing finance difficult. Consider that, in Ethiopia, 80 percent of the population lives ten kilometres or more from the nearest bank branch or ATM.
In society, Africa’s progress towards parity is poor in comparison to other regions. It has the highest average maternal mortality rate of any region in the world. Ethiopia has made strides here. To extend the reach of healthcare services to rural communities, the country launched a Health Extension Program, employing more than 30,000 workers and constructing over 15,000 health posts to serve as their bases of operations. By 2011, the country had achieved a 29 percent increase in skilled attendance at birth. By 2015, Ethiopia’s maternal mortality rate had fallen from 728 to 357 per 100,000 live births.
Women’s education and women’s financial and digital inclusion relative to men are also below the world average and financial inclusion among women has actually declined over the past four years. Violence against women is also unacceptably high across the continent.
The performance on political representation is mixed. At 25%, African women’s overall representation in cabinets and parliaments is higher than the global average (22%), and has risen by 6% and 3%, respectively, in recent years. Ethiopia is one of three African nations – the other two being Rwanda and South Africa – that have achieved gender-balanced cabinets.
So how can Ethiopia build on these gains and accelerate progress towards gender parity, thereby seizing the potential growth dividend? The McKinsey research suggests that systematic and concerted action is needed from governments, businesses, and community leaders in six priority areas.
First, Ethiopia needs to invest in girls’ education and women’s skills, as well as essential services such as healthcare – good health underlies productivity and work.
Second, it needs to create more opportunities for women in both the informal and formal sectors. This includes integrating women-owned businesses into supply chains and ensuring workplaces are environments where women can thrive and develop. Ethiopia is already opening up vocational and training programmes to people working informally. The country has also signed up to the International Labour Organization’s Convention No. 183, which is a vehicle that guarantees women paid maternity leave and daily breaks at work for childcare and breastfeeding, protects pregnant women against discrimination and dismissal, and guarantees that women will return to their jobs once their leave is over. This is a key lever to help attract women into formal employment and achieve a more equal gender balance in who undertakes unpaid care work in the provision of parental leave.
Third, Ethiopia and its neighbours need to ensure that women have the same access as men to the digital and mobile technologies that not only open doors to economic opportunity, but also make it easier to deliver key public services. Digital technologies are also a gateway to financial services. For example, in Ethiopia, Enterprise Partners is increasing access to digital financial services to include the promotion of agent banking systems and mobile money that enables people to pay bills and buy bus tickets using a phone. By 2020, the aim is to facilitate the opening of 350,000 new bank accounts, three-quarters of them with women.
Fourth, Ethiopia and others need to tackle deep-rooted attitudes about women’s role in society and work that underlie so many aspects of gender inequality. And finally, it needs to ensure that Ethiopian women have the full support and protection of the law and that existing laws are enforced.
Across the continent countries are starting to adopt explicit policies designed to close gender gaps and some are making rapid progress. These examples will hopefully inspire Ethiopia to build on and sustain its efforts in this direction. The country is in a unique position in Africa, having a woman at the top. Now is the time to use this advantage to drive further change so that women at every level of society can enjoy an equal part in the country’s journey to prosperity.

Moodley is a Partner based in McKinsey’s Ethiopia office.

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