Remarks by DG Azevêdo

Good morning everyone – and a happy international women’s day to all.

The 8th of March is an important occasion to honour the positive impact that women have in all areas of life.

It is also an opportunity to raise awareness, take stock of the progress made, identify remaining challenges, and promote further inclusiveness.

Over the last few years we have put a special focus on this issue – and the progress is clear.

The most obvious illustration of this was the launch of the Joint Declaration on Trade and Gender at our 11th Ministerial Conference in Buenos Aires in December.

118 Members and Observers signed the Declaration, seeking to advance conversations on this topic.

This was a truly remarkable moment. It has put these issues on the WTO agenda like never before.

It is therefore fitting that we have prepared an entire week of events at the WTO to mark International Women's day. I would like to thank everyone involved in this effort, especially Anoush and Monica.

The programme is very diverse.

It includes:

  • exhibitions,
  • debates,
  • and training sessions on issues such as female leadership and organizational culture.

Our topic for this session is the role of trade and the WTO in women's economic empowerment.

Ensuring that women can participate fully in the economy is essential to building the inclusive society we all want to see. Of course it is also essential to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. 

We all have a role to play in making this a reality. But we still have a long, long way to go.

Women are half the world’s working-age population but generate only 37% of GDP.

In most countries, women earn 60-75% of what men receive for the same work.

No society can reach its full potential if half of the population cannot properly participate in the economy.

And we know that the benefits of greater equality can be huge.

World Bank data suggest that the elimination of all forms of discrimination against women would raise per capita productivity by 40%.

McKinsey estimates that closing the gender gap could add at least 12 trillion dollars to global GDP by 2025.

So what is preventing us from realising this potential? Let’s look at some of the barriers to progress here – I want to highlight just three.

First, legal and regulatory barriers are higher for women.

In many economies, female entrepreneurs face more obstacles than their male counterparts. These barriers can range from difficulties obtaining credit and registering property to opening a bank account.

In 155 out of 190 economies studied by the World Bank, women do not have the same legal rights as men, meaning that there is at least one law impeding women's economic opportunities.

The second barrier I want to mention is working conditions. 

Gender bias can result in unfavourable and even dangerous working conditions for women.

Evidence suggests that in some places women are disproportionately harassed and asked for bribes at border-crossings.

And attitudes also remain a real problem. A survey of Canadian women-owned SME exporters found out that 75% of them perceived a 'lack of respect by male business owners' and 'a refusal to be taken seriously'. And by the way, this is not to indict Canada, but to commend its efforts in undertaking this kind of research and identifying discriminatory attitudes that women traders face.

The third barrier I want to mention is access to education, knowledge and skills.

Low levels of literacy are more prevalent among female traders. In South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa there are 150 million fewer literate women than men. The same applies to awareness about cross-border trade regulations and procedures.

These are just a few examples. Of course there are many other factors which can hinder women's full participation in trade – such as financial and digital exclusion for example – or political underrepresentation which stands in the way of meaningful change.

Eliminating these barriers would make a huge difference for the economic empowerment of women, but also for economic growth and social development more broadly.

So the next question is: what can we do to make a difference?

Trade certainly has a role to play. It can help to:

  • create job opportunities and provide better salaries,
  • encourage education and skills development,
  • and increase financial independence.

But the benefits of trade in tackling these issues are not automatic. We need to take action in a variety of ways to make sure that we are more inclusive.

I'd like to address this from two angles – first, looking at the WTO as an important institution of economic governance. And second, looking at our role as an organisation and as an employer.

In my role as an 'International Gender Champion' I pledged to take action on both of these fronts – and we are delivering.

As an institution we are increasingly looking at how we can act in this area.  

To help guide this work, we have launched an Action Plan on Trade and Gender.

We now have a Women and Trade webpage, to provide a single port of call for information about the work of the WTO here.

And we are partnering with the World Bank on generating new data and facilitating the understanding of the impact of trade on women.

Of course, this work is now framed, in part, by the Buenos Aires Declaration on Trade and Gender.

As I said earlier, the Declaration was a very important moment in a political sense – but it also provided some focus for our conversations here.

The participants of this initiative agreed to some specific points.

They committed to work together in the WTO to remove barriers for women’s economic empowerment and increase their participation in trade.

And in doing so…

  • They committed to explore ways to tackle barriers to women in trade and in public procurement markets.
  • They will be exchanging information about best practices and collecting relevant economic data.
  • They will seek, on a voluntary basis, to use Trade Policy Reviews to emphasize policy developments that contribute to gender equality.
  • They urge that trade-related development assistance should be better orientated towards gender issues.
  • And they committed to keep the conversation going, through dedicated events and discussions on these issues.

This is work in progress – but it is a very important step. I am confident that the Buenos Aires Declaration will provide an important platform to advance this work and help the WTO make a real impact as an institution.

Now, I also want to address our role as an employer.

Over the years, we have strived to improve gender parity in the Secretariat.

We have worked to ensure that gender matters are well integrated into our administrative policies, such as our promotion policy.

In 2017, for example, there were 40 promotions in the WTO. More than a half was awarded to women. And when we look at the performance-based promotions only, 16 out of 24 staff promoted were women. This means that two thirds of the performance-based promotions were awarded to female staff members.

In addition, we are continuously working to encourage women to step forward as leaders through our HR-organized workshops and coaching activities.

We are also making efforts to ensure that the WTO is a safe working environment, and we are currently developing a policy to address harassment at work. And we have a 'zero tolerance' approach here.

This all represents good progress, but of course much more remains to be done. For example, women are still underrepresented in senior management positions.

Good progress, but not enough. I think that is a fair description of where the broader gender debate stands today.

We have come a long, long way in recent years – but I think we always have to challenge ourselves to do more.

Do we truly practice what we preach? As leaders, as managers, as colleagues, where could we do more?

When we look at certain past practices, or how things were a generation ago, often we can't believe it. Well, we have to consider – what are we are blind to today? What are the things that we still consider normal today but that will shock the next generation?

So we have to keep at it. We have to keep deepening the debate.

And we all have a role to play, individually, institutionally and collectively. Because it is together that we will build the inclusive society we all wish to see.

Thank you.




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