Womenomics revisited

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MEN like to believe that they run the world. They are not deluding themselves. In politics, men still dominate most of the planet's governments and legislatures. In economic life, they rule its boardrooms and have most of the best-paid jobs. Women, meanwhile, do by far the greater part of the world's unpaid work. Granted, some details of the canvas are changing: women's share of the workforce is much higher than it was a generation ago, and they comprise the majority of university students in some countries. Nevertheless, it is still a man's world.

And a wasteful one. Were more women in paid employment, according to a run of recent studies, the world would be better off. The waste is surely worse in poor countries than in rich ones. A report this week by the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific concludes that sex discrimination costs the region $42 billion-47 billion a year by restricting women's job opportunities. A gap of 30-40 percentage points between men's and women's workforce participation rates is common. The poor state of girls' education costs a further $16 billion-30 billion. And those are just the economic costs, before violence against women and access to health care are counted.

But rich countries undervalue women as well. Just look at the gap between male and female employment rates in America, Japan and western Europe, as Kevin Daly, an economist at Goldman Sachs, does in a recent study (see the left-hand chart). In Sweden, where around 70% of females aged 15-64 are in work, the gap is less than five percentage points. In America and Britain it is around a dozen points. In Italy, Japan and Spain it is over 20 points. Suppose, says Mr Daly, that women's employment rates were raised to the same level as men's; and suppose that GDP rose in proportion with employment. Then America's GDP would be 9% higher, the euro zone's would be 13% more, and Japan's would be boosted by 16%.

That may be a bit of an overstatement. Add so many people to the workforce and average productivity would probably fall. Given the chance to work, many women may do so part-time rather than full-time; some men with working partners may make the same choice. Nevertheless, the boost to GDP would still be substantial. Mr Daly notes that were euro-zone productivity raised to American levels—a commonly cited idea—the single-currency club's GDP would rise by only 7%.

You might object that looking at GDP itself overstates the benefits. With more women in work, some of what they now do unpaid—caring for children, cleaning, preparing meals—would be bought in. So some work would be counted, and added to GDP, simply because it was supplied in the market not the home. True, says Mr Daly, but only to a limited extent. Pay in child care tends to be low, so the offsetting factor is not very great. Even in Sweden pre-school care accounts for only 1.2% of GDP, a small sum compared with the gains on offer.

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Language(s): 
English
Date created: 
2007
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Time period covered: 
2007
Total energy: 
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