Decoder: Untapped Potential

Decoder: Untapped Potential

Despite making up half the working-age population, women generated only 37 percent of global GDP in 2013—a finding from a recent McKinsey Global Institute study that surveyed 95 countries representing 97 percent of the world’s GDP and 93 percent of its female population.

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The report’s most striking finding is that gender parity isn’t specifically driven by per capita GDP: Rates of female workforce participation actually peak in low- and high-income countries, but sag drastically in the middle, such as in India and Turkey. The reason? In addition to cultural factors and personal preference, the report surmises that in middle-income countries, households weigh the economic gain of two working spouses against many other considerations—like the necessity of unpaid care work (e.g., cooking, cleaning, and caring for elderly family members and children). People in lower-income countries, however, can’t afford that luxury.  

Narrowing the gender gap in the workforce isn’t just good citizenry; it’s also good business. If countries improve gender parity in their workforces, McKinsey reports, the resulting output could translate into an additional $12 trillion in global GDP in 2025. 


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Free labor is a major contributor to the gender gap. Each year, McKinsey estimates, women work without pay to the tune of $10 trillion. And on average, women perform 75 percent of unpaid chores worldwide. Unsurprisingly, in countries where such tasks are done almost exclusively by women, their involvement in the labor force is dismal (above). The imbalance is also reflected in political and professional leadership positions: On average, there are 36 female legislators, senior officials, and managers for every 100 male ones globally, according to the McKinsey report. 

Map data via McKinsey Global Institute analysis of 2013 International Labour Organization/U.N. population data; Unpaid Care Work data via OECD Gender, Institutions and Development Database, 2014; Oman data from 2010 U.N. report; Political Representation data via International Labour Organization, 2000-2013. A version of this article originally appeared in the January/February issue of FP under the title “Untapped Potential.”