What the G-7 Got Right—and Wrong—About Gender Equality

When the United States takes the helm of the group next year, it will have an opportunity to do even better.

Activists rally for women’s rights during a march to honor International Woman’s Day in Washington, D.C., on March 8, 2017.
Activists rally for women’s rights during a march to honor International Woman’s Day in Washington, D.C., on March 8, 2017. Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

Foreign leaders attending the French-led G-7 summit last weekend found little consensus on pressing foreign-policy challenges, including climate change, tensions with Iran, and a growing trade war. While France was roundly criticized for departing from past practice and failing to pursue a traditional outcome document, when the United States takes up leadership of the group of leading industrial nations next year, there’s one aspect of the French playbook it should follow: recognizing the importance of gender equality to the G-7 agenda.

For the second year running, the G-7 made gender equality one of the five central themes of the summit. G-7 leaders held a session entirely focused on women’s empowerment. The keynote address came from members of the G-7’s second Gender Equality Advisory Council, which was composed this year of champions of the cause such as the Nobel Peace Prize laureates Denis Mukwege and Nadia Murad.

The United States reportedly pushed back on French President Emmanuel Macron’s emphasis on gender equality, with senior administration officials expressing frustration about inclusion of a so-called “niche” issue on the summit agenda. The real question, however, is whether G-7 leaders can afford to ignore the status of women if they hope to meet their development goals. Investment in women, after all, yields high returns on poverty reduction and income growth initiatives. Experts estimate that closing the gender gap in the workforce could add a staggering $28 trillion to global GDP by 2025. There’s benefit to food security, too: If female farmers have equal access to productive resources, it could raise agricultural output and reduce the number of hungry people in the world by 150 million. Increasing girls’ education grows household income and improves health outcomes, while access to family planning brings economic dividends. And when it comes to security, women’s contributions to conflict prevention and resolution reduce conflict and improve stability.

In light of this evidence, calls to bring gender equality to the forefront of the G-7 are well placed, and in some respects, the focus has already started to pay off. After challenging themselves at last year’s summit to raise $3 billion by 2020 to invest in women as entrepreneurs, business leaders, and employees, G-7 nations announced they’ve already reached $2.5 billion in public- and private-sector capital. The funds will help address the nearly $300 billion credit shortfall faced by women-owned enterprises and create new market opportunities for female consumers, who will control close to $15 trillion of global consumer spending by 2028.

G-7 nations have also made specific commitments to promote women’s entrepreneurship, launching a new $100 million partnership together with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to support women’s digital financial inclusion in July this year. At the most recent meeting, G-7 nations also recognized “that a quality education is a key conduit to breaking down gender barriers,” according to G-7 Gender Equality Advisory Council member Alice Albright of the Global Partnership for Education, and promised to provide technical assistance to African governments to advance gender equality through education.

G-7 nations also agreed to tackle legal barriers that continue to undermine women’s economic, political, and social participation. After all, access to education or capital can only get women so far in the absence of freedom from violence, freedom of movement, legal rights, and equal opportunities to work. No country in the world has a level legal playing field for women, particularly in the workplace, and G-7 governments pledged to take steps to address legal barriers both within their own countries and abroad.

These commitments are positive, but there is much more work to be done to ensure that world leaders match their rhetoric with genuine reform—and investment. Despite the political leadership and sincere commitment to gender equality by both Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau last year and Macron this year, G-7 nations remain caught in narrowly focused approaches that are often short-lived and too limited to reap significant gains. Around the world, the broadest measures to advance the status of women and girls remain chronically underfunded, lagging far behind investment in other development objectives.

The G-7—especially with its new focus on gender equality—is well positioned to turn this tide on overall gender equality, but only if nations match their promises with a substantial increase in dollars. The question, then, is whether the United States will take on this challenge on when it assumes the G-7 presidency next year.

It certainly seems unlikely in some areas, given the United States’ restrictive reproductive health care policies and proposed cuts in U.S. foreign aid that reduce assistance in a range of areas critical to women’s lives, from access to education to protection from violence. “As we look ahead to next year, we can anticipate that many of these issues will be non-starters for the United States presidency,” Lyric Thompson of the International Center for Research on Women and a U.S. delegate to the Women 7, a gender equality-focused civil society group affiliated with the G-7, told us.

But an effort focused on women’s economic empowerment could be both politically feasible and globally beneficial. By preparing women for the workforce, ensuring their access to markets, and removing restrictive legal, regulatory, and cultural barriers, a broader G-7 effort could scale the administration’s own Women’s Global Development and Prosperity Initiative—launched by Ivanka Trump, daughter and advisor to U.S. President Donald Trump, earlier this year—and expand the scope of the G-20’s Women Entrepreneurs Finance Initiative, the largest fund supporting women’s access to capital.

Such an initiative could accelerate progress on women’s equality by mobilizing more private-sector capital while enabling G-7 nations to hold themselves accountable for previous commitments—an all-too-rare practice—including the 2017 commitment to reduce the gender gap in labor force participation rates by 25 percent by 2025 and a recent promise to exceed the target of $3 billion by 2020 for female entrepreneurs. It could also track progress on—and investment in—this year’s commitments, such as increasing women’s digital financial inclusion and reforming the legal barriers that make it harder for women to work, including restrictions on the kinds of jobs women can hold, limitations on property ownership, and lack of protection against sexual harassment.

To enable the success of a women’s economic empowerment initiative, next year the United States should keep gender equality on the main G-7 agenda, host a third Gender Equality Advisory Council, and integrate the day-to-day work of the gender equality initiative into the existing G-7 architecture to address gaps that undercut Canada’s and France’s political commitments. Beyond women’s economic empowerment, the United States should also drive efforts to encourage girls’ education and recognize women’s contributions to security, both issues for which the Trump administration has expressed support.

Doing so is not just the right thing to do, but also a smart investment. Only when women enjoy equality in work and at home will countries realize the promised $28 trillion in global growth—money that, at a time of rising fears of a global recession, nations simply cannot afford to leave on the table. The G-7 countries just reminded the world that it is impossible to solve our most pressing challenges while leaving half the world’s population behind; now, governments should act like they mean it.

Jamille Bigio is a senior fellow in the Women and Foreign Policy program at the Council on Foreign Relations and the former director for human rights and gender on the White House National Security Council staff. Twitter: @jamillebigio

Rachel Vogelstein is the Douglas Dillon senior fellow and the director of the Women and Foreign Policy Program at the Council on Foreign Relations.