Take a guess. How long do you think it will take for women around the world to achieve economic equality with men? Eighty years. And how much do you think it would contribute to the global economy? $28 trillion, roughly the size of the economies of the United States and China combined. Women are the ultimate economic accelerator.
Politicians and decision makers around the world are very aware of this. As a result, massive commitments have been made in international circles. The recently adopted global goals or Sustainable Development Goals incorporate gender equality as a strategic objective; and G20 leaders have formally committed to bringing an additional 100 million women into the workforce by 2025.
These are clearly positive steps forward, yet the road to women’s empowerment still features some major stumbling blocks. A recent study by the World Bank in 173 countries discovered that all but 18 countries have some form of legal discrimination against women. This ranged from a lack of property rights, to the inability to confer citizenship to children, to the need of a man’s permission to obtain basic forms of ID.
Salary is also an issue. According to UN Women’s flagship report published last year, women worldwide earn nearly a quarter less than men doing exactly the same job. On top of this, women do 75% of all the world’s unpaid work, and yet spend on average 90% of their salaries on their families, creating a positive ripple effect across their communities.
Failing to take action is not just a matter of denying women their basic human rights, but also leads to significant loss of economic potential. You don’t have to take my word for it: companies with a strong track record of gender diversity are 15% more likely to have higher earnings than their peers. In fact, among all Fortune 500 companies, the ones with the highest representation of women on their boards significantly outperform the others.
The world is in a unique position to capitalize on the huge opportunities offered by women’s participation across all levels of society. Women are more educated, healthier and more eager to succeed than ever before. Study after study shows that women who work and are financially independent have greater control over their own lives, and bring positive political and economic contribution to their extended families, their communities and their countries.
It is time to set the balance of power straight.
The rule of law must allow women and girls to take up their rightful places in our economic and political systems. The law simply cannot be gender-blind.
Business obviously has a key role to play. The private sector can capitalize on this potential, starting by making sure women are paid equally and opening up new opportunities to empower them up the chain. By implementing and scaling positive initiatives that directly benefit women at work, corporations can become an important vehicle to foster the leadership of women.
Investing in women is a matter of smart economics as well as human rights. It’s proven: the returns will be significant, both on the balance sheet and across society. So one can ask: what are we waiting for?
This post originally appeared on the World Economic Forum blog.