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This is Planet 50-50: Lakshmi Puri on a world built for gender equality

“Gender equality and women’s empowerment has intrinsic value—it’s the fair thing to do, the just thing to do,” Lakshmi says. “But it also has value for the whole of humanity.”

By Shelley White

Take a moment to imagine a world in which gender equality is a reality. Girls around the globe have access to the same educational opportunities as boys do. Women earn the same wages as their male counterparts and hold 50 per cent of senior management positions. Males and females are equally represented amongst the ranks of board chairs, CEOs, and political leaders.

This is Planet 50-50. A vision of the future, which Lakshmi Puri, Assistant Secretary-General of the United Nations and Deputy Executive Director of UN Women, says the world needs now more than ever.

UN Women, a branch of the United Nations that launched six years ago, focuses on gender equality and the empowerment of women. On International Women’s Day 2016, UN Women rolled out the “Planet 50-50 by 2030: Step It Up for Gender Equality” campaign, calling on governments to make national commitments to address the challenges that are holding women and girls back from reaching their full potential.

“Gender equality and women’s empowerment has intrinsic value—it’s the fair thing to do, the just thing to do,” Lakshmi says. “But it also has value for the whole of humanity.”

Among other things, this value comes in the form of significant economic gain. “When you harness the productivity of half of the world’s population, you unleash the kind of economic boost that the world is in dire need of. It’s the greatest untapped potential available to us today,” she says.

Lakshmi identifies numerous studies that demonstrate how utilizing the talent and productivity of women in the workforce is good for the economy. For example, a recent report by the McKinsey Global Institute entitled “The Power of Parity” found that in a “full potential” scenario of 95 countries, gender parity in the economy could increase the global GDP by $28-trillion.“That is,” as Lakshmi points out, “the GDP of China and the United States combined.”

lakshmi_soloOne of the overarching goals of Planet 50-50 is the economic empowerment of women. In order to make this a reality by 2030, the group outlines an action plan addressing areas that are crucial to removing barriers to women’s success. One such barrier is the discrimination against women in law and customary practices.

“There are currently 155 countries in the world that have laws in place that are not only discriminatory toward women but also have a direct impact on women’s economic rights,” she says. To address this discrimination, Lakshmi believes governments must develop laws and policies that will combat violence against women, put an end to harmful practices like child marriage, and positively impact women’s ownership and control over economic resources.

Beyond that, she says, “we need governments to do their part to provide an equal playing field for women and girls.” This means providing an equal opportunity for education—including the study of STEM (science, technology, engineering and math)—and training to ensure women are competitive in the job market and have access to decent work.

Another significant barrier to economic empowerment is the gender pay gap, an issue that spans the globe. In order to help shatter the proverbial “glass ceiling,” UN Women is asking both governments and corporations to join a movement to demand equal pay for work of equal value. They’re also asking governments to increase the minimum wage across the board.

“We have a ‘sticky floor’ problem when it comes to women’s jobs,” says Lakshmi. “In almost every country in the world, women are mostly concentrated in the lower end of the job market. So if you raise the minimum wage, you are in a way equalizing the playing field for women.”

On the political front, even though the United States is closer than it’s ever been to electing a female President, there is still much that needs to be done around the world.  Women remain dramatically underrepresented when it comes to holding political leadership positions. However, Lakshmi recognizes Canadian Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau as a champion of women’s advancement and a global role model.

“We are so delighted to have a charismatic, passionate, committed, gender-equality champion like Justin Trudeau as the Prime Minister of Canada,” says Lakshmi. “When he was asked why he had 15 men and 15 women in his cabinet and his response was, ‘because it’s 2015,’ that resonated across the world.”

Lakshmi also looks to Ontario Premier, Kathleen Wynne as another leader making great strides. Wynne recently accepted an invitation from UN Women to serve as champion of Equal Pay for Work of Equal Value, a global coalition that brings together leaders from government, the private sector, and the women’s movement, among others, to take action and make progress on gender diversity and equal pay.

The next challenge Canada must tackle, Lakshmi says, is the discrimination faced by indigenous women and women with disabilities. If handled correctly, she believes Canada could set an example for the rest of the world to follow.

Lakshmi and UN Women will be working with Canadian leaders to address these issues. “I think we will have a very special and strategic partnership, in both raising the game when it comes to gender equality within Canada, and also in deploying Canada’s leadership in the UN and around the world to really make gender equality and women’s empowerment happen internationally—and happen within a generation,” she says.


A version of this article originally appeared in the Fall 2016 Women of Influence Magazine, Pages 32-33.