New York

08 December 2020

Deputy Secretary-General's remarks at the virtual event entitled "WOMENpreneurs: from Startups to Stars" [as prepared for delivery]

It is a pleasure to join you for this dialogue on supporting women entrepreneurs as we strive to recover better together from the COVID-19 pandemic.

I thank the International Organization of Employers, the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung and the United Nations Global Compact for convening this event.

In recent decades, we have made significant strides towards gender equality, including in the private sector. Women’s increased participation and leadership in business has proven essential in driving economic and financial performance.

Today, the impact of COVID-19 is threatening those hard-won gains. Gender-based violence has increased, and access to sexual reproductive health has been compromised. An estimated 11 million girls will likely be forced to leave school before the end of the pandemic, with potentially devastating consequences.

Women are also among those worst affected by the economic fallout of the current crisis.

They are more likely than men to own micro-, small- and medium-sized enterprises and vulnerable businesses in the informal sector. They are far more likely to shoulder the burden of unpaid work. And they are less likely to have access to assets, property and financial services. 

Particularly concerning is the trend towards lower female participation in the workforce. Women made up 39 per cent of global employment but account for 54 per cent of overall job losses. In the United States, more than 600,000 women left the workforce in September alone, compared with only 78,000 men. This reflects, among other factors, increased care burden falling disproportionately on women.

Recent research from UNDP, UN Women and the Pardee Centre for International Futures at the University of Denver shows that by this time next year, 435 million women and girls will be living in extreme poverty, including 47 million specifically impoverished by COVID-19. By 2021, the findings indicate that for every 100 men aged 25 to 34 living in extreme poverty, there will be 118 women.

The impact of COVID-19 on women threatens the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals and hinders our work towards more inclusive, resilient, gender-equal and sustainable societies. 

Indeed, women’s long-standing inequality holds back progress towards all of the SDGs. As the World Bank has shown, the global economy could achieve a “gender dividend” of $172 trillion by closing the gap in lifetime earnings between women and men. Narrowing the gender gaps in business ownership and leadership will go a long way towards generating stronger, more sustainable growth. And we have seen that when women succeed, they invest in their families and communities, contributing to poverty reduction, education and improved nutrition.

The UN Secretary-General has put the world on high alert, calling to end the shadow pandemic of violence against women, to advance women’s equal participation in decision-making and to ensure targeted support to women in COVID-19 response packages.

Women and women entrepreneurs must be put at the centre of pandemic recovery.

We need the public and private sectors to join forces in a gender-sensitive response to this unprecedented emergency.

One example of an impactful response is the Women’s Entrepreneurship Development programme of the International Labour Organisation. This partnership empowers emerging and existing women entrepreneurs who want to start, run and grow their businesses. It helps them succeed in their own ventures, which in turn contribute to more inclusive, resilient and sustainable economies.

In another key effort, the Women’s Empowerment Principles, developed by the UN Global Compact and UN Women, have sent a strong message that advancing gender equality is not only the right thing to do, it is also a smart business strategy.   

To deepen implementation of the Principles, UN Women and the ILO have established partnerships in several countries with employer organizations, business chambers and private sector companies. 

The UN Global Compact local networks in nineteen countries have launched Target Gender Equality to help businesses set and meet ambitious targets for women’s representation and leadership — starting at the top.

Initiatives like Target Gender Equality are a response to Sustainable Development Goal Five, which requires women’s full participation and equal opportunities for leadership, including leadership in economic life.

Women have been at the frontlines in the response to COVID-19. They have played an enormous role in efforts to flatten the curve of infection and position their nations for economic recovery. Yet, the number of women in business management and leadership positions remains far too low.

The Women Rise for All initiative that I convened earlier this year is intended to bring greater visibility to the effectiveness of women’s leadership we have seen during this crisis. 

The leaders in Women’s Rise for All know that women’s equal representation is not just a right in itself; it is a proven road to sustainable development and better outcomes for all.

Women’s skills, talents, innovation, perspectives and leadership are needed to solve the world’s biggest challenges -- from tackling climate change to rebuilding economies. There is ample evidence that when women are in power, their modes of governance support the well-being of entire populations, in line with the values of fairness, equality, peace and human rights.

Women who own businesses are women who originate, who lead, who adapt, who create. They bring this spirit to their families and communities, often going well beyond societal expectations of the roles women should play.

And they will help guide us all out of crisis and into a better future.

COVID-19 is testing our common humanity, and gender equality is both an imperative for building back better and an opportunity to tap our full human potential.

We must not return to pre-pandemic inequalities.  We need bold business leadership as society struggles to rebound from the health and economic crises of COVID-19. 

But we must do more than ensure that women are not left behind. We must let women lead.

Thank you.