Is Advancing Gender Equality a Priority for the World’s Largest Economic Country? How Would You Know?

Christina Ho

Christina Ho, former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Office of Accounting Policy and Financial Transparency at the US Treasury and current International Advisory Group member of Public Finance by Women (PFW) writes on advancing gender equality in the US:

One of the most critical government functions in the modern-era is public finance.  In the US, the federal government spends $4 trillion each year.  The total spending represents 20% of the US GDP and about 5% of the World GDP.  Financial transparency plays a critical role in enforcing accountability and advancing key policy like gender equality; because spending reflects the priority of the governments.  In recent years, the US has made significant progress to improve financial transparency by implementing the first open data federal law (Digital Accountability and Transparency Act of 2014) which requires the federal government to publish its spending data in a structured format.  As the Former Deputy Assistant Secretary for Office of Accounting Policy & Financial Transparency at the US Treasury, I led the successful government wide implementation for that law from 2014 through 2017 by publishing the federal spending data beginning in May 2017. However, how these enormous federal spending have benefited society as a whole and the distribution of these benefits across demographics could not be determined reliably and systematically.

Since gender inequality is a long-standing structural issue, it requires intentional and structural changes.  Although the United Nations (UN) and many countries around the world including the US have implemented some changes through their legal and political systems, progress remains slow.  Four decades ago, the UN General Assembly adopted the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW).  The CEDAW is known as “an international bill of rights for women”.  It defines the standards for gender equality including “ensuring women's equal access to, and equal opportunities in, political and public life -- including the right to vote and to stand for election -- as well as education, health and employment”.  Sixteen years later and in 1995, 189 UN Member States adopted the historic Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action. This inspiring and significant agenda provided a comprehensive roadmap in advancing women’s rights.  In 2015, UN countries adopted the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and its 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Not surprisingly, gender equality is one of the SDGs (Goal 5). 

In the US, the first women’s rights convention was held in 1848 when a Declaration of Sentiments, which outlines grievances and sets the agenda for the women's rights movement was signed. A set of twelve resolutions was adopted calling for equal treatment of women and men under the law and voting rights for women.  This event launched the woman suffrage movement.  It took over seven decades for women in the US to finally win the right to vote through the ratification of the 19th US Constitutional Amendment in 1920. 

Fast forward to 2019, despite some of the achievements and successes women have made around the world and in the US, gender inequality continues to persist. On March 8, 2019, UN General Assembly President María Fernanda Espinosa Garcés lamented at the International Women’s Day celebration event that while progress has been made, “we are still not even close to equal”.  Women voices are still routinely overlooked and ignored.  Public Finance by Women’s Strategic Documentnotes that gender pay gaps remain very high and the main burden of unpaid work is still on women.  UN Secretary-General António Guterres made a keen observation in his remark at the International Women’s Day celebration event. “Gender equality is fundamentally a question of power” he stated, saying that a still male-dominated world has “ignored, silenced and oppressed women for centuries – even millennia”.  Therefore, he noted, “Increasing the number of women decision-makers is essential”.

As the suffragists in the US realized the power to vote in advancing women’s rights, Guterres’ remarks highlighted a key strategy for reaching true gender equality.  Women need to have representation in the decision-making process at all levels, especially in public offices.  Next year marks the 100th year anniversary for the victory of the woman suffrage movement. Unfortunately, the US ranked 41 in the gender inequality indexin 2017, the lowest among developed countries, and behind many developing countries like China, Slovakia, Lybia, and Croatia, etc. Its low ranking is mainly due to its relatively high maternal mortality ratio and adolescent birth rate, as well as, low % of seats in parliament held by women.  For example, the US % (19.7% in 2017) of women representation in “parliament” (aka Congress) is lower than China, Ethiopia, Afghanistan, Rwanda, South Africa, Mexico, Cuba, etc.  Most people around the world probably would not expect such an economic superpower and democratic country to have such poor statistics on gender equality.  Yet, many women who live in the US face such reality often at all levels.  The MeToo movement is another good example of how US women’s voices are frequently ignored, dismissed and silenced for decades.

If we have more women representation in public offices, more budgetary resources may be allocated to advancing gender equality.  However, we cannot only rely on political leaders’ theoretical commitments.  We need tangible data to demonstrate the resource allocation and evidence to show the outcomes. That is why financial transparency is a crucial step in advancing and enforcing gender equality.

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