Achieving Gender Parity Will Power Africa’s Economy and Unlock Prosperity for Us All

Despite meaningful progress made by countries such as Rwanda and South Africa, gender inequality in Africa remains as widespread as it is stark, with many women marginalized in terms of both economic and political participation.

According to a McKinsey Global Institute report on gender inequality, women make up over half of Africa’s population, and yet generated only a third of its GDP in 2018, with many working poorly remunerated jobs in the informal economy. Progress towards equality has stagnated; if it continues to proceed at its current glacial pace, parity will only be attained in over 140 years from now.

This is echoed in a recent report from the World Economic Forum, which found that Sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East and North Africa were the two regions with the world’s lowest levels of income parity, at roughly 23% and 24%, respectively. This is, in part, due to inequality in educational attainment, where Sub-Saharan Africa ranked the lowest in the world with a gender gap of 85.3%. Indeed, 13 of the 16 countries with gender gaps exceeding 10% in high school enrolment were to be found in this region.

Other concerning findings from McKinsey include:

  • Africa’s average maternal mortality rate is the world’s highest – clocking in at quadruple the global average. In Burundi, Liberia, and Nigeria, it is is seven times that average
  • Women’s financial and digital inclusion are not only below average: they have also been declining in recent years. At 15%, Africa has the second largest gender gap in cell phone ownership; only one out of three women has access to the mobile web in Sub-Saharan Africa (compared with one out of two men)
  • Although gender-based violence is a global affliction, it is worse in Africa than the worldwide average
  • While Southern and East African countries have infrequent incidences of child marriage, this remains common in West and Central Africa

McKinsey does offer some heartening examples of progress: women’s representation in middle-management has increased by 27% in Rwanda and by 15% in South Africa. In Algeria, rates of maternal mortality have been slashed by roughly 9%. Legal protection of women has drastically improved in Egypt, Guinea and Liberia.

And, as African Business points out, Kenya has a constitutional requirement that no gender should dominate over two-thirds of boardroom seats in state-owned entities while Rwanda has a 30% quota for women in all decision-making bodies. The continent’s largest stock market, South Africa’s JSE, insists that the boards of the companies listed on it must have a policy dealing with diversity.

The case for parity

It is crucial that we build on these example progress to achieve gender parity in our lifetimes. Not only would this empower our continent’s women: our schools, workplaces, communities and economies would also greatly benefit. According to McKinsey, if every African country made as much progress towards gender parity as the region’s leading country, Africa’s GDP would grow by a whopping $316 billion (or 10%) in the period to 2025.

Meaningful progress towards gender equality can only be realized through a whole-of-society approach, with all stakeholders – including the public sector, politicians, nonprofits and the private sector – focusing on the following:

  1. Investing in – and improving – education and healthcare for women: Greater resources needed to be allocated towards ensuring that more girls and young women, including mothers, have access to quality education and healthcare. Sanitary pads and contraception should be freely available
  2. Intentional recruitment and retention: Companies must set targets for recruiting women into male-dominated spheres and ensure inclusive workplaces that enable them to thrive. Both the state and the private sector should offer improved childcare support to make it easier for women to balance careers with child-rearing
  3. Using technology to drive financial inclusion: Subsidized, low-cost smart devices have the potential to make doing business easier for women entrepreneurs through improved communication and access to financial services; the latter should include micro-loans and grants to enable them to grow their businesses and/or gain new skills
  4. Transforming mindsets: Perceptions around gender and the role of women need to evolve; equality as an ethos must be promoted at schools, in the workplace, government and through culture (where public broadcasting has an important role to play). Having women in important positions (including parliament and cabinet, and leading companies) and having pro-equality male role models will also help drive mindset shifts
  5. No more lip service: Gender equality and the rights of women must be protected and promoted through legislation, regulation and policies; these must have teeth and compliance must be monitored and enforced

Ensuring that everyone–regardless of their gender–is able to reach their full potential will boost Africa’s economic development and maximize prosperity and wellbeing for us all. Let’s get to it!