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Why are women missing from policymaking in trade and what are the consequences?

The almost certainty that a woman is about to be the new Director General of  the World Trade Organization (WTO), does not change the fact that the world of international trade has been very slow in accommodating progress in women’s participation as policy-makers. Over the period of 20 years, female professional staff population at the WTO has increased from 31% in 1995 to 45% in 2016 – that is an increase of just above 0.5% per year. Clearly, much more has to be done for the WTO Secretariat to break the glass ceiling within the organization and its bodies. Only a gender balanced and diverse secretariat can have the know-how to tackle the different needs unique to diverse communities. During the same year (2016), just under 23% of all WTO members’ heads of delegation were women and approximately 21% of WTO observers’ heads of delegations were women. In this case, it becomes important to ask ourselves why are women missing from trade policy-making and what are the  consequences for the international trade regime? 

Uniquely gendered structural mechanisms such as rigid gendered roles and expectations, and pervasive patriarchy in society, prevailing across the globe, prevent women from reaching positions of influence. These structural mechanisms also create multiple restrictions for women especially in terms of their access to education and proper use of their skills. Lack of education also translates to lack of knowledge and awareness on the importance of having female technocrats and policy advisors. Lack of proper use of their skills on the other hand, acts as a discouragement with women being less inclined to enter and pursue high-skill careers and leadership positions. A woman’s role as the primary caregivers and homemakers make it difficult for them to choose between their lives as professionals and as caregivers. This disproportionate choice also drives down their willingness to choose to enter a high-skill, time consuming profession such as decision-makers and policy influencers. The unfair choices provided to women, and the hard-found balance between working and personal life for women, make their presence in most professions dismal.. To represent a member country at the WTO, candidates have to navigate the politically charged competition for the position of Head of Mission. Gendered roles are often reflected in these political competitions where women are either left out completely or not selected  due to the lack of trust in their abilities as decision makers on the basis of their gender. This institutional mindset of stereotyping and bias limits the number of opportunities women are presented with and thus the number of opportunities they have access to. A historical bias of almost never seeing women in the policy-making field, especially as a trade policy influencer/maker (with a female head at the WTO being appointed only now in 2020),  aggravates the problem further, creating the illusion that men are better policy-makers and thus should dominate the field. 

Although it is difficult to estimate the exact effect of missing women from policy-making on trade due to lack of data, the consequences can be significant. Women’s presence in the policy-making sphere is essential since they are the only ones capable of adequately understanding and representing women’s needs and preferences and thus, developing policies that address these concerns. Women’s participation in trade as an economic activity presents them with a set of challenges unique to them and the sphere of trade. For instance, due to their gender, women traders face disproportionately higher trade barriers, such as greater difficulties in complying with regulatory and procedural requirements, poorer access to information and markets, exclusion from male-dominated distribution networks, time and mobility constraints, and higher risk of abuse, including corruption and harassment at the border. Women policy-makers better understand these constraints due to their shared experience of being a woman in a similar professional space. 
As policy-makers then, they are better able to reflect these challenges in their agendas and advocate for change from an actual place of power. Women trade negotiators who reach high levels of responsibility and seniority within global trade negotiation arenas are able to amplify their voices and their authority to articulate trade policies enriched with a gender analysis implemented at national and international levels. Although it is possible that both male and female senior trade negotiators may have an equally robust understanding of the gender dimension of trade policy and negotiations. However, women through their lived experience are more likely to bring to the table these gendered issues and thus more equitable trade outcomes. The fact that women are a disproportionate part of  the forums that typically define and control the global movement of trade is important to note. 
Women’s voices have the potential to change the way communities gain from trade, widening its distributional impact and improving inclusive access to resources. Research shows that when women are involved in decision making and policymaking positions, the policies have better social content and are more forward looking along with a longer-term horizon compared to when they are not involved. When too few women hold political office, political decisions may not adequately reflect women’s needs and preferences. There is evidence that as members of legislative bodies women are more likely to advocate for changes that promote the interests of women, children and families. Thus, women as trade policymakers and negotiators can promote women empowerment through trade with the articulation of women’s perspectives on gender and trade, fostering inclusive growth and progressing priorities in trade important for female economic empowerment, and increase women’s voices and agency to reach gender equality as a norm. 

In this regard, much more needs to be done in order to promote women policymakers and influencers. Member states? need to advocate for the creation of new designations for gender and trade officers within ministries of trade, who are experienced economists with considerable gender training. There are also several other initiatives (such as WomenInARTNeT through ARTNeT), where increasing efforts and resources are being directed to for training future women trade policymakers. Increasing women’s access and awareness of these initiatives would also be an important step towards women taking their rightful seat at the table. 

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