Progress towards gender parity has seen major setbacks in recent years and the risk of further regression is intensifying. The COVID-19 pandemic caused a generational loss, increasing the projected time to reach global gender parity from 100 to 132 years between 2020 and 2022. Women’s rights are under pressure around the world.

Not only are millions of women and girls losing out on access and opportunity, these reversals also have wide-ranging consequences for the global economy. At the same time, women continue to pioneer new firsts, rising to positions of power never previously held by a woman in public and private sector leadership. For the first time, there is at least one woman in every parliament in the world and new research shows that diversity among women MPs is at its highest level ever.

The pandemic increased the projected time to reach global gender parity from 100 to 132 years between 2020 and 2022.

We are living through a time of poly-crisis, marked by high volatility and unprecedented uncertainty. Economic chasms have opened up with a disproportionate impact on women, people of colour, LGBTQI individuals and individuals with disabilities. For intersecting identities across these dimensions, disadvantages are often compounded. At the start of 2023, we see continued and, in some cases, widening exclusion of women from full economic participation as employees, leaders, consumers and suppliers; long-term trends, including technological change and climate change, look set to deepen gender gaps; and a lack of recognition of the value of unpaid work, as well as a highly unequal distribution of care work persist. While technology has seen breakthroughs at unprecedented speed in recent years, access remains highly uneven and innovation is not targeted to resolve today’s biggest challenges or serve all individuals.

Achieving gender parity remains a formidable, multi-dimensional challenge. According to the 2022 Global Gender Gap Report, the two largest gaps remain in the realms of economic opportunity (with 60% of the global gender gap closed) and political empowerment (with only 22% of the gap closed). Where should we concentrate our collective efforts?

Labour force participation

The pandemic years saw significant drops in women’s labour force participation in every region of the world. In particular, women with care responsibilities were among those leaving the labour force and not returning. Global gender parity for labour force participation had been slowly declining since 2009. In 2022, it stood at 62.9%, the lowest level registered since the Global Gender Gap index was first compiled in 2006. Yet, the IMF estimates that increased female labour force participation alone could boost some countries’ economic output by as much as 35%.

Senior leadership

In 2022, women held 33.4% of global senior leadership roles across public and private sectors, marking a steady improvement on previous years and a silver lining for gender parity. The global share of women ministers nearly doubled from 2006 to 2022 and the global share of women in parliament rose from 14.9% in 2006 to 22.9% in 2022.

Some industries where women have been historically underrepresented have been hiring women into leadership roles at an accelerated pace since 2016, including technology, energy and supply chain and transportation; however, this positive change is looking precarious as gains are being reversed in recent months with early data suggesting that tech lay-offs are affecting women disproportionately.

In addition, women are leaving leadership positions at increasing rates, both in industry and politics. The challenge remains to not only create conditions in which women can advance into senior leadership roles, but where they can thrive in such roles. More diverse leadership across stakeholders is key to tackling the current crisis, as the diversity of perspectives has been shown to lead to more fact-based and, therefore, higher-quality decision-making.

Gender pay gaps remain one of the starkest markers of inequity in the current system.

Pay equity

Gender pay gaps remain one of the starkest markers of inequity in the current system. According to the 2022 Global Gender Gap Report, the global gender gap for estimated earned income was approximately 49%, while it was 35% for wage equality for similar work. Across OECD countries, the pay gap stands at 13% for the median earnings of full-time workers. Pay gap reporting and/or auditing by private sector firms, still relatively new measures, are by now mandatory in almost half of OECD countries, yet evidence to date has found small effects at best. More promising examples for scaling are emerging from the forefront of industry action, with individual companies designing ambitious global governance frameworks and automated analytics to close gender pay gaps.

Innovation systems

Women continue to be overlooked in critical parts of the innovation ecosystem. An intention to create more gender-equal innovation systems brings into focus a number of levers to advance gender equality. These include ensuring equitable access to education and training for in-demand STEM skills, equitable access to jobs and leadership opportunities in the industries of the future, fair access to venture capital and, at a more basic level, closing the digital gender divide. Tackling these dimensions is critical to ensuring a fair transition to the green and digital economy, creating products that are gender responsive and serve a wider market, as well as increasing the talent pool, leading to more creative and faster progress in solving the tremendous challenges humanity faces today.

In 2023, gender parity will need to become a central goal of economic policy-making and business strategies.

Care systems

In many countries, care jobs are characterised by low pay and low social mobility and are predominantly filled by women, people of colour and migrant workers. When it comes to unpaid care work, 76% globally is performed by women, often preventing them from taking up paid employment. In economies that measure the value of unpaid care, the sector has been valued to represent a critical share of GDP – ranging between 10 and 39% according to the ILO and this number is set to grow as shifting demographics will increase the demand for care services. Thus, building a well-functioning care economy will positively impact women’s ability to participate in the economy on equal terms and, therefore, contribute to closing gender gaps in workforce participation, pay and leadership.

In 2023, gender parity will need to become a central goal of economic policy-making and business strategies. Focusing efforts on these five dimensions will not only create fairer societies but will be a high-return investment into the future of the global economy and a pre-condition to solving the current crisis.