Remarks by ABAC Chair Rachel Taulelei to the APEC Women and Economy Forum, 24 September 2021

by | Sep 25, 2021 | Trade In The News






Tēnā koutou katoa, and thank you for the opportunity to address the Women and the Economy Forum. 

Our theme in ABAC this year is “People, Place and Prosperity”, or “Tāngata, Taiao me te Taurikura” in te reo Māori, the Māori language.

Central to this is the idea that the needs and interests of our people must be at the heart of everything we do.

And the need is pressing, when it comes to women. The first year of the pandemic knocked 54 million women out of work around the world.[1]

In New Zealand, 11,000 people lost their jobs between March and August last year.  10,000 of those were women.[2]

This year, only 43 percent of the world’s women will be employed, compared to 69 percent of men.[3] 

And the International Labour Organisation also predicts that fewer women will regain jobs during the COVID-19 recovery than men. 

That is an especially dismal reality when seen in the context of the gender divide that already existed. 

To put it bluntly, business as usual is not working for women.

Gender inclusion will be critical to our rebuilding efforts, and to sustained prosperity. 

ABAC’s priorities

ABAC sees three priorities in this important effort. 

It is very positive to see that these align closely with the Ministerial Statement.

First, economies urgently need to strengthen support mechanisms to enable women to survive and prosper in the “new normal”.  

Working from home is likely to remain a reality for many – very often leaving women trying to juggle paid work and look after children simultaneously.  We are literally asking women to be in two places at once.

For others, on the frontlines of in-person work, the challenge is even greater.  Ongoing closures in education and childcare makes earning a living out of the home virtually impossible.

Both of these scenarios are profoundly difficult, and risk leaving a legacy of disadvantage and impoverishment for generations.

Policymakers must recognise this new reality and reflect it in support structures – for childcare and education, to mitigate financial stress, to tackle family violence, and to get women back into work if they have lost their jobs.

Without this, it is hard to see women even getting back to the pre-pandemic starting-line, let alone building momentum for real change.

Why should we bother?

Because achieving greater gender equality is not just the right thing to do, it is also the smart thing to do.

Prior to the pandemic, improved gender equality was predicted to add $12 to 28 trillion to Asia-Pacific GDP in the next few years.[1]   

We are leaving money on the table if we do not do what we can to create both equality and equity through targeted structural reform.  

So this is the second major priority for ABAC: accelerating the implementation of the La Serena Roadmap.

It is encouraging to see the progress that economies are making on implementation.

But more needs to be done on leadership, on training and skills development, on access to markets and trade, and on financing.

Let me touch briefly on those points.

First, across the region, gender gaps stubbornly persist not just in labour force participation but also in women’s representation in senior managerial and governance positions.  

While some APEC economies are doing better than average, others are still down at the bottom of the league table.[1] 

The metrics do not even exist when it comes to Indigenous women in corporate leadership positions – but I would be surprised if we could collectively name more than a handful.

We can do better, both in tackling the structural biases that underpin this, and in the determined efforts of the public and private sector to effect real change. 

Just hoping for the best is not getting the job done.

Second, on access to markets.  Prior to COVID, it was estimated that only one in five exporting firms was led by a woman.[2]   That metric is probably even worse now, given the punishing impacts of the pandemic on smaller businesses.   

Exporting firms create more jobs for women, and pay them better.  Trade can itself play a role in achieving greater gender equality, as a recent WTO and World Bank study shows.[3]

In other words, as we seek to revitalise both trade and growth, enabling women to be more successful in trade is a no-brainer. 

What will help? First, getting rid of trade barriers, especially in services and other sectors where women are over-represented, and where the Bogor Goals remain ‘unfinished business’.

We also need to equip women-led businesses to take advantage of those new opportunities.  That points to building skills and enabling connectivity. 

One of ABAC’s recommendations this year is that APEC economies should revitalise and resource the APEC MSME Marketplace to make it a truly useful tool for small businesses to stay informed and connect to other businesses and customers.  It falls woefully short of that right now but could be a key plank in our rebuilding effort. Third, on access to financing.   We commissioned a study a few years ago from the University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business to look at enabling MSMEs.[4]  It highlighted the importance of firms being able to get hold of the capital they need to start, operate, scale and trade.

More recent research confirms that women-led businesses continue to struggle relative to businesses led by men, with only 18 percent of women-led firms in one study receiving sufficient trade finance.[1]

In effect, women are not competing on a level playing field.   We can do better here, including by using innovative tools like fintech.

That brings me to the third major priority for ABAC: the digital economy.

One of the major findings of that Marshall School research I mentioned was that digital was the largest potential enabler of women-led small businesses.

Women can use digital technologies to circumvent many of the challenges they typically face, including cultural biases, gender-based violence, and challenges around accessing finance, networks and customers.

That was before the pandemic.  The case is even more compelling now.

It has been estimated that COVID has accelerated the digitalisation of businesses and the broader economy in our region by a decade.[2]

Women workers and women business leaders will need new skills and capabilities for this new digital landscape.

Unfortunately, however, women face a digital gender divide – with less access to digital infrastructure and tools, less exposure to STEM education, and fewer digital skills.

Targeted digital training that is accessible and fit-for-purpose will help create new opportunities.

That is why ABAC is recommending that APEC economies develop a new digital ‘one stop shop’ platform to enable MSMES to access the best that the region can offer in digital education and advice.  It can help to get all businesses, but importantly also women-led businesses, the skills they need.


There is a whakataukī or Maori proverb, which goes,

He rau ringa e oti ai In English – many hands make light work.    This transformation will not necessarily be easy, but if we are to succeed, we need everyone to pull together: men and women, policymakers


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