Achieving gender equality and the economic empowerment of women is both a moral and social imperative — and it's also good business.
A study conducted by the McKinsey Global Institute estimates that, if all countries matched the level of progress toward gender equality of the most advanced country in their region, annual global GDP could increase by up to $12 trillion in 2025.
Over the past two decades, significant progress has been made toward raising living standards and closing the gap between men and women, particularly in health and education. Life expectancy at birth has risen in tandem with reductions in maternal mortality, while differences in access to primary education between boys and girls are diminishing steadily.
These gains — although significant — conceal differences between countries and regions, and are insufficient to ensure equal access to economic opportunities for boys and girls.
In many countries, fewer girls than boys graduate from secondary school, and, in university education, women are underrepresented in engineering, manufacturing, construction and the sciences. This contributes to subsequent gender differences in the areas of employment, productivity and income.
An increasing number of women participate in economic activities in addition to unpaid work in the household. However, there is persistent gender inequality in the workplace, and this is manifest in a number of ways.
Worldwide, women's participation in the workforce fell from 57 percent in 1990 to 55 percent in 2013. There are also major differences between men and women in terms of type of work and income received, as well as in access to finance and technology.
In Costa Rica, women's participation in the labor market has historically been low — even for the Latin America region — hovering at around 50 percent.
Moreover, levels of unemployment have consistently been above average. The percentage of working-age women earning an income is below 40 percent, and poor female heads of household face even tougher conditions.
One important factor in explaining differences in access to economic opportunities is the percentage of time that men and women dedicate to paid work, unpaid work in the household, and leisure.
Women's participation in the labor force is hindered by the skills gap, occupational segregation, a lack of care services for children and the aged, limitations in terms of mobility and transportation, and legal and social restrictions.
Moreover, as entry into the workforce coincides in many societies with decisions regarding marriage and childbearing, women are frequently steered onto a path of low productivity that inhibits subsequent reorientation toward more productive activities.
At the current rate of progress, the World Economic Forum estimates that it will take 118 years to close the gender gap. This underlines the need to act decisively.
Actions should focus on improving human resource endowments, particularly in terms of health, education and social protection.
They should also include the lifting of constraints to provide women with access to more and better jobs, and the elimination of barriers to women's ownership of property and control of assets such as land, housing and technology.
Finally, women's participation in public debate and decision-making needs to be strengthened, alongside support for a reduction in gender-based violence.
This agenda will require the concerted effort of governments, private enterprise, civil society and international organizations. It won't be easy, but it can be done. The reward will be a valuable one: more balanced and prosperous societies in which men and women enjoy better lives.
This post was first published in La Republica.