27 November 2015

This brief note seeks to inform the work of the W20 in expanding women’s economic opportunities. It begins by outlining the origins and objectives of the W20, as recently agreed by the G20, then highlights the key gaps in economic opportunities for women and girls in G20 countries, identifying common challenges as well as distinguishing features and constraints.


Jeni Klugman

Former Associate Fellow, International Economics


Female geologist with colleague studying graphical display of oil and gas bearing rock on screens. Photo: Monty Rakusen/Getty Images.
Female geologist with colleague studying graphical display of oil and gas bearing rock on screens. Photo: Getty Images.


  • Gender equality contributes to strong, sustainable and balanced economic growth. The international community has agreed to achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls as part of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) adopted in September 2015. The G20 countries have committed to ‘women’s full economic and social participation’ (G20, 2012); to reducing the gender gap in participation by 25 per cent by 2025; and to bringing more than 100 million women into the labour force (G20, 2014a). The importance of these challenges led to the creation in early 2015 of the ‘Women 20’ (W20) as an engagement group to support the promotion of gender-inclusive economic growth.
  • Progress towards gender equality at work has been slow. Contrary to conventional wisdom, global rates of female labour force participation have stagnated, or even fallen, in recent decades. The population-weighted G20 average rate of female labour force participation fell from about 58 per cent in 1990 to 54 per cent in 2013.
  • Some G20 countries are especially lagging. Saudi Arabia stands out for having the most barriers to women’s economic opportunities. The country’s rate of female participation in the labour force is the lowest in the G20 and one of the lowest in the world. Some 25 legal differentiations limit Saudi women’s economic opportunities – the highest number of restrictions across 174 economies reviewed by the World Bank in 2014.
  • Meeting the agreed G20 target to close the participation gap will require country-level actions to address gender biases over the life cycle of girls and women, and to remove associated market, legal and institutional barriers.