Number five of the UN’s 17 interlinked Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) is the ambition to “achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls”.

The deadline is 2030, but, according to the World Economic Forum’s (WEF) annual Gender Gap Report for 2020, if progress continues at the current pace, it will take 257 years to close the economic participation gender gap. Urgent action is clearly required.

The UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) 2020 IPA Observer report reveals that agencies are increasingly integrating gender equality and women’s empowerment in their work in two ways: ensuring foreign companies’ operations have a positive impact on gender equality in the host country and promoting gender parity within the agency itself.

So why is gender equality such a hot topic for IPAs (investment promotion agencies) and investors alike?

For a start, it is getting difficult to ignore the growing evidence that progress in this area drives national economic objectives – from job creation to achieving sustainable development.

Then, of course, there are the diversity and inclusion targets that multinational enterprises (MNEs) are under increasing pressure to meet. In fact, UNCTAD reports that today approximately 70% of the world’s 5,000 largest MNEs report their progress in this area.

The role of IPAs in realising SDG 5

Costa Rica’s Investment Promotion Agency (CINDE) has worked hard to position gender equality as a core value in the country’s economic agenda. The agency’s ambitious goal is for 50% of employment generated by companies attracted by the IPA to go to women.

Of the 15,000 new jobs created in 2020, an impressive 49% were held by women. Female employment makes up 44% of the companies supported by CINDE, compared with 40% of the national workforce.

It is hardly surprising, then, that Costa Rica ranked 13th globally out of 153 countries in the WEF’s 2020 annual Gender Gap Report, beating both the UK and the US, which came in at 21 and 53, respectively. Since the study’s inception in 2006, the country has climbed 17 places.

Such efforts are gaining increasing international attention. Last December, UNCTAD awarded CINDE a special recognition for its efforts to prioritise gender equality in investment promotion.

“In partnership with the vice-president of Costa Rica, we are part of the commission that is currently working on the creation of a national agenda,” explains CINDE’s leader for strategic projects of investment climate Paola Bulgarelli. “We are working with companies not only to implement actions but to create the measurements, mechanisms and tools to really prove that the actions we are taking are closing the gender gap.”

This comprehensive gender strategy focuses on three key areas. To begin with, the agency is keen to support multinationals in facilitating more inclusive hiring practices.

“One of the first things we did was to really understand the unconscious biases – what are the things that as human beings do not allow us to hire a woman,” explains Bulgarelli. After educating companies on this topic, the agency helped to develop recruitment processes and training opportunities to encourage female participation.

CINDE has also made it a top priority to strengthen the local talent pool, going beyond the city’s metropolitan area to carry out reskilling and capacity-building initiatives in rural areas where women are disproportionately affected by unemployment.

Finally, the agency is putting a concerted effort into bolstering data and reporting mechanisms on gender equality which, in turn, will contribute to a better understanding of the causes of the gender gap and enable evidence-based policy measures to rectify it.

Tackling the technical gender gap

In 2016, SYKES Costa Rica – a global provider of technical support outsourcing – launched ‘SYKES Women in Technology’.

“The programme promotes and facilitates inclusion of women in technical accounts where female participation had been traditionally low,” explains SYKES corporate affairs director Roy Mena. “It also provides scholarships [at SYKES Tech Academy] to female collaborators from non-technical accounts to develop the necessary skills to opt for technical positions within the organisation.”

Mena and his colleagues set the ambitious goal of tripling women’s participation in technical accounts from the relatively low 13.5% it was back in 2016, to 40% by 2021.

The programme has been a resounding success. By 2020, enrolment at SYKES Tech Academy increased tenfold from 30 to 350 women per academic quarter, reaching 45% of the total enrolment. Furthermore, SYKES has managed to promote around 300 women to technical roles since the programme began, amounting to 26% of its technical positions.

Resetting the gender agenda

However, amid the progress, dangers remain. According to a recent study by McKinsey & Company, globally women are around 1.8 times more likely to lose their job due to Covid-19 than men. This stark figure is indicative of the threat the pandemic poses to existing advancements towards gender equality.

There is, however, an opportunity for a strategic reset in response to the crisis. Investors can contribute to a sustainable economic recovery, especially if they are willing to place gender equality at the heart of their FDI commitments.

In September 2020, Costa Rica launched the ‘Gender Parity Initiative’ to reduce the wage gap and increase female participation in the labour market. CINDE will be part of the committee working on the project, which will run for at least three years.

Among its priorities, the initiative will support the strengthening of skills for women, with special attention paid to those that have lost their income due to the pandemic. Decisive action like this – at a time when progress towards parity hangs in the balance – demonstrates Costa Rica’s steadfast commitment to closing the gender gap.

The business case for prioritising gender equality has never been clearer. Success depends upon buy-in from multiple stakeholders and collaboration with various parties. Those that enable and accelerate progress are increasingly being recognised as partners of choice.