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McKinsey Global Institute

The power of parity: Advancing women’s equality in Africa

Gender inequality in Africa remains high, and progress toward gender parity has stagnated. This is a large missed opportunity for African societies and for the continent’s growth prospects.

Africa has so much promise. The continent is home to some of the world’s fastest growing economies and offers an exciting frontier for businesses looking for growth and new markets. And yet, persistent gender inequality is limiting its potential. Pockets of good news do exist, but they tend to be success stories for women at the top of the pyramid, but not for millions of ordinary African women. Because of the failure to embrace gender diversity, millions of women and Africa’s overall social and economic progress will not reach their full potential.

If Africa steps up its efforts now to close gender gaps, it can secure a substantial growth dividend in the process. Accelerating progress toward parity could boost African economies by the equivalent of 10 percent of their collective GDP by 2025, new research from the McKinsey Global Institute finds.

This report explores the “power of parity” for Africa, looking at the potential boost to economic growth that could come from accelerating progress toward gender equality. It builds on MGI’s global research on this topic since 2015 and further develops the thinking contained in McKinsey’s long-established research on women in leadership roles and, in particular, its report Women Matter Africa published in 2016.

Part 1

Progress toward gender parity in Africa has stalled—a missed growth opportunity

Although some African countries have made tremendous progress driving toward gender parity in some areas, gender inequality remains high across the continent. Women account for more than 50 percent of Africa’s combined population, but in 2018 generated only 33 percent of the continent’s collective GDP. This reinforces and fuels inequality and compromises Africa’s long-term economic health.

Overall, progress toward gender equality has stalled over the past four years. At the current rate of progress, it would take Africa more than 140 years to reach gender parity. On MGI’s Gender Parity Score or GPS—a measure of progress toward equality—Africa scores 0.58 in 2019, indicating high gender inequality across the 15 GPS indicators of gender equality in work and society.

At the current rate of progress, it would take Africa more than 140 years to reach gender parity.

The GPS weights each indicator equally and calculates an aggregate measure at the country level of how close women are to gender parity where a GPS of 1.00 indicates parity; a GPS of 0.95, as illustration, indicates that a country has 5 percent to go before attaining parity. For most indicators, low inequality is defined as being within 5 percent of parity, medium between 5 and 25 percent, high between 25 and 50 percent, and extremely high as greater than 50 percent from parity. Most indicators of gender inequality are measured as female-to-male ratios ranging from zero to 1. Data for 2015 are taken from end-2014 and data for 2019 are taken from end-2018.

Africa’s GPS for 2019 is the same as four years previously. Across Africa, the only indicators on which there has been progress—in aggregate—are legal protection and political representation. All other indicators have stayed the same or even regressed in some countries.

The journey toward parity differs substantially among African countries. South Africa has the highest GPS at 0.76, indicating medium gender inequality. Mauritania, Mali, and Niger have the lowest scores at 0.46, 0.46, and 0.45, respectively (extremely high inequality).

Although the overall picture is one of stagnation or even reversals in the journey toward parity, some countries have shown remarkable improvement on some indicators. For instance, Rwanda and South Africa have increased women’s representation in middle-management roles by 27 percent and 15 percent, respectively. Algeria has cut maternal mortality rates by around 9 percent. Egypt has tripled its score, and Guinea and Liberia doubled their scores on legal protection of women. These examples of rapid progress should inspire others to forge ahead with actions to advance gender equality.

Advancing women’s equality can deliver a significant growth dividend. In a realistic “best-in-region” scenario in which the progress of each country in Africa matches the country in the region that has shown most progress toward gender parity, the continent could add $316 billion or 10 percent to GDP in the period to 2025 (Exhibit 1).

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Part 2

On gender equality in work, Africa’s progress is similar to other regions, largely due to high women’s labor-market participation

Africa’s overall progress toward gender equality at work is similar to that of other regions (Exhibit 2). This is largely because women’s labor-market participation is high in Africa. The GPS for women’s labor-force participation is 0.76—denoting medium gender inequality—whereas the global average is 0.64 or high gender inequality. Africa’s female participation is roughly on a par with that of China, Eastern Europe and Central Asia, North America and Oceania, and Western Europe. However, most African women work in low-paid, often subsistence, jobs in the informal economy.

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In the formal economy, Africa has made notable advances on getting more women into executive committees and board positions. Africa has the highest female representation at the board level of any region at 25 percent against a global average of 17 percent and marginally higher than average representation on executive committees at 22 percent. Nevertheless, Africa’s GPS on women in leadership positions—which includes top and middle-management positions—is still only 0.33, a little below the global average of 0.37.

Since 2015, progress on increasing women’s presence in middle-management roles has gone backward—on average across Africa by around 1 percent a year.

Since 2015, progress on increasing women’s presence in middle-management roles has gone backward—on average across Africa by around 1 percent a year. In North Africa, only 9 percent of women attain middle-management roles despite the fact that they account for 53 percent of the population completing tertiary education. Too few African women make it into high-quality professional and technical jobs.

We analyzed the “funnel” toward senior leadership in business (this does not include women working in the home and in the informal economy) at five stages: education, tertiary education, formal jobs, middle-management roles, and top leadership roles. The results indicate that even for the small proportion of women in formal employment in Africa, there is a significant drop of nearly 50 percent of the share of women in entry-level positions to those in top leadership roles.

Part 3

Africa lags behind other regions on progress toward gender equality in society

Africa lags behind other regions on progress toward gender equality in society. MGI looks at three elements: essential services and enablers of economic opportunity, legal protection and political voice, and physical security and autonomy (Exhibit 3).

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Africa has the highest average maternal mortality rate of any region at four times the global average. In Burundi, Liberia, and Nigeria, the maternal mortality rate is seven times that average. Women’s education, and financial and digital inclusion are also below the world average, and have declined over the past four years. On education, Africa as a whole has a female-to-male ratio of 0.76 on the level of women’s education, the lowest GPS of any region in the world. One bright spot has been some progress on women’s political representation, but even here inequality remains extremely high. Violence against women is a global scourge, but Africa’s record is worse than the worldwide average.

In 34 of 91 countries MGI studied in 2015, women faced high to extremely high gender inequality on financial inclusion.

One key to unlocking economic opportunities for women is ensuring that they have access to finance. However, in 34 of 91 countries MGI studied in 2015, women faced high to extremely high gender inequality on financial inclusion, and Africa was one of the regions facing the biggest challenges on this front. Additionally, over the last four years, their access has declined.

Another increasingly important gateway to economic opportunity is access to digital technologies. Africa’s progress toward parity on digital inclusion is not far below the global average (0.81 female-to-male digital inclusion ratio vs. 0.86 globally), but that progress has stagnated. The continent still has the second largest gender gap in mobile ownership at 15 percent and only one woman out of three has access to the mobile internet in Sub-Saharan Africa compared with one man in two.

Some African countries have made some progress on getting women into parliamentary and ministerial roles in politics, but even here gender inequality remains extremely high as it is around the world.

The picture is not a uniform one. For instance, countries in Southern Africa perform relatively well on women’s education while West and Central African countries underperform. Southern and East African countries have low incidence of child marriage, but child marriage remains prevalent in West and Central Africa.

Part 4

To achieve new impetus toward gender parity, all stakeholders need to act in five priority areas

Africa needs new impetus in its journey toward gender parity. Making progress on any single indicator of gender inequality is likely to require systematic action on a range of indicators by governments, companies, communities, and individual men and women.

Successful programs have a number of common elements. First, they address deep-rooted attitudes about and behavior toward women. Second, programs are designed to achieve sustained impact. Third, they work with women as partners to identify issues and engage the most appropriate stakeholders who can be male or female but need to be effective agents of change. Finally, successful programs incorporate monitoring and evaluation to track progress and provide information that can drive accountability and commitment to goals.

Interventions in five priority areas could be the core of an effective agenda for change (Exhibit 4).

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1. Invest in human capital

Human capital plays a vital role in driving sustained economic growth and boosting productivity, and it is imperative that countries invest sufficient resources to improve the skills, experience, resilience, and knowledge of their citizens. If there were to be more investment in women, they could make a higher contribution to Africa’s GDP. There are many dimensions to the development of human capital. We focus on four dimensions that are necessary to ensure that human capital is effective: educating the girl child by funding and creating an enabling environment; raising women’s skills for the future world of work; equipping women by enhancing their financial, digital, and legal literacy; and deploying funds effectively to build accessible, appropriate, and affordable healthcare systems.

2. Create economic opportunities

Creating pathways for African women—the vast majority who work informally—into better-paid and more fulfilling jobs is a major priority.

Women need economic opportunities if countries are to realize the full potential of their human capital. Creating pathways for African women—the vast majority of whom work informally—into better-paid and more fulfilling jobs is a major priority. This outcome could be achieved by improving the quality of jobs in the informal sector or by enabling women to leave informal work and find improved working prospects in the formal sector. We focus on interventions in the formal sector; company’s leaders propelling change from the top with a clear strategy and targets; putting in place a positive, inclusive, and supportive environment; unlocking opportunities for women-owned businesses; and developing public and household infrastructure.

3. Leverage technology

Digital and internet technology is spreading throughout Africa and can be the lever that opens many doors to women, helping to overcome current challenges on a number of indicators of gender equality. Many applications of these technologies apply to both men and women, but the onus is on providers to ensure that they are designed with a gender lens so that women can take full advantage of them. Priorities include creating women-friendly products to drive digital inclusion; and spreading the use of digital to raise financial inclusion and empower female entrepreneurs.

4. Shape attitudes

Arguably any drive toward gender parity in Africa starts with efforts to change entrenched and widespread attitudes about women’s role in society, an extremely difficult and complex challenge that will require all stakeholders to play a part that is sustained over the long term. Even if women are enabled to undertake paid work through, for instance, the provision of flexible working practices and governmental policies in favor of maternity and paternity leave, women will continue to undertake the largest share of unpaid care work in the home if societal views don’t shift. The same is true for violence against women—without a change of attitudes, it will remain a scourge in Africa and in countries around the world. Campaigns that raise awareness and advocacy are key components of efforts to shift societal attitudes. In all cases, these efforts need to be supported by effective monitoring and evaluation. Enlisting male champions is another priority.

5. Enforce laws, policies, and regulations

Africa needs to ensure that—across the continent—women’s rights are enshrined in law and enforced by authorities. Many African countries sign up to international or regional treaties, but do not implement them. Governments need to institute and enforce legal rights, and put in place enabling policies and regulations that drive progress toward gender equality.

Africa needs new impetus in its journey toward gender parity requiring systematic action by governments, companies, communities, and individual men and women.

Download The power of parity: Advancing women’s equality in Africa, the full report on which this article is based (PDF–1MB).

About the author(s)

Lohini Moodley is a partner in McKinsey’s Addis Ababa office; Mayowa Kuyoro and Folakemi Akintayo are consultants in the Lagos office; Tania Holt is a partner in the London office; Acha Leke is a McKinsey senior partner in Johannesburg, chairman of McKinsey’s Africa region, and a member of the McKinsey Global Institute Council; and Anu Madgavkar is a partner of the McKinsey Global Institute, where Mekala Krishnan is a senior fellow.

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