2018 saw the emergence of large social movements and institutional initiatives worldwide that helped give visibility to the different challenges women face in the world today. One of them was 8M (known as the International Women’s Strike), a day devoted, among other things, to recognize the need to end all gender gaps in the labor market and enhance women’s leadership in decision-making in the public and private spheres.

In line with these movements and initiatives, and with the support of the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), the World Economic Forum and the country’s Vice president, Panama launched the Gender Parity Initiative (GPI) in July of last year, a pioneering project where the public and private sector join forces, along with the main multilateral agencies operating in our country.

We spoke with Irene Perurena, Executive Vice President of the City of Knowledge Foundation, about the challenges women face in Panama and about the initiative’s objectives. Perurena leads this initiative at the Foundation at a key moment, as the organization has temporarily assumed the GPI’s Technical Secretariat.

First, can you explain what the GPI is?

Gender Parity Initiatives (GPIs) are high-level public-private alliances, aiming to promote strategies to close the economic gender gaps in the participating countries. Its strategy is centered on three objectives: increase women’s labor participation, make visible and reduce gender wage gaps and promote female participation in leadership positions.

The World Economic Forum (WEF) initiated these in 2012, and Japan, Turkey and the Republic of Korea were the first nations to apply these initiatives. In 2016, the IDB reached an agreement with the WEF to extend this movement to our region and, thus, Chile, Argentina and Panama become pioneers in its implementation in Latin America and the Caribbean. Today, Peru, Colombia, Costa Rica and the Dominican Republic are also launching their own GPIs – taking advantage of the lessons learned from Panama – which shows to what extent the formula has been a success.

What do you think makes the GPI a successful formula?

Three factors, fundamentally. Firstly, the constitution of an alliance where its actors have the capacity to intervene to effectively close the identified gaps. The challenge is great and no single entity, whether it be from the public sector, the private sector or from international cooperation alone, can change the situation by themselves. All parties have to add proposals, perspectives, energy and resources; this common work space is precisely what the GPI offers through the creation of its Leadership Group and Strategic Committee.

The second key factor is knowledge. There can be no transformation unless it begins with a solid diagnosis as starting point, this diagnosis is of initiative’s pillars, upon which we model a shared story and make decisions based on objectivity and truth.

And the third is the participatory construction of a three-year action plan, a plan that must be comprehensive but also concrete, reviewable and with results that can be further measured.

In Panama, who makes up this alliance?

In total, it’s made up of nine public institutions (the country’s Vice-Presidency and Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of Economy and Finance, the Ministry of Labor and Labor Development, INAMU, AMPYME, the Panama Canal Authority, the Superintendence of the Securities Market, SENACYT and INADEH), the leaders of seven business groups or private companies (Grupo Motta, Procter & Gamble, Banistmo, Empresas Bern, Stratego, Tecnasa and Grupo VerdeAzul), five economic and social organizations (CONEP, APEDE, SUMARSE, WCD and City of Knowledge Foundation) and three international organizations (UNDP, UN Women and ILO), in addition to the IDB, of course.

This partnership is, quite possibly, the broadest and most ambitious platform that has been created in the country to work towards genuinely inclusive development.

One aspect where Panama has trailblazed is the fact that the alliance has been made official in the country through the creation of the National Council for Gender Parity, through two Executive Decrees: Decree No. 236 of July 11, 2018 and the Decree No. 624 of October 17, 2018. The latter designates, as of May of the present year, the City of Knowledge Foundation as Technical Secretariat of the GPI and the Council’s, in order to guarantee the continuity of the process in this delicate moment of government transition.

You spoke before of the importance of an action plan, could you tell us what kind of measures are part of Panama’s plan?

Well, I would say that Panama’s plan is the most complete program among those launched in the region, probably due to the extension and depth of the alliance established in the country. It is comprised of 12 measures and 59 actions, ranging from promoting job opportunities for young women and women in conditions of greater vulnerability, to the implementation of equality measures within companies.

The interesting thing is that the Plan for Panama’s GPI has become a platform which, together with new actions, has managed to place under the same “meta-strategy”, the different initiatives that were being implemented by different institutions, promoting better coordination and synergies (for example, the Seal of Equality in Businesses, the International Coalition for Equal Remuneration / EPIC or Law 56, which establishes the participation of women in the boards of state companies and mixed capital corporations).

On the other hand, in Panama we go beyond the initial axes of the GPI (labor participation, equal pay and female participation in decision spaces) to include other issues that we consider vital to achieving the goal of equality (support for entrepreneurship, for example), because without taking them into account, progress would be much slower, as well as more costly and limited.

Does Panama really need to make such an effort? How bad are we in terms of gender equality?

The issue is not whether we are currently bad or not, but that we could and should be much better. In 2017, Panama ranked 43rd out of 144 countries in the gender gap index of the World Economic Forum, but in labor participation we went down to 104. A very worrying fact, although it is also true that the women’s presence in the labor market has experienced a notable increase in recent years.

Let’s not forget that Panama continues to be one of the most unequal countries in the world and that there are still many women facing realities of socio-economic exclusion that are common in African countries. I am referring, for example, to indigenous women, who have a high labor participation rate but who are limited to survival jobs, being practically absent from salaried employment (only 6% have the latter, ten times less than the average for women nationwide). Other groups such as Afro-descendant women, heads of single-parent households, domestic workers, many of those residing in rural areas or teenage mothers, are also affected by labor exclusion.

Why should we get involved in the path towards gender parity as a country?

There are many reasons. For example, achieving gender equality in the labor market would also benefit macroeconomics, given that leveling the participation of men and women would increase our Gross Domestic Product by 21%. The World Bank estimates that this figure at the global level amounts to 28%.

Studies also show that the increase in women’s income has a direct impact on the well-being of their families and communities. Moreover, the country urgently needs to take advantage of the full potential of trained young women who come out of the academic institutions, considering that they are the ones with the most qualified talent. A resource made possible thanks to the effort and funds that we have all invested in their education.

One last widely supported fact: a greater diversity of gender in the business world’s decision-making positions contributes to the improvement of companies’ results.

Speaking of the business sector: can all companies that wish to do so join the GPI?

Of course! An essential factor for this initiative’s progress is extending the partnership. Institutions, companies and people have a role to play so that inclusion, diversity and equality become real. And companies, in particular, are a key player because of their central role in the creation and distribution of opportunities.

For this reason, a campaign has been launched to promote companies to join the GPI, which offers those who decide to join a shared work space to identify their starting point and improve their own situation indicators, exchange experiences and improve their practices.

Lastly … the City of Knowledge Foundation has recently taken over the Technical Secretariat of the GPI, can you explain what this task represents for the institution and what you would like to have achieved when you hand over the responsibility to the authorities designated by the new Government?

Indeed, we temporarily assumed the Technical Secretariat on May 20. This task is a great honor and means a lot to us; moreover, the responsibilities it entails are aligned to the objectives and the nature of the organization.

At the City of Knowledge Foundation, equality between men and women has become, in recent years, an organic commitment of the organization, not only because of the projects that we foster (such as the Women Entrepreneur Network or Canal de Empresarias), but  also because of the commitment we’ve made to promote change from the inside out, whether it be incorporating more women in management bodies, promoting conciliation measures for our staff or setting out to make the City of Knowledge, a city of equality.

Our objective during this period as a Secretariat is that the initiative be consolidated through the joining of new allies and to generate of a greater number of alliances and partnerships that allow us to advance further in this path to equality.

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