What does gender mean at the WTO, and who benefits?

Following the World Trade Organisation’s recent Public Forum, Dr Erin Hannah and Dr Silke Trommer reflect on the new focus on gender in global trade and the challenges of addressing it.

by Oct 18, 2017

Opening plenary debate from from WTO Public Forum 2017. © WTO/Jay Louvion

With the Doha Development Round in shambles and hostility towards multilateralism on the rise, this year’s World Trade Organisation (WTO) Public Forum focused on three topics: Micro, Small and Medium-Sized Enterprises (MSMEs), digital economy, and gender and trade. MSMEs, digital economy, and e-commerce have appeared on the fringes of multilateral trade negotiations for a few years now but the gender-trade nexus has scarcely been acknowledged at the WTO.

Yet, this year, gender appeared to be on everyone’s lips. 14 out of 106 sessions taking place at the Public Forum directly addressed gender and trade issues or had a speaker that actively drives the gender and trade agenda. A number of international organisations are building capacity to roll out gender and trade initiatives, such as the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), the World Bank, the International Trade Centre (ITC) and the WTO. And certain national governments such as Canada, the Netherlands and the Nordic countries are aligning their trade and development policies with gender-sensitive priorities.

Gender in the context of global trade governance

Attending this year’s WTO Public Forum, we encountered two broad discourses around the gender and trade agenda. On the one hand, there are those who strive to identify and reduce the differential impacts of trade policies on women. This approach advocates initiatives such as generating gender-disaggregated data and methodological tools for measuring the gender impact of existing and proposed trade policies. Others encourage affirmative action initiatives to connect women to the global economy. Examples include the ITC’s ‘SheTrades’ initiative that aims to connect 1 million women entrepreneurs to the global economy by 2020.

In this pot pourri of initiatives, what it means for trade policy to take its gender implications seriously remains obscured. Moreover, as the above paragraph suggests, to many at this year’s WTO Public Forum, gender meant “women”, and more specifically women in developing countries.

During these discussions, several questions were raised in our minds. First, we are concerned about which women are targeted by the myriad initiatives underway and which are not. More precisely:

Who counts as a woman engaged in global trade?

Do we exclusively target women entrepreneurs, and how are these to be differentiated from non-entrepreneurial women? Do women that work in the household fall inside or outside the purview of these initiatives? How can women in trade initiatives account for and impact the women that work for economic operators engaged in transnational exchanges, including importing and exporting firms, global value chains, export processing zones, sweatshops, forced labour, and modern day slavery? And what about the differential impact of trade on LGBTQ+ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and queer) groups?

What is the point of gender and trade initiatives?

Is the purpose to achieve economic growth and diversification of economies, as International Monetary Fund (IMF) Executive Director Christine Lagarde suggested in the Public Forum opening plenary? Or is it about improving women’s lived experiences in everyday life? And under what conditions are economic growth and gender equality mutually reinforcing? Is the goal to neutralise the gendered nature of international trade or to support and validate the ways in which women trade differently from men? Related to this are the questions of whether gender and trade initiatives should strive to formalize informal economic activities of women and to the benefit of whom. And if trade and gender initiatives strive to bring informal women into the formal economy, where does this leave the work in and around the household that traditionally falls on women, such as care work, child rearing, health care of the elderly?

At this year’s WTO Public Forum, the answer to these questions depended on whom you asked. Yet, amidst the dissonance, what became clear is that inserting meaningful gender sensitivity into the business of the WTO will require a massive paradigm shift and change in thinking. Within the existing WTO legal regime, the benefactors of non-discrimination are commodities and services, and the trigger of discrimination is differential treatment on the basis of national origin. For the gender equality agenda, the benefactors of non-discrimination are different genders, and the triggers of discrimination are social norms about gender hierarchies that are embedded in domestic legal, political, and economic regimes.

Where next for the gender agenda in trade?

If the WTO is to maintain its exclusive focus on the non-discrimination of products and services of different national origin, then we must question whether trade and gender initiatives are better housed elsewhere. If it is to move beyond this paradigm, then we must seriously grapple with how gender, labour, and human rights may be incorporated into the day-to-day work of the WTO. The appointment of a WTO Gender Focal Point to lead the charge—as liaison with other trade and gender initiatives and coordinating the massive task of gathering gender-disaggregated data—is certainly a positive move in this direction. The question remains will it suffice?

The WTO could also look to progressive Free Trade Agreements (FTAs), such as the recently concluded Canada-Chile FTA, for further guidance. The inclusion of a gender chapter is certainly a welcome move and perhaps all that was possible in the given political climate. But it is nowhere near enough. The gender chapter is comprised of a series of best-endeavour clauses that are explicitly excluded from dispute settlement. The Trade and Gender Committee is perhaps the most tangible move, but it too falls short of concrete commitments. Indeed, this is precisely the tried, tested and failed approach to addressing development concerns, since they were first raised in the GATT in the 1950s. Impactful gender sensitive trade policy will require some teeth and addressing the questions outlined above in a meaningful way.

The most effective gender equality policies seem to consist of various forms of positive discrimination in national regulation, such as the gender sensitive domestic services initiative recently proposed by Canada in the context of Trade in Services Agreement (TiSA) negotiations. This is an approach that sits at odds with the WTO’s anti-discrimination stance and one that will need to be teased out if affirmative action is to be successful in international trade.

 But first, we need to think about whether we need coherence in the gender and trade agenda at this early stage or whether we want to encourage diverse initiatives for now. We also need to consider what voices need to be included in this conversation and what the appropriate levels of governance and sites for inter-institutional dialogue are. One way or another, with labour and human rights non-negotiable at the WTO and development priorities gutted from the multilateral agenda, the WTO and its partners have their work cut out for them.


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Take Away 1

Inserting meaningful gender sensitivity into the business of the WTO will require a massive paradigm shift and change in thinking

Take Away 2

The appointment of a WTO Gender Focal Point to lead the charge is a positive, but insufficient move

Take Away 3

Progressive Free Trade Agreements, such as the recently concluded Canada-Chile FTA, provide for guidance, but fall short of concrete commitments

Take Away 4

The most effective gender equality policies seem to consist of various forms of positive discrimination in national regulation, such as the gender sensitive domestic services initiative

Take Away 5

Canada is emerging as an important leader to watch in the gender and trade agenda


Dr Erin Hannah
Dr Erin Hannah is a Senior Fellow at the CIC. She is also Department Chair and Associate Professor of Political Science at King’s University College at the University of Western Ontario, Canada. She is an international political economist specializing in global governance, trade, sustainable development, poverty and inequality, global civil society, and European Union trade politics.

Dr Silke Trommer
Dr Silke Trommer is Lecturer in Politics at the University of Manchester. She currently works on an Australian Research Council-funded project investigating the perspectives of global trade policy communities on trade multilateralism and on austerity protest in the Republic of Ireland.