By Kai Curry
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
“Rectifying the inequities that exist between women and men has been my calling throughout my career and it’s been, as a result, not so much just a profession, but a passion,” said Ambassador-at-Large Geeta Rao Gupta, who was in town Aug. 17-20 to participate in the Women and the Economy Forum (WEF), held at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Economic Leaders’ Meeting in Seattle. Both events were historic—APEC’s meeting because Seattle held the first exactly 10 years ago; WEF because it was only the second since its launch by former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in 2011. Like everything, including the rights of women, the pandemic set us back. Gupta acknowledged some “backsliding” around the world in terms of the equity and rights of women, such as the need for so many women to leave their jobs during the COVID-19 lockdowns in order to care for their families. “It’s not the first time,” said Gupta, who encourages her colleagues to “hold onto hope that even this is temporary.”
Gupta spent formative years in Delhi, India, where she “was exposed to many of the…indignities women faced in terms of lack of access to jobs and economic opportunities, but also…gender-based violence in private spaces and public spaces.” This “ignited a fire” that she then acted upon. Gupta grew up in a progressive family (“I’m a third generation working woman”) and came to the U.S. when she was 30. She was thrilled when she got the call from the State Department to fill this position because “the mandate of the office matches exactly where my passion lies. They have three big ‘pillows’ of work—women’s economic security and opportunity, gender-based violence, and women’s peace and [physical] security.”
In its position as a “gateway to the Pacific” Seattle has an important role to play not only in Asian Pacific regional economics and security but also in the areas of inclusion and diversity. “Washington state and Seattle have always been at the center of U.S. engagement with the Asia-Pacific region,” said the U.S. State Department press release announcing the decision to hold the meeting in Seattle. The press release cited that “all of the state’s top five export and import markets are APEC members,” and explained that hosting the meeting in Seattle would showcase “U.S. economic leadership, particularly on economic inclusion, given the large, diverse, and dynamic Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander population in the region.”
Multiple sessions at WEF focused on “[the] gender/climate nexus and building resilient communities…digital inclusion and innovation…care economy, and…equity and equality in global value chains,” an Aug. 17 press release detailed. Gupta was scheduled to deliver remarks on “Innovations in Care,” “Climate Change and Women’s Health,” and “Indigenous Women, Food Security, and Climate Change.” The ambassador has an impressive history of advocating for women (she told the Weekly that the definition of “women” or “females” is inclusive. “The U.S. government does promote the rights of LGBTQIA+ individuals and makes an effort to make sure that all voices are heard, and that all women in all their diversity have an opportunity to participate,” she said. Prior to her current appointment, she was senior fellow at the United Nations Foundation, and founded the 3D Program for Girls and Women. She has served as deputy executive director of Programmes at UNICEF and was a senior fellow at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Before these, Gupta was president of the International Center for Research on Women for more than a decade. Suffice it to say that when it comes to women’s rights and opportunities worldwide, she is a leading authority.
In spite of COVID-19 setbacks, Gupta believes that the Asian Pacific region has come a long way in terms of women’s equity and opportunity since she graduated from college in 1975—the international year of the woman. At that time, there existed “significant gaps” in education for women and girls, “maternal mortality was sky-high, women in managerial positions, leadership positions, was really low, and so women’s governance and representation in political positions was [also] very low.” Gupta is pleased to see more women in the workforce today, though the numbers are still unequal to the number of men and women’s pay and job conditions are often lower and less secure, respectively. What she thinks is important is that the tracking of indicators of the status of women has been given greater priority.
“Evidence has established a link between women’s empowerment politically, socially, and economically…Those linkages make it very hard to argue against making the right investments in women.”
In other words, even though we might clearly see the inequities around us with our own eyes, without evidence on paper, many will not believe and take action.
“I was fortunate to live in a country where there were some very powerful women leaders and women researchers, advocates, and activists who used evidence to make the case for filling the gaps…and for bridging those divides. I could see the power of evidence to do that,” Gupta said.
In January 2023, Gupta’s Office of Global Women’s Issues released the first-ever “Strategy on Global Women’s Economic Security,” which the ambassador referenced as a recent major achievement for women. This strategy, she said, “lays out the blueprint” for what needs to be done so that women and girls can “fully, meaningfully, and equally contribute to, and benefit from, economic growth and global prosperity,” explained the Office’s official report.
Gupta also mentioned WISE (Women Investing for a Sustainable Economy), which is “trying to get more women into green and blue jobs” and has chapters in the U.S., Canada, and England. In addition, she highlighted the efforts of the Biden-Harris administration to level the playing field in the digital economy, globally, and specifically in Africa at this time.
The ambassador had recently returned from G20 meetings in India, which “also focused on women’s economic empowerment in a big way,” she said.
“What was interesting is that they have framed it now not just as ‘women and the economy’ or ‘women’s development,’ but they called it ‘women-led development.’ …[It was] really a pleasure to participate there and to see how much synchronicity there is across the countries that participated.”
According to Gupta, issues impacting women are actionable, and therefore they can be changed, especially if governments act as role models by promoting and initiating policies that benefit women—and by extension, men and society at large.
“Investments in women have enormous positive benefits for all. It’s not a zero-sum game and so when men in power realize that…things begin to change.”
Gupta closed her interview with the Weekly with an emphatic statement about Seattle’s placement in regard to Asia and the Pacific.
“Seattle…has a huge role to play because the diaspora here can be voices for and can influence policy change in the region.” As she concluded, holding the WEF and the APEC meeting in Seattle was “very meaningful.”
Kai can be reached at email@example.com.