Indonesia’s hosting of the G20 offers transformative potential for advancing issues of gender equality and women’s economic empowerment on the global stage.

Gender equality and women’s empowerment have been prominent themes of Indonesia’s G20 platform, since the nation took on the G20 presidency in December 2021.  Opening the first G20 Sherpa’s meeting in December 2021, Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi called on all G20 officials to ‘produce concrete solutions’, for the benefit for all parties, both east-west and north-south. It is a point that offers much-needed optimism for the representatives of the W20 engagement group.

Just 8 years ago, during the 2014 Brisbane G20 Summit, leaders explicitly acknowledged the need for gender-inclusive economic growth. The acknowledgement reflected years of tireless civil society advocacy. It also reflected Australia’s serious engagement of civil society interests within the G20 process. More importantly, it prompted a shared and enduring commitment to lift women’s participation in the workforce 25 percent by 2025. And it laid the foundation for the establishment of the ‘W20’—as an official G20 engagement group tasked with advancing the economic empowerment of women—during Turkey’s G20 presidency in the following year.

Together these initiatives signalled the recognition of women as critical economic actors in economic governance and not merely as unrealised economic assets. Taken at face value they suggested the arrival of a new model of agency for women, traditionally excluded from economic decision-making, and reflected the emergence of feminist perspectives within the contemporary structures and processes of global economic governance.

It is fitting that these initiatives be attributed to the G20. As an informal and somewhat eclectic institution, the G20 breaks from some of the traditional conventions of global economic governance. Firstly, by bringing leaders from the global north together with those from the global south it shifts the agenda and interests at play. Secondly, by integrating other multilateral institutions, like the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the International Labour Organisation (ILO), and United Nations (UN), into its agenda, it offers potential for coherence in long-term policy-making. Thirdly, by involving non-official publics from across business, labour unions, and civil society, it involves ordinary people in the development of global economic policy, thus underscoring its wider ambition to ensure the benefits of globalisation are shared by people in all corners of the globe.

W20 achievements

There is no question that the W20 has brought greater visibility of the gendered nature of economic development to the global stage. In addition to the mainstreaming of gender into a suite of economic policy issues, the W20 has ensured global leaders, sometimes the most unlikely of advocates, have had to consider and commit to fundamental issues of gender equality.

One just has to look to the Leaders’ Communiqués to see evidence of this shift.[1] For example, the Communiqué under Turkey’s presidency in 2015 included just one mention of gender and one specific reference to women. Two years later, the Hamburg Communiqué is notable for its extensive focus on women’s economic empowerment, with 30 gender-related commitments aimed at supporting women’s economic status globally. The 2021 Communiqué produced under Italy’s leadership included 28 instances of gender-specific language.

And it is also worth noting that on the issues of gender equality the language of the G20 Communiqués has evolved to become clearer and more direct. There are compelling arguments to suggest that more complex texts produced through international negotiation reflect a lack of consensus, and point to implementation challenges. When it comes to the G20, clearer language on gender equality might be taken as a sign of greater political consensus.

But it is also worthwhile noting some points of caution. First, while issues related to women may attract more Communiqué real estate each year, it’s important to critique the substance. On closer examination, it becomes clear that certain issues get greater and more regular attention than others. For example, through the past six Communiqués Leaders have committed to ‘support’ (2016, 2017) ‘better engage with’ (2018), ‘foster’ (2019) ‘remove barriers’ (2020), and ‘promote’ (2021) women’s entrepreneurship (an important element of economic empowerment). However other issues, such as dealing with the domestic and social divisions of unpaid labour and care work’, or addressing issues of domestic violence get less attention.

There is still some way to go to ensure that less politically palatable, but nonetheless systemic issues related to gender inequality, discrimination and violence are addressed. The effect is to demonstrate that women’s contribution is valued and not merely from the perspective of ‘unrealised economic assets’. Second on the issue of language, while the leaders’ statements do require a level of simplicity, let’s not shy away from the complexity of the issues at hand. Our shared endeavour is to unsettle the status quo, and grappling with the complexity presented is to some degree the only way to achieve this.

Where are the women?

While the W20 has achieved some notable progress, there is reason for a cautious pause. In 2021 only 3 of those attending the G20 as representatives of the member state[2] were women.[3] 

The figure for finance ministers, central bank governors and ‘sherpas’ is similarly disheartening, with roughly 8 women holding key roles across the 60 positions allocated across the G20 membership. Each year, the official G20 photos offer a stark and ongoing reminder that women are missing from significant G20 leadership and decision-making roles.

For me this reflects two core problems. Firstly that the structures of the G20 continue to preserve the status quo, rather than delivering the step change for women that they have promised. Female voices are as the B20 (2021) documented ‘conspicuous by their absence’. Secondly, the G20 has not, as yet, developed a sufficiently coherent narrative to secure wider public buy-in for its inclusive economic governance agenda. These issues remain somewhat on the margins of relevance.

And there are broader issues at play. Despite some positive movement on labour participation,  women across the G20 nations continue to hold a worse economic position than men. Globally, women’s economic positioning has not only stalled but is moving backward.  Current trajectories suggest that gender parity is about two hundred years away. Women continue to be excluded from access to land and homeownership, legal identity, paid work, bank accounts, capital, smartphones, and education. Moreover, women and girls continue to be the subject of exploitation, harassment and violence at home and in the workplace. Just looking at the latest data from the Gender Inequality Index (2020), it is telling that only 5 of the G20 member states actually rate in the top twenty when it comes to equal delivery on human development equality measures.[4]

It remains an uncomfortable reality for many of us that the gap between the political rhetoric of G20 elites and the reality faced by ordinary women around the world is chasmic. It’s a gap that has only been accentuated by Covid-19.

Opportunities ahead

So where does this leave us? This paper puts forward four key recommendations for the year and decade ahead.

Firstly, the W20 should advocate for a global strategy for gender equality, and one that brings key G20 institutions and engagement groups in line to combat gender inequality and under-representation. Moreover, such a strategy should capture, communicate and realise a coherent vision for women’s equality and empowerment across the globe

Secondly, the W20 does not operate in a vacuum. It must engage and mobilise networks of influence. When established in 2015 it joined the ranks of other G20 engagement/outreach groups, including the Business 20 (B20), Civil society 20 (C20), Labour 20 (L20), Think-tanks 20 (T20), Youth 20 (Y20) and the not-formally-recognised Girls 20.[5]

Unsurprisingly, it seems that these groups work mostly in parallel universes, absorbed by their respective priorities and crowded calendars. But the issues associated with women’s economic empowerment are fundamental to all. We need to more actively engage and partner with each other—nationally and at a global level—to build a coherent agenda for concrete reform

Thirdly, take concrete steps towards the development of a W20 Knowledge Hub. While positive progress is made through the W20 agenda from year to year, it is still an agenda that is driven by the proclivities of each G20 president in response to an array of political dynamics, both at home and on the global stage. It can be therefore underscored by a contradictory mix of ambition and incoherence. At the same time, there is a danger that the W20 dialogues simply revisit or recycle many of the same conversations and initiatives, ultimately to the detriment of forward action.

There is real potential to build strategic knowledge partnerships with global and regional multilateral organisations, universities, private sector contributors that support more coherent, evidence-based outcomes and enable the sharing of good practice.  

Finally, we must hold leaders to account. Since its inception that W20 has demonstrated an ability to raise awareness of the significance of women’s economic empowerment. Yet each year we wonder how to make the case to leaders, and whether and how they respond to the issues raised. For too many leaders, G20 sherpas and ministers –gender equality and women’s economic empowerment remains a secondary issue. It’s time to hold them to account, not just for the commitments they make, but for their compliance in taking those commitments forward.


The G20 offers a critical space for a more inclusive representation of women and lifting global aspirations and delivering concrete actions to advance women’s economic empowerment for the betterment of all of us.

Active policies to promote gender inclusiveness are critical to building more robust, sustainable, resilient and inclusive economies around the world. But policies alone are ineffective if they exist in a fragmented and ad hoc system. From a feminist perspective, the G20 offers the potential as an effective mechanism for countering persistent governance gaps related to women’s economic empowerment to ensure the effective implementation of gender-inclusive growth. 

It is clear that taking women’s economic empowerment forward is a whole of society imperative. It demands the attention, resources and investment from across public, private and civil society, and requires us to work locally, regionally and globally to advance our aims. No easy feat. Yet, as global economies continue to manage and respond to the ongoing and deep impacts of Covid-19, there has never been a more compelling moment for us to deliver on this mission. Indonesia’s W20 has given us the call to action: to ‘recover together, equally’. Indeed, we will all be far stronger in the short and longer terms if we can.

Speech delivered by Professor Caitlin Byrne, Director of the Griffith Asia and Head Delegate for W20 Australia Indonesia’s W20 Policy Dialogue, Likupang, 15 February 2022.

[1] Thanks to the research assistance of Emily House who undertook an internship with the Griffith Asia Institute in 2021.

[2] G20 members are Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia, United Kingdom, the United States of America (G8) plus ‘structurally important’ states: Australia and Saudi Arabia and nine emerging market countries: Argentina, Brazil, China, India, Indonesia, Mexico, South Africa, South Korea, and Turkey. The European Union, IMF, OECD and the World Bank are permanent members, acting as an informal secretariat, and Spain is a ‘permanent guest’.

[3] They included Angela Merkel, Chancellor of Germany, Ursula Von Der Leyen, President of the European Commission, and Naledi Pandor, foreign minister of South Africa representing South Africa’s President Other notable women in attendance, including Director General of the WTO Director General of the IMF still only brings the total to 5.

[4] These include France #8, South Korea #11, Italy #14, Canada #19, Germany #20

[5] G(irls) 20 was launched in 2009 as a Clinton Global Initiative that places women and girls at the heard of economic decision–making processes. See Girls20, ‘What do we do?’ at: