When I started working with trade issues 15 years ago I remember coming to Geneva to discuss gender and trade with representatives from the WTO and several important country delegations. I did not encounter any strong negative reactions, but I was met with a great deal of surprise. People would understand when I talked about the underrepresentation of women on higher posts within the WTO Secretariat, but when it came to trade policy in itself the response was much more incredulous. The most common argument was that surely trade policy is gender neutral. The rules apply to everyone, the opportunities are equal. There was some sympathy for the argument that sometimes national policies can make it more difficult for women to reap the benefits of trade, but that was dismissed as a national problem, and not really a trade issue.

Today we have a very different discussion about gender and trade. Recently the WTO wrapped up the Public Forum, a yearly event when a large number of civil servants, businesses, NGOs, scholars, parliamentarians and others gather to discuss the trade topics of the day. This year’s theme was “Inclusive Trade” and it was very obvious that many consider gender to be a key factor in creating inclusive trade.

In trade related development assistance gender issues have been high on the agenda for the last couple of years. Organisations like ITC, UNCTAD, WTO, EIF and others have come quite far in designing programs to help women get better access to markets and analysing the specific obstacles they encounter. But it becomes much more complicated to incorporate a gender perspective in trade negotiations, not least on a multilateral level.

There is only one way around this: we need to increase our knowledge. Several organisations and scholars have made studies in this area which are very helpful. It is also promising that many of the bilateral or regional trade agreements that are being negotiated today include gender as a factor in feasibility studies, impact analyses etc. But we are still far from having a full understanding of this issue.

One thing that could increase knowledge is to initiate a discussion on a multilateral level as well. It should be a natural part of the regular work of the WTO. To give only one example, it should be standard practice that countries present gender specific statistics during Trade Policy Reviews.

It’s important to clarify that from a Swedish perspective we do not believe that we should create specific trade rules and provisions for women. Most likely that would just create additional barriers rather than opening up opportunities. But when we design trade policies we need to know more about the effects for different stakeholders in order to make sure that as many as possible can reap the benefits.

We may not yet have a full understanding of the relationship between trade and gender. However we do know, without any doubt, that excluding women from any economic activity is bad policy. It’s bad for the economy, it will reduce growth, it will hamper development and it will have widespread negative effects on the whole of society. It’s time that we add trade as a factor when we design inclusive economic policies.