Skip to main content

Incoming World Trade Organization President Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala speaks during an interview in Potomac, Maryland, Feb. 15, 2021.JOSHUA ROBERTS/Reuters

History is being made as Nigeria’s Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala becomes the first woman and first African to ever lead the 26-year-old World Trade Organization (WTO). As the world grapples with how to “build back better,” a female director-general steering the global trading ship sends a powerful message: The world needs better trade outcomes and trade needs women on board.

“She’s going to rock the place,” is how European Central Bank President Christine Lagarde reacted. But let’s not stop here. Women are playing ever-increasing leadership roles in international forums and may help bring much-needed change in the global trading system that leads to more equitable outcomes, which is vital to rebuilding public trust and commitment to the rules-based international order. Ultimately, similar to businesses and supply chains, a more inclusive WTO and trading system is a more resilient one.

The fact is, women are still vastly underrepresented in trade policy and global business. In all areas, including negotiating tables, policy corridors, academia and boardrooms, men outnumber women. Where women have broken through, they are often not the decision-makers or policy influencers. A 2016 research paper by The Commonwealth Secretariat showed that women are largely absent from important high-level decision-making processes at national, regional and multilateral levels, and the higher the arena, the more likely it is that women will not be there.

At the WTO, women are less likely than men to advance to become the chair of a council, committee or working group. From 1995 to 2016, out of the 268 WTO dispute-settlement panels convened, just 6 per cent were chaired by women. Now, a woman at the helm of the WTO reinforces the message that trade and inclusion are interdependent.

When it comes to international business, the full participation of women as entrepreneurs and business leaders is stymied by structural and attitudinal barriers. Globally, only one in five companies is owned by a woman. In Canada, just 11 per cent of women-owned businesses export. There is plenty of blame to go around in explaining this shortfall, including unequal access to information, training, opportunity-creating networks and capital. Also, as has become glaring during the past 11 months of the global COVID-19 pandemic, there’s an uneven household work burden.

The domestic and global economic returns of closing the gender gap are already well documented and work to do so is under way. The International Trade Centre’s Women in Trade initiative aims to connect three million women entrepreneurs to market by the end of 2021. And in 2017, WTO members and observers endorsed the Joint Declaration on Trade and Women’s Economic Empowerment, a first-ever collective initiative to increase the participation of women in trade.

The good news is that change is happening in small but important ways and Canada is getting ahead of the curve. For example, Canada’s team of negotiators for the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the largest trade deal ever concluded, was led by four women. And industry support for the ratification of the deal, the quickest passage in history of a trade bill, was in large part orchestrated by a woman.

If increasing diversity is a moral imperative, it is also becoming a powerful prerequisite for success. New perspectives bring healthy disruption and ultimately help make better trade and overall public policy. And because major reforms and measurable, more equitable results in the global trading system are desperately needed, it is the opportune moment for the next generation of women to lead the way.

Dr. Ngozi steps in as the WTO desperately needs radical change, and she has already made it clear “it can’t be business as usual.” She rightly states that “it can’t be someone who just knows the issues and how the place works. We have tried that.”

The WTO is facing its deepest crisis: It has not clinched a major multilateral trade deal in decades, and its dispute-settlement function is paralyzed with the blockage of the appointment of new judges to its appellate body. Problems cut across the major functions of the organization, including updating the rule book for the 21st century, negotiations, notifications and trade-distorting subsidies. Protectionism and nationalism are on the rise even in traditionally trade-championing economies and there is a very real chilling effect on trade as exporters worry that international rules will be followed only loosely at best and, in some cases, outright flouted.

It is time to act and disrupt the status quo. The intersection of trade, economic growth and rules will be front and centre in demonstrating the continuing relevance of the WTO as businesses need stability, transparency and a fair chance to compete. Services, sustainability, health, technology, environment and other issues are also expected to be on the long list of challenges for Dr. Ngozi.

Trade must play a central role in returning economies to full speed by allowing countries to leverage global growth and enable them to recover more quickly than by acting alone. Simply put, decisions made at the WTO will matter, especially for a trade-dependent country such as Canada, which generates 60 per cent of its GDP through trade. A robust and effective WTO will be vital to give entrepreneurs and exporters the confidence and predictability that trade rules provide. This is particularly important for small and medium-sized businesses that often don’t have the resources to navigate uncertain and ever-changing landscapes.

Women have a golden opportunity to play a key disruptor role in the global trading system: to challenge the status quo toward a system in which more of the people affected by the rules are decision-makers in fashioning them.

That work has already begun and we’re already taking action. The first female head of the WTO is another shot in the arm and an opportunity we can’t waste. Now is the time to take up space and take charge.

Claire Citeau is a former senior trade official in the government of Alberta and is now executive director of the Canadian Agri-Food Trade Alliance (CAFTA). Views presented here are her own, not CAFTA’s. @ClaireCiteau

Nadia Theodore is a former senior trade executive in the government of Canada and was one of the women who led the Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations. She is currently senior vice-president of Global Industry and Government Relations at Maple Leaf Foods. @nadia_theodore