Expert Speak Raisina Debates
Published on Apr 28, 2022
Anticipate, Reform, and Elevate: Looking Toward W20 India 2023

This article is part of the series — Raisina Files 2022.

In the eight years since the G20 established an official engagement group representing the interests of women across the world’s 20 largest economies, the Women 20 (W20) has made a significant contribution to international policy impacting women globally. What started as a civil engagement group, women’s economic security is now central to the agenda of the G20. Leaders’ statements successively endorse policy recommendations that focus on women. In the pre-Covid pandemic world, women faced significant disadvantage when it came to accessing secure livelihoods. The Brisbane ‘25x25’ goals, announced in 2014, sought to increase labour force participation of women by 20 percent in 2025,<1> and is one of the important commitments of G20 leaders focused on women’s economic security. However, in a world trying to recover and, in some cases, still very much living through the pandemic, women have been disproportionately impacted across the globe.<2> Additional caring responsibilities, increased domestic violence, decreased employment opportunities, and less access to government support means that the impact of the pandemic will compound women’s existing disadvantage over their lifetimes.<3> This means that the role of multilateralism and the G20 in advancing women’s economic security is more important than ever.

While the urgency of securing the economic future of women across the world is glaringly clear, the multilateral system is under strain. The increasingly complex and crowded geopolitical environment in the Indo-Pacific, the United States-China trade war, and more recently, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine means the capability of the multilateral system to address cross-border challenges is difficult. This means that the G20, and others, must focus on what it can achieve with tangible impact—women’s economic security is one of these areas.

This paper sets out how the gender agenda fits within the G20 system, and through a critical analysis of trends in the W20, makes three recommendations for India’s presidency of the G20 where it can anticipate, reform, and elevate the W20 agenda.

What is the W20?

Following the G20’s commitment to the Brisbane 25x25 goal, the W20 was established during Turkey’s presidency in 2015.<4> With official engagement group status, the purpose of the W20 was to provide a platform for entrepreneurs, business people, civil society, academia, and others to provide recommendations to the G20 on women’s economic security. The official engagement groups sit outside the government-to-government tracks, and to some effect, democratise the G20 system. The ‘arms-length’ approach to the W20 has its advantages and disadvantages. On one hand, the strictly non-government representatives can be more candid and creative with their insights and recommendations. On the other hand, the fluctuating levels of funding and informal processes means influence is inconsistent.

Given that G20 countries know that increasing women’s participation in the economy will grow domestic and global gross domestic product, it is unsurprising that in subsequent years after Turkey, the W20 often enjoyed high levels of access. In 2018, President Mauricio Macri accepted the policy recommendation of the W20 on stage,<5> as did Prime Minister Abe Shinzo in 2019 in Japan.<6> In Saudi Arabia, the government committed significant resources that enabled an administratively effective W20 office, and this was especially important during the first year of the pandemic.<7>

W20 processes, at one point in time, generally (it changed somewhat from year to year) involved some roundtables scheduled throughout the year and culminated in one final Summit in the host country. The early roundtables were often held in Europe or the US and coincided with other major gender-focused events. These roundtables were often accessible to the delegates who did not travel via video conference. Most of the work toward the W20 final communique largely took place online and via email, and during a negotiation that often drifted late into the night once at the final summit. Often, efforts are supported by knowledge partners including other multilaterals such as the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development or the private sector such as McKinsey and Co.

In recent years, however, this relatively lean process has been replaced by an annual calendar of programming involving kick-off and closing events, thematic-related conferences, various taskforces, and working groups. Given the varied experiences of COVID-19, these events were conducted online, sometimes in person, and sometimes through hybrid delivery. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but alongside other movements within the G20 mechanisms focused on gender means that the W20 is often lost and drifting on the side-lines.

The W20, in some ways, has become a victim of its own success. In 2018, the Business Women’s Leaders (BWL) Taskforce was established to focus on driving “actionable, measurable, and results-driven solutions to impact women’s economic empowerment”.<8> Heads of government appointed their country’s representative, and effectively became an official, yet non-government voice for gender in the G20. The BWL Taskforce did not have an official pathway for advocacy with the W20, but often its members were W20 delegates. For some, this opened up a pathway for communication but for others, it seemed to confuse the business efforts within the W20 with the BWL Taskforce, whose delegates had the approval stamp of their relevant head of government.

In 2020, the BWL Taskforce was dismantled and replaced with a new initiative, the G20 Alliance for the Empowerment and Progression of Women’s Economic Representation (G20 EMPOWER), an initiative led by Canada.<9> EMPOWER’s purpose is also to advance women’s economic security but again, with a government-appointed representative from the primary sector. In some respect, the establishment of EMPOWER further embedded a power structure where it received support (and thus, resources) from the government tracks of the W20. Today, EMPOWER’s Twitter account states that it is the most “inclusive and action-driven alliance among businesses and governments to accelerate women's leadership and empowerment”.<10> It cannot be denied that there is a power struggle between the two mechanisms within the G20, and the W20 worries it is increasingly irrelevant. In fact, the opposite is true, especially given the newly created Ministerial Conference on Women’s Empowerment in Italy in 2021 and carried forward by Indonesia in 2022.<11> The objective reality is that gender is now more embedded in G20 mechanisms than ever before, and for this reason, it is worth close examination for what India can do to ensure the W20 (and other groups) continue to have an impact where it matters most—to women.

Recommendations for India 2023

It is something of a harsh reality that the W20 needs some reform. India is well positioned to do this in 2023 when it takes on the Indian presidency. First and foremost, as the newest member of the G20 troika, India should, of course, work closely with the current President, Indonesia, to learn and understand how G20 diplomacy functions. In doing so, India can also look at the past to see how it can best allocate its resources and tighten the impact of W20. Based on this, there are three things India can do to ensure the W20 succeeds—anticipate, reform, and elevate.


India should anticipate the W20 and start from a position of expertise, rather than learning. The broadening of the W20 agenda to include a year-long calendar of events often focus on the thematic areas such as health or entrepreneurship. Increasingly it seems that rather than assuming expertise of the W20, these events have become a theatre for diplomacy and a process of educating delegates on the topics at hand. This is problematic, that W20 is largely an international grouping of volunteers with limited resources. At the same time, they are often world-leading experts including doctors, engineers, entrepreneurs, and economists. This means that going into the W20, the bench of expertise is already there and ready to work. They usually do not require days of learning about the latest developments in gender-issues, but are the ones with that knowledge. While there is the existing bench of expertise for India to draw upon, working with knowledge partners for new and important updates and developments is critical. This might be worked on in the early months of the W20 and delivered to delegates in the form of a short briefing. It means less events and really critically, less funding required of already resource constrained delegates. After seven years of the W20, the issues are known, and the focus should turn to solutions early in the G20 year.


Process reform of the W20 should come from a place of its strengths, rather than a place of its increasingly side-lined activity to the G20. There are two components to the process reform that India could steer in 2023. First, the W20 should be seen as a resource to the G20 with expertise on gender. With every official statement that is released by the G20, it should be considered by a representative of the W20 to identify how the policy recommendations will impact women. This might be by providing the W20 secretariat with observer status at Sherpa and Finance track meetings, or through a consultative process with a short period of response time. The W20 should be seen as a trusted partner that can assist the G20 with its policy recommendations. For a grouping where not one head of government is a woman,<12> this is particularly important.

Second, the focus of the W20 should return to its communique and policy recommendations that can be developed from the benchmark of knowledge established when the W20 is anticipated. The W20 should return to a model of a final communique negotiation in India, with a handful of roundtables hosted in a hybrid model to ensure maximum participation by delegates. This will also ensure the W20 continues to have the high-level delegates it has enjoyed in the past, because it is a focused and sharp commitment alongside their other commitments.


India should elevate the W20 within the G20 system. The W20 needs to return to an era of access to high-level ministers and heads of government. This means that the W20 (and other official engagement groups) are provided a formal pathway to G20 leaders to deliver policy recommendations. The leadership from India, to re-orient the W20 to a consultative mechanism in the G20, can be part of this elevate process. It highlights to the G20 community the capability and importance of W20 contributions to policy making. India can also do this by committing ministerial and senior official representative and lines of communication to the W20. Outlining these pathways and making it clear from when India takes on the presidency is one way that can signal to the W20 its elevated status. One thing that delegates look for is signals of leadership from the W20 presidency to understand that direction, but also whether their efforts and resources are worthwhile. Casual observations suggest that the sunk cost fallacy does not apply, and delegates disengage when they cannot easily read what the functional purpose of their work is.

Looking Back to Look Ahead

Women’s economic security has grown in increasing importance across the G20 against a backdrop of declining lifetime outcomes for women. The W20 and other groupings such as the BWL Taskforce and EMPOWER have played an important role in advocating for policy recommendations that will positively impact women. Despite this, it is important to spend time focusing on where the W20 is going and what it has to offer the G20. This is not from the perspective of the ‘gender agenda’, but how that agenda is advocated for and feeds into an increasingly complex multilateral system that is under strain.

With India’s G20 on the horizon, now is an opportunity to not only reflect with the privilege of time before the presidency commences, but also to consider how it will take leadership of such a critical policy agenda. The W20, as with much of the G20, is difficult to fully understand where public records are effectively wiped with every new presidency. There is much to learn from previous delegates and presidencies about what can be done to fully benefit from the expertise within the W20. For India, the first thing should be starting the W20 from a place of expertise. This means anticipating what the knowledge partners, delegates, and stakeholders have to offer. Assume their starting point as experts, and place this at the front of the W20. The second thing India should do is reform processes that are increasingly side-lined and ineffective. Re-orient the W20 to an expert group that can inform and advise official tracks of the G20. Take a lean approach to the W20 and re-focus its work on the communique with limited side-events. The third thing India can do is elevate the W20 with formal pathways to official tracks and senior representation.

<1> "Brisbane, Australia, 15-16 November 2014," OECD.

<2> Clare Wenham et al., "Women are most affected by pandemics — lessons from past outbreaks," Nature (blog), 8 July, 2020.; Nicole Bateman and Martha Ross, "Why Has COVID-19 been especially harmful for working women?," Brookings, October, 2020.; Danielle Wood, Kate Griffiths, and Tom Crowley, "Women’s work: The impact of the COVID crisis on Australian women," Grattan Institute, February 14, 2021.

<3> Wood, Griffiths, and Crowley, “Women’s Work”

<4>NO Woman left behind,” W20 Saudi Arabia 2020 Women.

<5>W20 presents recommendations to President Mauricio Macri,” G20 Argentina 2018, October 3, 2018.

<6>Opening Address by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at 5th WAW! /W20,” Prime Minister of Japan and His Cabinet, March 23, 2019.

<7> Erin Watson-Lynn, “Saudi Arabia Is Not Offside on Gender Equality,The Interpreter, March 6, 2020.

<8>Prime Minister Justin Trudeau Appoints Shahrzad Rafati to Represent Canada on G20 Business Women Leaders Task Force,Financial Post, September 20, 2018.

<9>G20 EMPOWER To Improve Women’s Economic Empowerment and Representation in Canada and Around the World,” Cision, March 25, 2021.

<10> G20 Empower (@g20empower), Twitter, 2022.

<11>WPL Joins the G20 Ministerial Conference on Women’s Empowerment,” Women Political Leaders (blog), 2021.; “Ministerial Conference on Women’s Empowerment,” G20 Indonesia 2022.

<12> An exception here is Ursula von der Leyen who is President of the European Commission, which has a seat at the G20 table.

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