Over the past 50 years, policy has mostly focused on legal rights, labour issues, education, and reproductive choices, but has very seldom considered the way that generalised economic exclusion undermines women’s ability to claim rights, to work, to become educated, and to have practical access to reproductive choices.
I think adding this economic perspective to gender activism, as well as adding the gender perspective to economics, is a game-changing breakthrough.
Why is women’s economic empowerment important?
As an erstwhile historian of the women’s movement and a currently engaged activist researcher, I see the women’s economic empowerment movement as a watershed moment. Women have been subordinated for millennia all over the world. Institutions of all kinds – governments, universities, churches, families, and economic organisations – have collectively presented a totalised block to women’s achievement of dignity, autonomy, safety, and well-being.
Today, for the first time in history, these same institutions are beginning to engage in a collective effort to dispel those blocks.
The effort is propelled by a desire to stimulate economic inclusion, but it takes very little time in the field to learn that economics cannot be reformed without the participation of the other institutions that still hold women in place. This is, without a doubt, the first time a “big picture” effort, supported by major institutions, with worldwide scope, has happened.
What are the end goals for women’s economic empowerment?
It is easy enough to answer “equality” but the meaning of that word can be vague. Further, there has been a tendency to cheat on the goals for women by saying offering “equality of opportunity” is enough.
I think we have learned, largely with the assistance of new nation-level data, that equality of opportunity is not enough.
We need to be looking at specific outcomes and demanding accountability. I would like to see women represented more evenly across all segments of world leadership, not just in government, but in business, religion, and education. I would like to see them paid equally for the same work—something that has not occurred in any nation yet. I would like to see the elimination of human trafficking, which falls more heavily on females and is strongly tied to economic viability. I would like to see women safe, in their homes, on their commutes, and in their workplaces.
I would also like to see world institutions responsible for economic stability and growth take this issue seriously. Despite all the data on the importance of women to national economies, finance ministers are mostly still completely ignorant on this topic. Governments have a, shall we say, “less than robust” commitment to gender equality – and don’t see that they are thus failing to protect the rights of half their citizenry. On the world stage, women’s wellbeing is still a “niche” issue and limited to select questions like reproductive rights. I would like to see all of that change.
Tell us about some of the things that businesses are doing to empower women.
There isn’t enough space here to describe all the innovative programmes that have been piloted by major corporations in the past 10 years. Many of these programmes are now ready to “scale” and can make a huge difference in the prospects for women in many parts of the economy.
I know of corporations who are engaged in fairly predictable programmes such as jobs training and workplace safety – and these are very important. But there are also interesting moves afoot to, for example, equalise women’s access to capital by fostering systemic change, especially within the financial sector itself.
Major companies have some really inspiring programmes being delivered among agricultural communities in developing countries. The desire to better integrate women into global supply chains has met with a number of practical obstacles, on the ground and at the global level, but these are gradually being overcome.
Many companies support business training for women, in some form or another, which is extremely important for equalising the success women have in building their own enterprises. These training courses, too, have been spotty as the effort has developed, but I think we are beginning to see standards of quality and impact being set and reached.
Many companies also invest in basic efforts behind women and girls’ education, which I am always happy to see.
There is a lot going on and I am extremely hopeful about what these companies will be able to achieve.
Could businesses do more to empower women? If so, what more do they need to do?
Certainly, they could do more. All institutions could do more. My own opinion is that the focus on business, while important, often draws our attention away from the public factors that impede progress, both for women and for businesses working on their behalf.
Safety, for example, is a major barrier for women’s economic engagement and the violence often occurs beyond the reach of employers because it happens on the street or in the home. Providing that kind of safety for citizens is a government responsibility.
In all economic domains, the number one barrier for women wishing to become economic actors – or to excel in the work they are already doing – is care. The need for quality care, for children and the elderly, is something that needs to be addressed on a systems level – I don’t see any other way to provide care for all who need it. This is an issue that has to be engaged by government.
Women are unequal in most business settings around the world, even though nearly all governments have some kind of equality laws in place. Particularly in the rich nations, laws have been on the books for more than 50 years, yet women are still clustered at the bottom, paid less, and badly treated.
It is easy enough to blame businesses for these things (and I definitely would want them held accountable), but frankly, if it is obvious (and it is) that governments are not going to enforce their own equality laws, then perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised if women remain disadvantaged. From where I sit, it’s time for governments to stop just talking the talk and start walking the walk.
How can businesses benefit from empowering women?
There are huge benefits to businesses when they take care to include and engage women throughout their operating systems. Very little attention has been paid to articulating those benefits in a way that the private sector can recognise. Instead, the “business case” offered is normally some kind of national growth argument, which is actually pretty far removed from the conduct of ordinary, day-to-day business.
I will be issuing a report very soon that will, among other things, explain what the main business benefits are, as well as the ways some major companies have achieved them. I hope you won’t mind my being a bit cagey when I say that readers will have to stay tuned. The report will be out before the end of the year.
How do you hope the UN High Level Panel recommendations and toolkits will help women?
I hope that these recommendations and resources will convince more businesses to engage with this important movement and give them some ideas about how to do it.
What can readers who are involved in business do to empower women?
Everyone in business (as well as in government, civil society, religion, and education) can help foster empowerment among women by looking to their own behaviour and decision-making. We all need to become more mindful about gender prejudice, constantly reviewing our own motives, judgements, and actions to be sure we are not visiting unfair stereotypes on women.
Taking a conscious approach to eliminating unfairness in every step of our daily lives can go a long way toward removing the suffering caused by gender inequality. The problem is that we often don’t give hiring, promotion, and raises, as well as other economic decisions, enough thought to be sure that hidden biases are not driving the action taken.
I also think it is incumbent upon all of us to create a moral environment in which unfairness and cruelty toward women is unacceptable. In my view, social disapproval for bigotry is the strongest medicine you can give this problem.