Across the globe, increasing numbers of women are striking out on their own and setting up new businesses. In OECD countries, more women than men start businesses. The number of women being educated to degree level and above has also risen internationally. With the Arab Spring and growing interest in women’s rights around the world, women’s economic empowerment and the recognition of its importance have notably progressed too. Yet a lot of work remains to be done.
While no country in the world has achieved parity of income between the sexes (in the EU, the US and the UK, for example, the gap between the earnings of men and women is around 20%), in developing countries the gender pay gap is much bigger. However this is relatively inconsequential compared to the many other inequalities women face. Women are twice as likely as men to live in poverty, two out of three illiterate adults are women and less than 2% of the titled land in the world is owned by women. The consequences are devastating, not just to the women themselves or their families but to the health and prosperity of their whole society.
Inequality is rooted in many justice systems too. As UN Women points out, women are more likely to be unemployed or, where they have a job, forced to work in the informal sector without job security. Where women do aspire to change their economic circumstances, they find it more difficult than men to access skills, networks, finance and education, as the World Bank’s 2012 Development Report confirms. The businesses that few women manage to run are likely to be smaller and have difficulties in expanding.
Why does this matter? Why is it so important that women are employed and empowered economically, able to earn their own income? Because studies have shown that unlike men, women return 90% of their income to their families and their communities. When women are financially independent, their families flourish. They have the power to make household financial decisions and gain greater control over their own lives and the lives of their children. Even being seen to earn money gives women a status, a more influential voice in their own communities, to tackle injustice and discrimination, to drive advances in health and education. Put simply, empowered women can and do change societies.
I have seen the potential that is being wasted, as well as the role that women can play if given the chance. One of the huge privileges for me when my husband became prime minister was the opportunity to travel, both with him and on occasion on my own, to meet people, many of them women whom I would simply never have known otherwise. I’ve met highly motivated female entrepreneurs and heard how, despite the prejudice or the difficulty they’ve faced in getting business loans, they are supporting their families, putting money into their communities and driving their country’s economic growth. But there simply aren’t enough female entrepreneurs.
That is why I set up my Foundation for Women, to support women entrepreneurs in the Middle East, in Africa and in Asia, and why I am determined to do what I can to help women overcome prejudice and to lift the barriers stopping women entrepreneurs from setting up their own businesses.
And I believe that to make a real difference on a global scale, we need to look beyond micro-finance and foster more women-led small and growing companies. Women are often described as hapless human beings. Aid organisations tend to focus on the bottom of the pyramid or the few unsung heroines, while the women in between rarely feature in development strategies. We need collectively to do more to support those women who have taken the next step and are trying to translate that potential into formal labourmarket participation. Multi-sector efforts are required as no single sector can do the job alone. We must argue more loudly for change.
The OECD’s gender initiative and the 2011 G20 Girls Summit are excellent examples of worthy efforts. The research and policy discussions of the OECD’s initiative focus clearly on diversity in leadership positions and on entrepreneurship. And the Girls Summit brought together individuals and organisations to pool resources and address empowering girls and women.
In the current economic climate, now more than ever, the world needs new sources of employment generation and wealth creation. We cannot afford to dismiss half the world’s population. And the benefits of women’s economic empowerment are clear.
We need to seize this moment in time where momentum is building and work together towards a co-ordinated global solution. No one organisation, government or company can do this alone; it will take co-operation and drive across borders, across sectors. This is the time to make it happen.
Cherie Blair Foundation for Women: www.cherieblairfoundation.org
World Bank (2011), World Development Report 2012: Gender Equality and Development.
The OECD Gender Initiative
The G20 Girls Summit
©OECD Yearbook 2012