international analysis and commentary

Women as a force for change


From cradle to grave, in kitchens across rural Africa as well as in boardrooms around New York City, women of all educational and income levels labor away every day to support themselves, provide for their families, improve their communities and make the world a better place. Data abound as to the countless ways in which they contribute to the economic and social wellbeing of their villages, cities and countries. Yet, the gender gap persists and the rights, opportunities and pay afforded to women both at the top and at the bottom of the scale continue to lag those enjoyed by equally skilled men. Things, of course, have improved tremendously in the last sixty or so years, but a lot more work is needed before full equality can be achieved, in Europe like in Asia or Latin America. Thankfully, as more women climb the corporate, academic and political ladder (just this week Cathy Engelbert was appointed CEO of Deloitte, becoming the first woman to head one of the Big Four global accounting firms), high-level initiatives to address the gender gap issue multiply. The first Women in Business international workshop, organized at the beginning of February in Washington and New York by Aspen Institute Italia, brought together female and male leaders from a variety of sectors and countries, from banking to development, from France to Botswana, to assess the status quo and identify the way forward.

Participants had two things in common: a track record of supporting women within their respective organizations and fields and a commitment to improve the lives of all women for the public good. The event took place on the backdrop of the upcoming Universal Exhibition, or Expo, which will open in Milan, Italy, on May 1st and which will revolve around the theme of “Feeding the Planet” and on issues of resource management, health and nutrition in a world that is expected to be the home of about 9 billion people by 2050. Therefore, the discussion mainly focused on the crucial, but often overlooked role that women play all along the food production and consumption chain all over the world, but particularly in developing nations. This is why “Women for Expo” – an international group of outstanding  women, chaired by Emma Bonino, which will run events during Expo –  co-organized the Washington Conference.

According to the FAO, women produce globally more than half of all food, with peaks of more than 80% of the total in Sub-Saharan Africa and the Caribbean. Overall, 1.6 billion women depend on agriculture for their livelihood. Naturally, women are also often primarily, if not solely, responsible for decisions regarding their family’s health and nutrition. For these reasons, the World Bank estimates that investing in women in the developing world has the highest return, with positive outcomes that include improvements in productivity as well as environmental management and a decline in fertility and, simultaneously, of child mortality rates. According to the World Food Programme of the United Nations, there are 805 million chronically hungry people around the world today. If women were given the same resources as men, this number could be reduced by upwards of 150 million people.

Yet, women are rarely treated as equal partners and continue to lack the kind of tools they need to really make their mark. Only 5% of extension resources, such as agricultural education and training, are directed toward them. So much so, says the FAO, that the number of women who live in poverty has increased by half in the last forty years. Today they comprise more than 70% of people living below the poverty line globally. The constraints to the opportunities of women in developing nations are, just like for their counterparts in the developed world, cultural, legal and political. As a result women often have little or no right to own land and property and struggle to gain access to financing and credit, making it very hard if not impossible for them to harness their entrepreneurial and leadership potential.

In this respect, wealthier women in advanced economies and poorer women in emerging markets face different shades of a common challenge, that of a sort of invisibility, of a world that doesn’t yet view them as equal stakeholders, therefore depriving them of their rightful seat at the social, political and economic table.

In this context, Aspen’s Women in Business workshop, is calling for more commitment at various levels. Women must continue to make a personal effort and fight to be seen, by “leaning-in” more, as Facebook’s COO Sheryl Sandberg has famously suggested, whatever their circumstances and levels of attainment. This can help create a virtuous cycle, whereby successful women become an inspiration, and possibly mentors, for their younger colleagues. But structural changes are also needed and can make a difference. The recent introduction, in several European countries, of quotas to increase the number of women on corporate boards is already being felt, on the composition of the boards themselves, of course, but also on the way companies work. Preliminary research suggests, for example, that those with women on their boards outperform those that don’t. In the US, President Barack Obama recently joined a growing chorus of voices demanding paid parental leave for all American workers and more government help for families to pay for child care services, both so that mothers can be freed to work. Because when they do, everybody benefits, as shown by a 2013 report by the International Monetary Fund which found that closing the gender gap would significantly raise the GDP of countries across the world, by 5% in the US, 9% in Japan, 12% in the UAE and a whopping 34% in Egypt. “When girls are healthy and in school; when legal frameworks and financial access support women; when women’s lives are free of violence and discrimination, nations thrive,” said the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon in his 2013 address to the UN General Assembly. “Let the 21st century be the century of women.” We are already in the fifteenth year of this new century and though progress has been made things are not moving quite fast enough for hundreds of millions of women around the world. It is about time that, with regard to this issue, we put our foot on the accelerator.