When women’s participation in the labor force increases, GDP rises. When women start businesses, communities flourish. When women are promoted to senior management and appointed to corporate boards, companies do better. We ignore this compelling data at our peril.
Business leaders, advocates and policy makers committed to economic growth and prosperity must use every strategy and tool to open doors and opportunity for women to participate in today’s global economy.
In early May, I moderated the opening plenary of the Women’s Forum for the Economy and Society in Toronto, which convened 600 influential business, institutional and political global leaders to strategize about breaking down entrenched barriers to women’s participation and developing concrete
solutions. The Forum focused specifically on influencing the agenda of the G7, a powerful group comprising the U.S., Japan, Germany, the U.K., France, Italy and Canada, as well as the European Union. This discussion was particularly timely as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has made empowering women one of the main themes of Canada’s 2018 G7 presidency.
The plenary examined how governments, the private sector and multilateral forums like the G7, can take action to accelerate women’s economic opportunity, and in the process, create more jobs, increase innovation, and transform societies. It highlighted the importance of enabling environments and corporate culture, the role of technology, and the importance of measuring impact. I was joined on the panel by four dynamic women leaders from the private, public and NGO sectors.
Here are my key takeaways.
First, most private sector leaders today recognize the competitive advantage of women’s economic participation, whether in the corporate c-suite, in non-traditional jobs, or as entrepreneurs. But, talk isn’t enough. Companies that make their commitment real have been able to attract, and importantly, retain women employees by challenging assumptions, promoting work/life balance, and creating an environment where everyone is valued. For example, Salesforce took an honest look at how women and men were being paid, and increased salaries when it found discrepancies. But these actions aren’t only important to women. Today, both men and women are seeking jobs and starting businesses that value their contributions, are flexible, and give them a sense of ownership.
Second, strong enabling and legal environments are critical. To succeed, women need skills, networks, and access to capital and markets. At the same time, women also need access to quality education, child care, clean water, health care and a sense of personal security. This includes legal frameworks that ensure non-discrimination, and protections against sexual harassment, assault and violence. There is good news. According to the most recent World Bank Women, Business and the Law Report, over the last two years, governments in 65 countries took concrete steps to improve women’s economic inclusion. However, women still face legal barriers in over 100 countries, and those barriers adversely affect their economic choices.
Third, technology is both a tool and a challenge. Technology is driving change and innovation across the globe, and has a tremendous impact on economic competitiveness. As we embrace technology, however, we need to be mindful that globally, there is a gender gap in online access. In urban poor areas, women are 50 percent less likely than men to be online, and 30–50 percent less likely to use the internet for economic or political empowerment. A 2015 report, Connected Women, found that women are 14 percent less likely than men to own a mobile phone. And, when women own phones, they use them differently than men do.
Finally, measurement matters and helps tell the story. We know that making the business case is important, and macro-level data, like that contained in the studies cited in this article, makes a difference at the policy level. We also need to look closely at what works on the individual and business level. Measuring success is about understanding how many women graduate from a vocational program, and also how that translates into impact and value.
Under the Canadian presidency, the G7 is deepening its focus on these critical issues. As advocates, policy makers and business leaders, we can help by continuing to gather data about how women are central to economic growth. Interventions must ensure women are treated equally and fairly, and have access to the tools they need to succeed, wherever they are on the path of economic participation and leadership.