With International Women’s Day on March 8, we see the usual focused interest on women’s issues including increasing female participation in political and legislative processes, decreasing violence against women, increasing the number of years of education for girls and women and decreasing the pay gap between men and women. While they are all important issues, focusing energy on improving women’s economic rights and standing may well be key to unhinging other challenges women face. And thus solutions come not only from the public sector, but also from the business world.
In 2009, Michael J. Silverstein and Kate Sayre published “The Female Economy” in the Harvard Business Review, an article arguing that “women now drive the world economy” because they “control spending in most categories of consumer goods.” While in their 2009 study, Silverstein and Sayre found that 12% of the female population was in the “Making Ends Meet” category, the Shriver Report in its “A Women’s Nation Pushes Back from the Brink” compendium (due out March 11, 2014) states that women make up 70% of the 100 million Americans at or near the poverty line and that two thirds of minimum wage workers are women.
Yet, improving the lot of women improves society as a whole. That’s why Grameen Bank focuses its micro-financing on women. While men tend to spend loans or additional income on themselves, women use the money to improve the lives of their children and the household, breaking generational cycles of poverty and helping men as well. According to Catalyst, increasing levels of female employment could raise GDP anywhere from 5% in the United States, to 9% in Brazil and Japan, 12% in the United Arab Emirates and 27% in India.
So why haven’t women achieved parity yet? I believe part of the answer is structural and part cultural. The number of women in top positions in government and business is still very low. Even in countries like Sweden, which boasts gender parity in the public sector (and thus has one of the world’s most generous maternity and paternity leave regulations), there is a dearth of women in senior management. And while there’s a lot of excitement about having Sheryl Sandberg at Facebook, Ginny Rometti at IBM, and Indira Nooyi at Pepsi, barely 15% of the executive officer positions in Fortune 500 companies are held by women. Having more women in positions of power means that policies that are beneficial to women are more likely to be thought of, approved and implemented. Culturally, one of the biggest problems in the developed world is a lack of positive female role models in the mainstream media (see video) while in the developing world women are limited by the roles their families and society impose on them.
Yet, organizations that focus on empowering women, be it through micro-finance or social entrepreneurship, are reaping benefits. Grameen Bank has been earning a profit (US$18 million in 2012) for over 15 years by lending money to destitute women while the Social Entrepreneur Empowerment Network regularly attracts tens of thousands of entrepreneurs to its webinars focused specifically on teaching business skills (like sales funnels and marketing) to people who want to make the world a better place (overwhelmingly women).
But women can’t and shouldn’t do it alone. Because the benefits of empowering women advance all of society, the work of empowering women needs to be done by everyone, including male partners. That means reframing what it means to be a male partner in the family unit by having men take on an equal part of child-rearing and household responsibilities as well as in society by equating masculinity with justice and fairness rather than strength and power over others. The gains promise to be substantial.