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Economic empowerment of women is more than a gender issue; it benefits all of us, a fact that I learned in conversation with Arancha González.
“In the Forbes World’s Billionaires List, there are more people called John than people who are women.”
– Arancha González, Executive Director of the International Trade Centre
Women’s economic empowerment is not just about women. By continuing to sustain practices and values that underutilise women, we are insisting upon stifling the economic potential of us all.
If for a moment we distill this issue just to the motivations of self-interest, this issue is really all about you – no matter who or where you are.
Sometimes an ambitious goal like women’s economic empowerment can leave us feeling disempowered. Thus, at the end, we have provided a list of a few things you can do personally.
But first, here is an account and action plan inspired by the enthralling statistical, rational, emotional and moral sides of women’s economic empowerment put forth by the Executive Director of the International Trade Centre Arancha González. Her sharp and impassioned address at the Lowy Institute in Sydney sent me on a rabid research project. She told us that we’re not speaking loudly enough and that each of us has a role to play. So, here is me playing my role and speaking loudly.
In essence, women’s economic empowerment involves ensuring that women have equal opportunity to access jobs, career opportunities and the market at large. This is an undeniably fundamental and vital tenet of a prosperous and vigorous capitalist society. Such a project may be immense and diffuse, but individuals the world over can each address it in manageable chunks.
But why should we bother?
As González puts it:
“If we use the idea of sports, it’s like leaving half your team outside the pitch.”
The answer is clear on economic rationality alone, and hard data provides a diamond clarity. Empowering women will provide the world with an economy the size of the United States and China put together. Three quarters of working age men worldwide are employed, compared to only one half of working age women. Women in most (including first world) countries earn on average 60 to 75 percent of men’s wages. Eliminating barriers will raise national labour productivity drastically, up to 25 percent in countries like Japan.
If you raise the quality and standards for women, then broader development goals like poverty reduction, healthcare and education will follow. Ultimately, the distinction between the first and third world rests upon women’s empowerment.
If you liberate roughly half the population, you liberate the world.
The point of economic empowerment is to target three main areas – the economy, companies and households. For companies, economic empowerment leads to an increased quality of employee choices, greater competition, greater diversity of businesses, more opportunities for commercial partnerships, and overall greater profits. In the household, it creates the opportunity for double incomes, a more even distribution between men and women for unpaid housework and child rearing, and greater opportunities and role modelling for children.
As a theoretical distinction and in anticipation of indignant confusion, I want to personally put forth that this isn’t a case of “men oppressing women,” but rather a case of pervasive societal structures that oppress women – structures that we each uphold in our own way and that, more importantly, we can each confront.
If you’re not convinced yet that this is a problem, in virtually every country women still spend more time on unpaid housework each day whilst men spend more time on leisure.
Individual women and communities will require different strategies. Economic empowerment targets bustling urban metropolises, remote and rural communities, young girls, middle-aged women, and women of diverse ethnicities and classes, to name a few examples. Whilst broad sentiments and goals apply, focusing on target areas or groups requires mind to particular wants and needs.
In Australia, where one would presume we are good with women’s economic empowerment, considering we have had many triumphs, we are surprisingly rather mediocre.
Unbelievably, we’re ranked 63rd worldwide regarding equal pay for equal work. Women spend 5.3 hours per day on unpaid work whilst men only spend 2.9 hours. As González emphasised, that’s worse than New Zealand on both counts. Although there are slightly more women than men in our population, 12 percent of chair positions, 23.7 percent of directorships and 29% of parliamentarians are women. And whilst it’s pretty okay for white women in Australia, women of colour and women who are marginalised face widespread discrimination and even more imposing economic barriers.
So, what can we focus on?
There are some concrete actions we can take. We can support or deliver programs, procedures and initiatives for women to improve education, skills and training. We can lessen barriers to financial capital and give women better access to loans, formal financial advice and institutions, and savings strategies. We can promote the ability for women to access professional networks and mentoring. We can provide physical capital such as technology, land, machinery and equipment. We can fight for laws and company policies that reduce barriers and discrimination.
Before I finish, as I like to complicate things, I’d like to make a point that there are certain assumptions of this ambition that have framed this discussion. These include the idea of capitalism as the ultimate framework or goal of our society, the belief that jobs will continue to exist despite the process of automation that has the potential for mass and unfixable unemployment, and that all women would rather work as opposed to staying at home. Whilst those are all complex and gnarly issues, this article has rested on the idea that within the reality of capitalism there is room for economic empowerment and there are women who want and should be able to grab it.
The liberation of women concerns both economic rationality and humanitarian values. It is an emblem of our contemporary ideologies – individualism, community, nationalism, globalisation and liberalism. Women’s economic empowerment not only enlivens and empowers a person but also elevates our entire culture.
As Arancha González says:
“Goodbye stagnation and mediocrity, and hello equality and opportunity!”
Some things you can do right now:
Participate in the International Trade Centre’s Call To Action to bring one million women entrepreneurs into the market by 2020.