Empowering women must be economic priority number one

By Vijay Eswaran

Businesses that neglect their most valuable assets lose competitiveness and long-term profitability. The same is true on a larger scale for national economies. So why do we continue to tolerate the enormous, yet preventable waste of human capital caused by gender inequality? Isn’t it time we addressed this question as one of the top international economic priorities?

Only around 50% of women globally are in paid work outside the agricultural sector compared to 77% of men. This gap in employment rates has barely narrowed over the last twenty years. Worse still, the gap widens the higher up the career ladder you go. The number of female CEOs of Fortune 500 companies has actually fallen by a quarter over the last year to under 5%. A sobering reality indeed.

What makes you different or weird, that’s your strength. — Meryl Streep

As I was discussing these issues with NGO and business leaders at the Concordia Summit and the World Economic Forum during the most recent United Nations General Assembly, I was struck by three main challenges.

First, men seem to be doing very little to bridge the gender gap. The advocacy is mostly led by women, as was the case with the suffragette movement at the beginning of the 20th century to give equal rights for women to vote. As long as men do not understand that bridging the gender gap is their responsibility as well, very little progress will be made. It is high time for men to step up and lead together with women to address this issue.

Second, very few business leaders seem to understand that gender inequality is not just a moral and human right issue, it is also a bottom line issue. It constitutes the single biggest distortion in the modern labour market and a major impediment to wealth creation. It prevents talent from rising to its natural level and leads to the systematic misallocation of resources, leaving the global economy worse off in the process.

It has been estimated that closing the gender gap would add $28tn to the value of the global economy – a 26% increase – by 2025. The dividend would be equal to the combined GDPs of the US and China. There is today an extensive body of research showing a strong link between female empowerment and economic development. Put simply, companies and societies are more likely to grow and prosper when women gain greater financial independence as wage earners and property owners.

Photo: Morf Morford

Photo: Morf Morford

Forward-thinking companies should be looking for ways to empower women at work, not just as a moral obligation, but also as a sound business strategy. A 2017 report by McKinsey noted that companies with three or more women on their executive committees performed better according to a broad set of organisational criteria, including innovation and quality of leadership. It further concluded that companies with the most women in senior positions achieved returns on equity 47% higher than those with none.

Third, when advancing female economic empowerment, the international community seems to mostly focus on helping women to break the glass ceiling in companies currently dominated by men. While this is important, we are also missing a big piece of the puzzle. I am convinced that the most effective strategy would be to actually increase opportunities for women to create and build companies of their own. Championing women’s entrepreneurship will contribute more to a narrowing of the gender gap than promotion within existing businesses.

Sadly, today’s entrepreneurs are still twice as likely to be men as women. Female entrepreneurs receive a disproportionately small amount of venture funding, with only 2.2% of the total invested in the US last year going to women-owned start-ups. This is despite the fact that companies founded by women deliver significantly higher returns than the market average, according to surveys. More must be done to provide the investment capital needed to support and accelerate the emerging revolution in female entrepreneurship.

I know from my own experience running one of the leading direct selling networks in Asia, Africa and Middle East that women are equally talented and eager to take control for themselves and become entrepreneurs.

When Nobel Prize Winner Professor Muhammed Yunus created the first ever microcredit bank in Bangladesh more than 30 years ago, he noticed that women were more likely than men to run their business in a professional way and to repay loans. As a result, more than 90% of Grameen bank customers are women.

Gender inequality is not a fatality. But turning this vision into reality will need more than good intentions. It will require transformative change in the way we do business and support entrepreneurs.

About the author: Vijay Eswaran is an entrepreneur, speaker, and philanthropist. He is the Founder and Executive Chairman of the QI Group of Companies, a multi-business conglomerate with headquarters in Hong Kong, offices in more than 25 countries and customers in over 100 countries. He has published three bestsellers on leadership and mindfulness.

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Women’s Equality Day (Aug 26) commemorates the passage of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, affirming women’s right to vote.

How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world. — Anne Frank