Six hundred million jobs. That’s what the world must generate over the next decade just to keep up with population growth. And that’s not even counting the 200 million or in developing countries who are jobless now, and the millions more, mainly women, who are either underemployed or shut out of the workforce entirely.

Most of these new jobs will come from the private sector, so private entrepreneurship solves part of the problem. But unleashing the untapped productivity of female entrepreneurs will be essential.

Around the world, female-owned firms are 7 percent to 10 percent smaller and their workers are about 6 percent less productive than businesses owned by men. Women managers have fewer years of experience running businesses and are more likely to engage in home-based enterprises. In developing countries, women own and manage around 30 percent of small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). In Africa, women account for 50 percent of the self-employed but only 25 percent of employers. But why?

Development professionals often discuss the need to incorporate considerations of gender equality into programming. It’s now widely accepted that ending poverty and boosting inclusive growth demand the full and equal participation and productivity of women and men.

But we’re a long way to fully tapping female productivity.

First, a rising tide doesn’t necessarily lift all boats: In many instances economic growth alone hasn’t shrunk significant gender gaps across a range of indicators, from productivity to labor force participation and access to essential assets, such as technology and financing.

Second, women and girls globally still face a wide range of constraints that don’t apply to men and boys—social norms that channel family resources to sons, for example, or laws that prevent them from owning property of opening bank accounts without a husband’s permission.

First-hand lessons

I learned some of this several years ago when I supervised a program in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) aimed at reforming state enterprises, reviving the private sector, and creating jobs in a country just emerging from years of devastating conflict.

As we tried to identify constraints to job creation and competitiveness, we surveyed corporations, officials, lawyers, and many others who understood the environment well. We followed existing routines and relied on instincts honed from experience elsewhere. But something was missing.

No one had yet scrutinized the country’s economy and business climate through a gender-sensitive lens. DRC was routinely branded one of the world’s worst countries for women because of its epidemic gender-based violence, but what about women in commerce?

“…We surveyed 1,400 companies… to find out why, with so many hard-working, astute, and entrepreneurial women, the economy was still lagging behind its vast potential.”


Insiders and experts largely understood that in the midst of post-conflict reconstruction, women were responsible for most of the economic activity that kept families nurtured and society functioning.

In this fragile environment, it was the women who kept things running—overwhelmingly without training and largely for survival. Generations of men meanwhile grappled with trauma and nostalgia, and dreamed of civil service jobs, with the entitlements and patronage of their fathers’ era.

So with funding from the United Kingdom, our multi-skilled team—from IDA, Doing Business, and Women, Business and the Law—analyzed barriers and reviewed laws pertaining to business and regulation from a female perspective.

We asked questions. We listened closely. We partnered with key experts and national stakeholders. We asked every question twice, making sure women’s voices were heard equally and their views reflected.

Starting a business, registering property, signing contracts, applying for credit: We probed each step of the entrepreneurial process using customary gender-neutral methodology, and then repeated it to see through the lens of women entrepreneurs. We enrolled women’s associations into our brainstorming working groups and steering committees, and we integrated them into our project design teams.

What we learned was staggering.

We had great difficulty finding any married female business owners—and learned that under national laws, a married woman couldn’t register a company, open a bank account, operate a business, or own property without the prior written consent of her husband.

We found women had no independent access to financing, skills training, or justice, nor any laws criminalizing domestic violence. They lacked legal and physical security, were barred from significantly contributing to economic growth, and had little or no voice in shaping the future even of their own households.

Laws, and husbands, often barred women from working certain hours or in particular professions. Profits and assets were legally the husband’s property. Even when women had permission and were able to register their businesses, they lacked access to collateral, credit, and financing—so their businesses couldn’t grow.

Drafting solutions

For years, we hadn’t noticed all this, in large part because we had failed to ask the right questions. Now we had to do something about it.

From 2011-2014, our Trade & Competitiveness team, partnering with Women, Business and the Law, worked with national partnersto draft a new Family Code that would improve the business climate for women, lifting multiple constraints on women’s participation and productivity and raising the minimum age of marriage for girls from 15 to 18.

That draft code, which addresses numerous aspects of commerce and civil rights, now awaits final approval for implementation, with a coalition of champions led by the Prime Minister.

At the same time, while designing new operations to promote entrepreneurship and competitiveness, we made special efforts to support female-owned businesses—such as holding information sessions and opening service counters during hours that were convenient for women with children.

“Build a public transport or sanitation system that’s safe and accessible for women and children as well as men, for caregivers pushing strollers, grocery carts, or wheelchairs, and you’ve simply built a better system—which vastly more people will use.”

We also enlisted other Bank Group resources—the Gender Innovation Labs and Women’s Leadership in Small and Medium Enterprise (WLSME) project—to gauge the impact of our efforts, which in turn spawned childcare and training initiatives. Early indications are positive.

DRC still has numerous development challenges, but last year it ranked among top reformers, with GDP projected to grow 10.3 percent in 2015 and inflation low enough to make it one of the fastest-growing, most investment attractive economies in the world.

A game-changer

The issues we encountered in DRC weren’t unique. Legal and regulatory barriers to women’s entrepreneurship and economic participation are common even where gender equality is legally enshrined.

Bank Group research has found more than 200 million women live in countries where they need their husband’s permission to start a business—while 70 percent of women don’t have a bank account in their own name, and less than 5 percent of loans for SMEs go to women-owned businesses. The global credit gap for women-owned SMEs—critical drivers of growth and engines of job creation—is estimated at some US$300 billion.

From Maldives to Mexico and Mozambique, the Bank Group and its partners are increasingly asking about just such issues with an eye toward lifting legal, social, and business constraints not just holding back half the world’s population, but effectively all of it.

The benefits of approaching development with an eye toward gender equality are broad and concrete. Build a public transport or sanitation system that’s safe and accessible for women and children as well as men, for caregivers pushing strollers, grocery carts, or wheelchairs, and you’ve simply built a better system—which vastly more people will use.

Make loans and financial services accessible to men and women, and you’ve probably built a better bank—and a more resilient economy better able to withstand shocks, provide good jobs, and lift more people out of poverty.

Creating 600 million new jobs and ending extreme poverty are big challenges, but approaching them with gender equality in mind, and asking the right questions, might just be the game-changer that gets us there.

This post first appeared on The World Bank Voices Blog.

Publication does not imply endorsement of views by the World Economic Forum.

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Author: Steven Dimitriyev is Senior Private Sector Development Specialist in the Trade & Competitiveness (T&C) Global Practice and the Practice Coordinator for the World Bank.

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