Equity, Diversity and Inclusion

The geography of gender: where women work, economies grow

Women from a single mothers association sweep rice at their processing plant in the northern Ghanaian town of Bolgatanga.

Women from a single mothers' association sweep rice at their processing plant in the town of Bolgatanga, Ghana. Image: REUTERS/Finbarr O'Reilly

Ann Cairns
Vice Chairman, Mastercard
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Education, Gender and Work

• Three African countries have the highest rates of female business ownership.

• Education and financial access for women doesn't equate to greater ownership.

• Business leaders must continuing pushing for equality.

Our world is full of brilliant possibilities. But they’re not always open to everyone. The opportunities for women to contribute to the global economy are intrinsically linked to where in the world they are born and reach adulthood. So long as global disparities exist in education and opportunity – as the World Economic Forum's Global Gender Gap Report reaffirms this week – this will always remain the case. This holds us all back. Yet, the business community can, and must, help tackle this divide.

The geography of gender is challenging and complex. The latest Mastercard Index of Women Entrepreneurs (MIWE), for example, highlights the significance of geography in female entrepreneurship. Unsurprisingly, MIWE showed that higher-income, advanced economies, with open and vibrant markets that support SMEs and the ease of doing business provide highly conducive and enabling conditions to support female business owners.

Image: Mastercard

More surprisingly, MIWE also revealed that there are some less wealthy, developing economies that are outperforming their more developed counterparts. In terms of female business owners as a percentage of all businesses, Uganda, Ghana and Botswana have the highest percentage of female ownership anywhere in the world – women accounting for 38.2%, 37.9% and 36% respectively.

The fundamental necessity to provide an income has combined with slightly more favourable socio-economic conditions – such as reasonable gender parity in education levels and the status of women – resulting in these less developed economies outperforming their developed peers.

Looking beyond location

The world is now more connected, with organizations transcending international borders. There is an opportunity for our cultural values to cross borders, political divides and disparities in development; – we must use this position to champion women. There are huge benefits to engaging women: Research tells us that companies with gender-diverse executive teams are 21% more likely to experience above-average profitability. Women also represent the most significant consumer base, responsible for more than 80% of everyday buying decisions. Having more people at the top who inherently understand their target audience can only be healthy for business. So, it is time the development of women is prioritized within business objectives and becomes a measure of success.

The responsibility to champion women in work not only benefits profit margins, but also the development of women, institutions and societies around the world. Where women work, economies grow.

Three avenues of change

As the Sustainable Development Goals demonstrate, creating the right culture to open up possibilities for women requires direct and indirect approaches. There are three channels by which global organisations can affect change:

1. Education. Women are still largely under-represented in STEM, on boards and senior roles in global firms, especially in tech. Business-led education initiatives play a key role in tackling this. Mastercard’s Girls4Tech STEM program aims to inspire girls, aged between eight and 12, to both enjoy and continue with STEM subjects. Having reached 400,000 girls in 25 countries, we are now on the way to reaching 1 million by 2025. In the developing world, over two-thirds of schools don’t have access to clean water or sanitation, which is a huge barrier to education. Unilever is making great strides in this area with its Cleaner Toilets, Brighter Futures initiative, having so far helped 644 schools and over 33,000 children working towards SDG 6.

2. Empowerment. Education is only the first step. We need to get more women into the workforce and then empower them to thrive. But our research showed that in many countries there is a clear disconnect between education and financial access, and women’s ability to thrive in the businesses of their native economy. For example, Malaysia (82.7%) and Singapore (82.5%) have the highest percentage of female knowledge assets and financial access of anywhere in the world. Yet business ownership rates in these countries are low – women account for just 16.2% of all owners in Malaysia and 26.3% in Singapore. Bringing and keeping women in the business ecosystem can in part be achieved through accountability. Senior figures must champion women in their organizations and create role models for the next generation. This can only be achieved by linking management goals closer to inclusivity, so diversity is prioritized, while ensuring everyone is accountable for achieving it.

3. Equality. Businesses should ask themselves three questions when it comes to gender equality: 1) What can we do for people? 2) What can we do for markets? and 3) What can we do for society? For us, a starting point was setting a global precedent for parental leave being for both men and women. Eighty percent of men from across the business take their paternity leave, helping us develop a sharing environment. This is now a trend that we’re starting to see become more common throughout business, with Hewlett Packard Enterprise recently announcing that all new parents will receive 26 weeks of paid leave to redress the balance between maternity and paternity leave, while also ensuring that same-sex partners aren’t left behind. Progressing towards equal pay for equal work is another driver of inclusive growth, with our female employees earning $0.996 for every $1 earned by men. While these initiatives began at a leadership level, they ultimately all end with our employees, their lived experiences and workplace culture.

Beyond business

The success of a woman is fundamentally linked to the society and economic conditions in which she lives. And a world that works better for women creates limitless possibilities for us all. As a community, business is well aware of its power of influence. But Davos 2020 is also pointing us in a different direction towards engaging all stakeholders in shared and sustained value. By agreeing with this new Davos Manifesto, we are all saying that businesses create globally significant cultural change – it can be done, and it must be done if we are to overcome the geography of gender.

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Related topics:
Equity, Diversity and InclusionJobs and the Future of WorkBusinessGeographies in Depth
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