Women and Entrepreneurship (Part I)

Why do women remain perhaps the world's most underutilized resource?

March 11, 2010

Why do women remain perhaps the world's most underutilized resource?

At least half the brainpower on earth belongs to women. Countries that do not capitalize on the full potential of one-half of their society are grossly misallocating their human resources and compromising their ability to compete in the global economy.

An important part of capitalizing on human potential lies in fostering entrepreneurship. This fact has been well-recognized by the International Labor Organization, which references the importance of entrepreneurship development in its Global Jobs Pact. Indeed, ILO Director-General Juan Somavia himself has said that "no decent work strategy can be successful without encouraging entrepreneurship, innovation and productivity."

At the same time, women workers and women entrepreneurs are the backbone of many industries that have been hard-hit in recent months. And of course, women are the backbones of families struggling to manage in difficult circumstances. The good news is that while women are hard-hit by the problem, we are also a huge part of the solution.

So let me take a step back and draw some connections between development, entrepreneurship and women.

There is clear evidence that enabling women to develop their skills and qualifications and to join the labor market boosts incomes and well-being throughout society. In particular, educating girls boosts prosperity. Not only are better-educated women more productive, they raise healthier, better-educated children. Putting more resources in the hands of women has a multiplier effect, raising the welfare of the entire family.

By the way, if the mantra these days is "jobs, jobs, jobs," the key for creating jobs is "education, education, education," particularly for women and girls.

Yet, despite some gains and despite these demonstrable impacts, women remain perhaps the world's most underutilized resource. In short, not only is equal opportunity in the area of economic empowerment not a reality — its absence is a drag on growth, development and poverty alleviation.

The world of women's entrepreneurship is large, diverse and of great economic significance. Women-owned enterprises exist everywhere. They populate all sectors of the economy, and they come in all sizes.

In the United States, there are approximately 6.2 million women-owned firms, employing 9.2 million people and generating $1.15 trillion in sales.

Worldwide, women-owned businesses are said to comprise between one-quarter and one-third of all businesses.

And this estimate is almost certainly understated: first, because available data do not always distinguish by gender — and secondly, because women are more likely to run businesses in the informal economy, where data are difficult or impossible to capture.

For example, in Africa, women are responsible for between 60-80% of food production. In Ghana, women working in the informal sector contribute up to 46% of agricultural GDP.

More broadly, it has been estimated that in sub-Saharan Africa, 84% of women are informally employed (compared, by the way, to 63% of men). This informal work accounts for over 50% of GDP in Benin, Chad, Kenya and Mali.

Worldwide, women are most heavily represented in micro and small businesses. This is almost certainly due to legal, social and/or cultural factors, the specifics of which may very widely around the world — but the effect of which is to constrain the potential for women entrepreneurs.

What do women themselves perceive as their biggest obstacles? Of course, the specifics vary enormously among countries with different levels of development.

But listen to the list of issues most often cited by women entrepreneurs in the United States: They cite access to capital, trade, affordable health care, taxes, access to government procurement, gaining media exposure, work-life balance, trends in technology and retirement security.

In sum, these concerns are about accessing the capital and markets needed to grow a profitable and sustainable business — and about securing essential social protections. These are concerns common to all entrepreneurs in many countries. They are small business issues, not particularly women's issues.

None of this should be surprising. Women comprise approximately half the human race. That their enterprises should be numerous and diverse, that they should have an impact on their economies, and that they share the problems of all small business owners should be obvious.

Editor’s Note: Part II of this feature will be published tomorrow on The Globalist.

Takeaways

Women remain perhaps the world's most underutilized resource. Equal opportunity in the area of economic empowerment is not a reality.

Worldwide, women-owned businesses are said to comprise between one-quarter and one-third of all businesses.

Not only are better-educated women more productive, they raise healthier, better-educated children.