The Women@Work column appears weekly in The Globe and Mail.
With holiday gift-giving in full-throttle, I’ve decided what I want on my list: an invitation to the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland this January. Granted, the chances of securing an invite to the WEF seem less likely than being invited to the Oscars and last year only 17 percent of the delegates were women. Since I’m not an influential business or political leader – or married to one – my chances are greatly diminished.
In this dream world, where I not only get invited but someone foots the incredulous bill that accompanies this honor, I’d aim to convince business leaders to better capitalize on the burgeoning female workforce as way to spur the global economy.
Admittedly, it’s not a new idea. Over the years, many have drawn the correlation that investing in women means investing in communities, including Dina Powell, president of the Goldman Sachs Foundation, who stated last year that 90 percent of income women gain is reinvested in society, including education and healthcare. Microfinance organizations often focus on women for this very reason.
Unfortunately, these initiatives to support women seem tainted with an air of pity, despite the fact that repayment rates to microfinance organization are significantly higher from women. During my magical time at the WEF, I want to disengage the pity angle and refocus the conversation squarely on the impact to a country’s bottom line.
To prove my point, I’d take with me dozens of copies of a recent report, entitled Empowering The Third Billion, by Booz & Company, a global management consulting firm. The “third billion” refers to the nearly one billion women set to enter the global economy in the next decade, rivaling in importance to the growth of India or China.
To not capitalize on this growth translates into a missed opportunity in developing and developed economies alike, the report showed. For example, if female unemployment rates matched men’s in the U.S., it would boost their overall GDP by 5 percent. In a country like Egypt, the economy would grow by 34 percent.
Although Canada ranks relatively high on the Booz & Co’s Third Billion Index, in the seventh slot, the report suggested there remains room for improvement.
“Canada has one of the largest wage gaps in the OECD between men and women working full-time,” said Leila Hoteit, principal with Booz & Company, adding that although the differentials are narrowing, they remain near 30 percent.
They attribute this to the relatively high incidence of part-time work among women and their occupational choices. Nearly two-thirds of graduates in the humanities, arts, education, health and welfare are women, observed Ms. Hoteit, and more work needs to be done to encourage women to enter disciplines needed by the market.
Women in Canada, as in many other countries documented in the report, bear the brunt of the “care economy,” which also impacts their wages. For example, women in OECD countries spent on average 2.4 hours more on unpaid work each day, compared to men.
In our increasingly, inter-connected world, there remain many innovative ways to capitalize on the under-utilized female workforce. Mounira Jamjoom, senior research specialist with the Ideation Center, Booz & Co’s think tank in the Middle East, explains that virtual jobs may make up 15 percent of global jobs in the future, an opportunity that could be filled by under-employed women.
To prove that point about how empowering women in the third world with well-paying jobs can impact the bottom line in Canada, I’d bring with me to the WEF a sterling silver purse, hand-crafted in a remote village in Cambodia.
Mehrak Mehrvar, a Toronto-based gender and governance specialist discovered the purses in a remote part of Cambodia a couple of years ago and began her mission to sell them through her company, Nini boutique.
The luxury items cost up to $3000 but Ms. Mehrvar ensures the for profit enterprise remains sustainable for the artisans, who receive a more than fair wage and will eventually become shareholders in the company.
“It’s not about aid, it’s about empowering people,” said Ms. Mehrak while in Cambodia, adding that she hopes more people will find innovative ways to stimulate business opportunities for these women.
If the purses take off as Ms. Mehrvar hopes, as a luxury item along the lines of Persian rugs, perhaps more business leaders will realize that not investing in women is like leaving money on the table.
It’s a motivating principal behind NY-based e-commerce site, PlumAlley.co.
“Think of it as a cycle: When a woman’s business is successful she creates her own wealth. Through her creation of wealth, her family and community also receive the economic benefit,” said PlumAlley.co’s founder and CEO Deborah Jackson.
“Successful female entrepreneurs have the economic power to invest in new female founded companies. More women become inspired to found businesses and have access to a greater pool of mentors and investors. PlumAlley.co‘s goal is to facilitate this positive economic cycle,” she added.
Global companies are on board with this message as well. Emma Fox, SVP of marketing for Walmart Canada, said the company’s international division plans to recruit 500,000 associates over the next 5 years. Since 75 percent of their customers are women, finding ways to relate to them better remains a tactical business move. The chorus of voices advocating for a better engaged, global female workforce keeps getting stronger and if enough women can penetrate the Davos crowd, perhaps more leaders will listen.