Despite Uneven Progress, Women Remain the Promise of Economic Change

Article Date

21 October 2011

Article Author

By Gillian Gaynair

Media Contact

Anne McPherson

Vice President, Global Communications email [email protected]

The business case for investing in the world’s women is strong, and data illustrate the powerful market potential of women living in low- and middle-income countries. Yet despite such evidence, women still are not seen as producers that can drive global economic growth, said panelists at an International Center for Research on Women (ICRW) discussion Oct. 19 at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C.

“We’re still at a point where in the economic picture you still have discussions that say, ‘Here’s our economic strategy, and we should do this and this … and we should do something with women,’” said Gayle Smith, special assistant to President Obama and senior director of the National Security Council. “I don’t think we’re quite where we need to be yet.”  

Smith was joined by Nemat Shafik, deputy director of the International Monetary Fund and ICRW’s Anju Malhotra, a leading expert on women’s empowerment, for “Women: An Emerging Market,” the third discussion in ICRW’s Passports to Progress 35th anniversary series. BBC World News Anchor Katty Kay moderated the discussion, which focused on women’s economic progress and potential as well as the roadblocks they continue to face. 

While there have been notable accomplishments for women in the past three decades – such as ensuring that girls are educated – the panel said that much of the progress has been uneven. For instance, although more women are entering the labor force, wage disparities persist. In some parts of the world, life expectancy has increased; in others, women still die in childbirth. And in many developing countries women are heads of state, but that doesn’t necessarily “translate into higher status for the mass of women in those societies,” Shafik noted. 

In the midst of these paradoxical landscapes, significant changes are currently underway that hold promise for women in poverty: Global development and private sector priorities are shifting to tap more into women’s economic power – not only because it’s the right thing to do, but because research shows that it’s also good for the collective bottom line, panelists said. Discussions about policies and international aid to support women’s economic growth also are shifting to focus more on designing efforts based on evidence of impact. 

Meanwhile, the world is more connected than ever through technology and it’s also churning with transformative events such as the economic downturn and revolutions in the Middle East. Women, the panel said, have a role to play in fueling stability and prosperity. 

“In an economic moment globally that is something of the likes of which we’ve really never seen, I think there’s potentially an opportunity,” Smith said. “(We) have working out there a group of (women) that, in the aggregate, are in fact an emerging market. Think of the power of that market.” 

Malhotra agreed. “You can’t have human progress without a majority of human beings being part of … the economic growth, the economic equity,” she said of the world’s women.

The challenge for policy-makers and decision-makers, however, is to view women – and invest in them – as producers of economic growth, not just consumers of goods and services. “It’s getting that kind of thinking into the bloodstream,” Smith said, “as opposed to still having it as an ‘add-on,’” when designing economic development strategies. 

“We’re only just beginning to understand the role women can play in the macro economy,” Shafik added about women’s economic potential. “And there’s now some evidence on how investing in women policy contributes to higher economic growth.” 

Looking ahead, the panel was generally hopeful about the future. 

“I’d be willing to venture that in about half the world we’ll be in a place where gender equity will be pretty close in education and employment outcomes,” Shafik said. “But I think there will still be big parts of the world where we’ll have quite a lot to do particularly on political rights, employment, and in the productive sectors.” 

Malhotra was more optimistic. She said she believes the world is on the cusp of “exponential change.”

“The global world is so connected…none of the business of the world is going to be able to run unless women are part of that process,” Malhotra said. “Thirty-five years ago, we plotted towards this change, and in the last five years we’ve leapfrogged.” 

“And frankly, I think we’re going to (continue to) leapfrog.” 

MORE: Read excerpts from the conversation and view a video of the full discussion.

Gillian Gaynair is ICRW’s senior writer and editor.