In a World of Free ♀ Enterprise

March 4, 2013

In a world of free enterprise, gender does not play a role in an individual’s ability to participate or prosper in the marketplace. In this ideal world, women have equal access to an education; they can acquire a loan and have the right to open their businesses of their choosing. Unfortunately, this world little resembles the one in which many of us do business in everyday. The reality is that in many markets women face incredible barriers to achieving economic independence. These barriers not only affect women, but also the economic vitality of the community. When women are limited from achieving their economic potential, it significantly diminished the positive effects free enterprise system can bring to local and international communities.

Women’s economic empowerment is a critical cornerstone of the free enterprise system, whose virtuous cycles of growth requires the participation of all members of its value chain: both men and women.  If half of any given community’s population is at some level excluded from the market, the free enterprise system cannot reach its full potential an maximize benefit for all those participating in it. From a workforce standpoint, women are dramatically underutilized in the formal economy. According to the World Bank, women make up nearly 50 percent of the world’s population and only 40.8 percent of the formal global labor market.

From a consumer perspective, as more women gain economic independence they also gain more control over purchasing decisions. According to the International Finance Corporation’s Women in Business Program, women’s purchasing power is currently expanding globally, much of it in emerging markets. Global consumer spending by women is projected to reach $28 trillion in 2014, a 40 percent increase from 2012. This global increase is encouraging however can only be sustained if women continue to gain financial independence and empowerment.

Women’s economic empowerment is a key component of long-term growth in the markets where business operates. By increasing economic opportunities for women companies are not just working toward gender equality, but toward long-term market stability and consumer retention.

Some forward-thinking companies have made bold business commitments. Companies like Walmart, Coke, and Tupperware are reconfiguring their global supply chains to empower women in the markets where they do business. They are catalyzing women to be entrepreneurial actors. It’s smart economics. It’s just smart business. In addition technology, accounting and financial services companies also donate product and technical expertise to equip female entrepreneurs with the resources they need to enter the formal economy. Donations of capital and expertise may be a more traditional philanthropic approach, but that does not undermine their value as one facet of the larger strategy to empower women with the skill sets and tools to be economically empowered.

A world of true free enterprise for women is possible, but it will take all sectors working together to make it reality. Every year the Business Civic Leadership Center hosts an event with the United Nations Office for Partnerships to bring together innovators to share best practices and learn of challenges in the market and current obstacles to scale. I encourage you to join us in New York on March 8 International Women’s Day.

Women’s economic empowerment is not just a social issue, it is a long-term business imperative. The sooner more companies, governments, and stakeholders acknowledge the potential that empowered women bring to the marketplace, the sooner free enterprise will more allow women, men and children to reap its benefits.