Women and Markets: Power Shift Toward Inclusion

October 30, 2015

Thought leaders on women’s economic empowerment to gather in Oxford. 

by Linda Scott

From the souk to the grocery store to the stock exchange – markets facilitate the movement of goods and services throughout the world, but also replicate the prejudices and exclusions typical of the societies in which they operate.

On November 9 and 10,  a special group of leaders, policymakers and experts will gather at University of Oxford’s Saïd Business School to think about the ways that markets can hinder or facilitate women’s economic engagement.

Drawn from business, government, foundations, international agencies, and global charities, this cadre of professionals was selected for invitation for their demonstrated commitment to the global effort to better include women economically.  The group will engage in wide-ranging conversations designed to stretch their thoughts on how market forces constrain women, from the gender segregation of industries to the issue of personal safety in the marketplace to legal frameworks and more.

The Power Shift Forum for Women in the World Economy is in its third year.  In the past, we’ve explored the themes of entrepreneurship and finance. We expect this year’s event to spur new projects and partnerships, with participants carrying an activist agenda out into the world.

In 2015 and 2016, the MasterCard Center for Inclusive Growth will partner with Power Shift to produce two meetings, this one at the University of Oxford and another at Georgetown University on May 4 and 5, 2016.  This strategic collaboration recognizes an irrefutable truth:  that the largest excluded group in the global economy is women.  Therefore, the most potential for inclusive growth lies in figuring out how to lower the barriers to female participation.

Why does including women promise growth?  There are several reasons.  The first is the most obvious:  if a nation is excluding half its adult population from economic participation, its productive base in terms of both labor supply and business creation stands to double simply by closing the gender gap among its own citizens.  In most developed countries, women are substantially more educated than are the men, so facilitating female inclusion avoids the waste of the society’s investment in their schooling.  Opening equal access to women improves the upside potential for any economy.

The second reason is more complex.  Subordinating females is extremely costly, resulting in negative influences on national growth.  For instance, high levels of adolescent fertility, a phenomenon directly related to women’s economic dependency, creates high maternal and infant mortality rates, as well as excessive birth rates, both of which contribute mightily to the cycle of scarcity and conflict that makes poverty hard to beat. Even in the developed nations, domestic violence against women costs society dearly in expenses for police and emergency care, as well as reducing productivity through lost workdays.  A key risk factor for domestic violence is economic inequality between men and women, so closing the gender gap in pay and employment promises to a long term reduction in violence.

Third, research suggests that when women are economically empowered, whole communities reap enormous benefits because of the positive impact of their spending patterns.  Women, when they have a little money and the freedom to spend it, focus first on the nutrition, health, and education of their children. This behavior builds human capital for the future by producing the kind of cultivated workers a knowledge-based economy demands.  Once the children are taken care of, women tend to join together to uplift their communities.  That collective behavior creates safer, more stable villages and towns.  International development experts, therefore, increasingly look to the strategy of empowering women economically in order to bring down poverty, reduce conflict, and increase wellbeing for world populations.

Finally, research suggests that better including women in business leadership at the highest levels has positive effects that benefit the entire global economy.  Female representation at the top is not only associated with better financial performance, it also reduces the “insider thinking” that leads to risky decisions, and increases accountability and transparency. All these effects would reduce the riskiness of the economy as a whole, if only women could be brought to the top in equal numbers to men.

The challenges of empowering women economically are huge and complex, however.  In many countries, women still cannot have their own bank accounts or even leave the house without a man’s permission.  All around the world, women are paid less than men and have less access to credit.  Inheritance laws and other restrictions often bar them from owning property or entering into contracts.  In every country, women face long-standing cultural prejudices that would keep them at home, rather than out in the world generating prosperity.

A concerted effort across all sectors, as well as the best possible thinking from world institutions, will be needed to close the gender gap in economics, once and for all.  This historic mission is what the Power Shift participants will gather to undertake.


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