Wed, Mar 13, 2019 - Page 9 News List

Helping women worldwide crack the ‘export code’

By Arancha Gonzalez

When I first met the Accra-based fashion designer Chiedza Makonnen in 2014, her sales beyond Ghana were minimal. Yet today, Makonnen’s brand, Afrodesiac Worldwide, is featured on the red carpets of Hollywood and the stages of the Essence Festival in New Orleans.

Because Makonnen cracked the “export code,” her company has scaled up production, tripled its staff and vastly expanded its media profile.

Cracking the export code means overcoming the notion that businesses owned and managed by women cannot be global, because meeting the standards required for cross-border trade is too challenging and expensive.

It is widely assumed (albeit not stated outright) that women-owned businesses are riskier and therefore less attractive to investors. However, just as women 50 years ago burned their bras to destroy a symbol of oppression, women today must remove the barriers preventing them from trading freely in the global economy.

To be sure, women in many countries are better off and enjoy more opportunities than their mothers and grandmothers did, owing to significant improvements in access to education and healthcare. However, major gaps remain and, given the slow and uneven pace of progress, there is no room for complacency.

According to the World Economic Forum, closing the overall gender gap across 106 countries would take 108 years if we continue at the current pace of change; in Sub-Saharan Africa, where the problem is most acute, it would take at least 135 years. And the single largest gap is economic; closing it would take an estimated 202 years.

Gender inequality is a truly global problem that persists even in the most gender-equal countries. Still, there are bright spots that can guide others.

In Norway, for example, women now hold the three highest government positions (prime minister, finance minister, foreign affairs minister) for the first time in the nation’s history.

In Rwanda, ministerial positions are perfectly balanced between genders and 61 percent of parliamentarians are women. And in Barbados, a woman now serves as prime minister for the first time.

Unfortunately, trade and business seem to be lagging behind politics. Despite Norway’s groundbreaking 2007 law requiring that women hold 40 percent of corporate board seats, women still occupy disproportionately fewer top management positions. Across the Norwegian public and private sectors, fewer than one-quarter of senior executives are women; and in 2017, a mere 15 out of 213 publicly listed companies were run by women.

True, Bloomberg’s 2019 Gender-Equality Index of companies in 36 countries suggests that businesses are doing more to ensure that women make it to the C-suite and boardroom. Yet the grim truth is that women remain on the economic fringes in most countries around the world.

Women’s economic marginalization is a problem for everyone. According to the World Bank, men’s lifetime earnings are more than US$23,000 above those of women, on average, implying that US$160 trillion in human-capital wealth — the equivalent of two years of global GDP — is simply being left on the table.

Including the 1 billion women who remain on the margins in the formal economy worldwide would be like adding another China and another US.

As I and many other gender-equality advocates have been saying repeatedly in recent years: “You cannot win the match with half the team on the bench.”

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