By Arif Zaman
When Sonia Gandhi delivered the Commonwealth Lecture this year, she remarked on the notable coincidence that the current Chair of the 54 member country grouping; Kamla Persad-Bissessar, PM of Trinidad and Tobago, the next Chair; Julia Gillard, PM of Australia, and the Head of the Commonwealth, HM The Queen, are all women. This month at the UN at an event on Women’s Political Participation spearheaded by Persad-Bissesar, female political leaders expressed their ‘concern that women in every part of the world continue to be largely marginalized from decision-making, often as a result of discriminatory laws, practices, and attitudes, and due to poverty disproportionately affecting women.’
Even so, the global impact of women entrepreneurs is gaining intensity as the number of female business owners continues to grow steadily worldwide. As the Global Gender Gap Report 2010 points out, never before has there been such momentum around the issue of gender parity on the global stage. Numerous multinational companies have aligned core elements of their businesses and products to support and provide opportunities for women in the communities in which they are active.
The UN has created a new entity for gender equality and the empowerment of women. There is a strong movement around greater investment in girls’ education in the developing world and in many Commonwealth countries. Businesses around the world are starting to take into account the increasing power of women consumers – including in the OIC. As women begin to make up more than half of all university graduates in much of the developed world, there is an increased consciousness that this talent must be given the opportunity to lead. Several countries have introduced legislation that mandates minimum requirements for women’s participation, in both business and politics.
The Women’s Empowerment Principles: Equality Means Business was forged through an international multi-stakeholder consultative process led by the UN Development Fund for Women and the UN Global Compact. They provide a set of considerations to help the private sector focus on key elements integral to promoting gender equality in the workplace, marketplace and community.
A number of high profile appointments in 2011 including the new MD of the IMF, Pakistan’s new Foreign Minister, the first woman in that role from a Muslim country, and the current and next Chairpersons of the Commonwealth are all evidence of women driving change in crucial roles at key periods for their organisations and countries with wide international impacts.
However while a number of women make their businesses a great success, too many experience market failures and impediments limiting the extent to which women become entrepreneurs and their prospects for success. Specific obstacles to greater entrepreneurship by women include inappropriate educational background, a lack of role models, the gendering of entrepreneurship, weak social status, competing demands on time — notably associated with family responsibilities and limited access to finance. Lack of access to finance remains one of the biggest specific obstacles to greater entrepreneurship by women across the globe with poor business plans, lack of credit history and collateral affecting the chances of women trying to access finance. Indeed while much has been accomplished through the integration of principles and actions on corporate responsibility, diversity and inclusion, the full participation of women throughout the private sector — from the CEO’s office to the factory floor to the supply chain — remains unfulfilled.
On the supply side, increasing numbers of women becoming second and third generation owners of sizeable family businesses in traditional and emerging sectors across a range of developing Commonwealth countries in Asia, Africa and the Caribbean highlights the growing impact and importance of women in leadership roles.
Women continue to make essential and enormous contributions to the economy in business and professional roles and as consumers. The 2007 annual UNESCAP (United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific) review reports that restricting job opportunities for women costs the region between US$42bn and US$46bn a year in GDP growth. Goldman Sach’s 2008 Global Economic Report says “narrowing the gender gap in employment could push income per capita as much as 14 percent higher than our baseline projections by 2020, and as much as 20 percent higher by 2030.”
This is an area where the Commonwealth has a clear focus. The Commonwealth Business Women’s Network (CBWN) was established by the Commonwealth Business Council (CBC) in 2005, in collaboration with the Commonwealth Secretariat, to recognise the significant contribution of women’s business throughout the Commonwealth and to promote their active involvement in accessing markets and influencing policy makers. It aims to work with businesses and governments to support gender-mainstreaming initiatives by a threefold combined and complimentary approach – providing global outreach and networking opportunities for women entrepreneurs; institutionalising linkages between private sector and governments; and working with partners to set up ‘knowledge networks’ to provide support and advice on funding, sustainability and growth for women entrepreneurs.
The CBWN mandate also extends to empowerment of women’s businesses through awareness on how global and local trade and trade agreements impact them, promoting gender best practice amongst stakeholders and recognizing the economic contribution of women to national economies. A key work area for the network is to develop policy recommendations in areas critical to the growth of businesswomen including access to finance and markets, the business environment, technology, globalisation, international trade and management.
Despite the challenges, Pakistan certainly has its laurels. The largest and most established professional body for business women is the International Federation of Business and Professonal Women (BPW International). Pakistan has one of its oldest chapters and significantly, when its President Dr. Salima Ahmed received an award for outstanding work done on an ongoing basis to improve the status of grassroots women at the BPW’s triennial Congress this year, she received a standing ovation for several minutes. Pakistan is in fact the only country amongst over 90 where the local chapter has established and supports social projects and the other one in Bangladesh was founded by Dr. Ahmed when she was the last Accountant General of East Pakistan. In Karachi alone there is a multipurpose women complex which includes a Hostel for Working Women, a Retired Women’s Home, a Technical Training Centre and an English medium school in Azam Basti.
What is striking in fact that there are an increasing number of inspirational women in leading roles in diverse sectors and also CEOs of major companies in the logistics and pharma sectors and now partners at two of the Big 4 accounting firms. What is also striking is that in the international fixation about Pakistan’s familiar narrative of death and destruction, the experience and achievements of successful women seldom figures.
If this is a serious omission, an innovative initiative inspired by and involving several businesswomen in Pakistan and elsewhere in South Asia may help to create a more visible platform to share, celebrate and encourage success. Three organisations — CBC, BPW International (whose President is currently from Australia) and the British Association of Women Entrepreneurs are working together to revamp, reorientate and reinvigorate the Commonwealth Business Women’s Network to coincide with the Commonwealth Business Forum and Heads of Government Meeting in Perth in October. Watch this space!
Source: The News