Community members in a Gujarat slum participate in discussions after watching video documentaries screened by the Self Employed Women's Association of India. The organization helps poor, self-employed women that make a living through their own business or labor. The photo was taken in 2010. Photo by: Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation / CC BY-NC-ND

More than half a billion women entered the workforce during the three decades preceding 2012, when the World Bank issued its World Development Report on gender equality and development.

Women currently represent more than 40 percent of the global labor force and more than half of the world’s university students.

Countless organizations have sought to level the global economic playing field so that women can access capital, invest in their own ideas and in their families, and unlock their own potential as empowered builders of an interconnected global economy that values their contribution appropriately.

Human rights arguments for gender equality are powerful. They appeal to basic convictions about the freedoms all people should enjoy. But recognizing how inequality and discrimination affects the economy — including sectors like infrastructure, energy and finance — can help create the kinds of incentives that align human rights with smart economics.

But it’s not enough simply to make opportunities available.

“If ‘she builds,’ she needs sufficient tools,” Millennium Challenge Corp. senior director for social and gender assessment Ginny Seitz told Devex.

Those tools are getting more sophisticated and more finely tuned; organizations, companies, and donors are working together in new ways to ensure they get into the hands of female entrepreneurs, leaders and policymakers who can use them to tap the power of a global economy to affect positive change.

Here are just a few of them:

If ‘she builds economies,’ she needs... the right conversation

What does it take to turn women into entrepreneurs and business leaders? In many cases, it takes listening to the myriad ways they already are entrepreneurial.

In Jordan during the holy month of Ramadan, communities gather at sunset to break their daily fast with Iftar, an evening meal often shared among dozens of friends and family, featuring foods enjoyed for centuries. Preparations take hours, planning and budgeting even longer, and women most often assume responsibility for coordinating this sacred moment of communal thanks and celebration.

Also in Jordan, Chemonics International, implementing “AMIR,” an access to microcredit and policy reform program in partnership with the U.S. Agency for International Development, struggled to convince women to take advantage of trainings that sought to provide knowledge and tools to women entrepreneurs and business owners.

“They would say, ‘I don’t know about business.’ ‘I don’t know about putting together a budget,’” said Terri Kristalsky, Chemonics senior vice president for Europe and Eurasia. “Women didn’t have an inherent sense about what a business should be.”

So the team held a discussion, and they encouraged participating women to recount their roles and experiences preparing Iftar during Ramadan. The team posed questions to participants: How did you plan for this? How did you budget this? How did you account for everything you purchased?

“We used this discussion as a way to tell them that they’re thinking just like business people,” remembered Kristalsky. “And once we started the dialogue about becoming entrepreneurs, we realized women needed a forum.”

That forum turned into WAEDAT — Women Access to Entrepreneurship Development and Training — which in 2011 flipped from being donor-driven to becoming a formalized, self-standing NGO with operations in five locations.

“When you look at women building economies, often the theory is, let credit lead it,” said Kristalsky. “But we also have to work on the demand side.”

WAEDAT has now graduated hundreds of Jordanian women from its capacity building and training programs, and it serves as an ongoing forum for discussion and support, assisting budding women entrepreneurs in networking with those mentors and colleagues who have already started businesses and are emerging as Jordan’s next business leaders.

If ‘she builds economies,’ she needs… networks and mentors

Terry Neese is a serial entrepreneur. She’s met with members of the U.S. Congress to urge their support for women entrepreneurs, helped American women entrepreneurs play a larger role in shaping the public policy environment that can restrict or enable their success, and even written a book about women’s entrepreneurship.

In 2006, Neese got a phone call from the U.S. State Department asking for a favor: travel to Afghanistan and share those same lessons, so women their can learn about starting and growing a business. Business opportunities that had been completely closed to women during the Taliban era were starting to reemerge, but the knowledge base for an inclusive business environment needed to be rebuilt.

Neese’s week-long trip to Afghanistan in 2007 evolved into something else – “Peace through Business,” a learning, networking, and mentoring program that links women entrepreneurs in the U.S. with aspiring women entrepreneurs in Afghanistan and Rwanda.

“If you can pull this network together and then go meet with members of parliament, senators [and other leaders], then you have shown that women business owners can come together with one voice, can be effective leaders, can articulate two to three issues that are of concern to them,” said Neese.

In Rwanda, Peace through Business graduates have done more than meet with politicians. They’ve become them. Four Peace through Business graduates have been appointed to the Rwandan parliament.

And in Afghanistan, a small group of Peace for Business graduates recently met privately with President Hamid Karzai and urged him to sign the U.S. — Afghanistan bilateral security agreement, arguing that it would be good for business if he did. Security concerns still plague the Afghan business climate, and the bilateral agreement has yet to materialize; but women business leaders, empowered by a supportive global network, are beginning to shape the conversation about Afghanistan’s future.

She Builds: Innovative solutions and thought leadership at the intersection of women and development

If ‘she builds economies,’ she needs... conducive public policy

Organizations striving to unlock women’s potential as drivers of economic growth can be among the most powerful advocates for gender equality in national laws and policy.

Take Lesotho, the mountain kingdom in southern Africa where, until 2006, married women held the same legal status as children. They could not independently apply for a bank loan, own a business or purchase property.

That finally changed, not only because of Lesotho’s civil society and equal rights activists who fought for years to overturn discrimination in their own legal system, but also because a U.S. aid agency, the Millennium Challenge Corp., recognized that the law fit the description of the very thing the agency works with partner countries to eliminate: a constraint to economic growth.

MCC’s mission is to alleviate poverty through economic growth. According to Ginny Seitz, who has worked tirelessly to integrate gender equality across the agency’s portfolio, “Social inclusion and gender equality are the pathways to linking growth to poverty reduction.”

In Lesotho, that message took hold.

MCC’s gender assessment team recommended that Lesotho’s development compact — a $360 million funding package for economic growth programs — be contingent on parliament’s willingness to move forward on gender equality legislation. Eventually, the Legal Capacity of Married Persons Act was enacted, prompting the law to see married men and women as equals.

Lesotho closed out its first MCC compact last September — including a gender equality project that trained and educated women and men about the new married persons law to help promote equal access to economic resources.

This year, Lesotho was the only country to sign a follow-on compact with MCC, a recognition of its accomplishments in removing barriers for women in society.

If ‘she builds economies,’ she needs... partnerships between business and development

Construction management firms tend to contract outside technical experts for complex project activities, like engineering a turbine. Foreign aid agencies — like the United Nations Office for Project Services, which handles procurement from across the U.N. system — are no different, and they’re all looking to hire women and working to mainstream gender issues within their organizations and beyond.

The power of the private sector and large institutions like UNOPS to provide women with the tools to build economies is helping to transform the face of global development.

“The corporations and the agencies and the contractors – everybody’s experimenting with new ways to do this,” said Brad Strickland, senior associate in Creative Associate’s economic growth division. Strickland leads Creative’s efforts to support new and innovative partnerships between government donors and the private sector. “It’s a new way of doing development, but also business.”

Organizations advocating on behalf of women’s economic empowerment realize they stand a better chance of advancing their cause by helping corporations understand how they may benefit from engaging women — and the international development community that is eager to advance their cause. Part of the challenge involves getting the private sector to look beyond understanding community members as consumers, and seeing them instead as agents of social change who demand voice in addition to products and services.

“The assumption may be: We know how to do this; we know this market,” said Rekha Mehra, senior associate for gender in development at Creative. “The social development side may not be as familiar to them.”

And just as business is transforming development, so is development transforming business. The conversation about what a global corporation should look like and what it means for gender equality to represent a core business practice has gone global.

“People are beginning to understand the strategic resource that international development might be able to provide,” Strickland said.

To be successful, firms must recognize they are competing in a global environment in which consumers increasingly hold the private sector accountable as a force for positive change, and in which firms from a wide variety of cultural and economic traditions hold a deep commitment to social development that gives them a competitive edge in many of the world’s emerging markets.

Assembling the tools

Each of these tools can help to elevate women as economic builders. But to sustain and amplify the progress that has been made will require even greater effort to link them together into a toolkit women and girls — and their allies — can use throughout their lives.

From primary and secondary school retention to workforce readiness, job choice, entrepreneurship and business leadership, women and girls must have access to the full assembly of tools that can help them play an equal role in shaping economies at every scale.

Want to learn more? Check out She Builds and tweet us using #SheBuilds.

She Builds is a month-long conversation hosted by Devex in partnership with Chemonics, Creative Associates, JBS International as well as the Millennium Challenge Corp., United Nations Office for Project Services and U.K. Department for International Development.

About the author

  • Michael Igoe

    Michael Igoe is a Senior Reporter with Devex, based in Washington, D.C. He covers U.S. foreign aid, global health, climate change, and development finance. Prior to joining Devex, Michael researched water management and climate change adaptation in post-Soviet Central Asia, where he also wrote for EurasiaNet. Michael earned his bachelor's degree from Bowdoin College, where he majored in Russian, and his master’s degree from the University of Montana, where he studied international conservation and development.