African solar technicians train to build solar-powered lamps for their home village. Photo by: Gaganjit Singh/UN Women / CC BY-NC-ND

Three weeks ago, a freshly painted, brightly colored room in Amman, Jordan, was filled with more than 100 job seekers and potential employers, including a small group of young women. I asked the eager but wary women to list the challenges they perceive in the job market.

They didn’t hesitate, rattling off a long list that included an inability to work nights because of safety concerns and cultural constraints, limited transport to get to and from work, labor laws that create disincentives to hiring them, biases limiting the options of “appropriate work,” and age discrimination. The day was a good one; at least two of the women left with job offers. But the conversation highlighted the challenges facing Jordanian women — and women around the world — as they seek to enter the workforce as professionals. For me, the discussion, which took place during a visit to a USAID-supported Youth Job Center run by the International Youth Foundation, perfectly encapsulated why it is difficult to ensure women their rightful roles in economy and society.

It is abundantly clear that nations’ sustained economic prosperity requires women’s full economic participation. As early as 2005, the U.N. Development Program’s Arab Human Development Report found that severe female under- and unemployment undermines economic and human development in the Middle East. Since then, the evidence has only become clearer. According to the World Bank, poverty incidence tends to be lower in countries with greater gender equality. Where gender gaps are narrowing, economies are more competitive and prosperous. Remarkably, Norway recently concluded that its national wealth can be attributed as much to its high rate of female workforce participation as to its oil wealth.

For companies, the value of female economic empowerment is also evident. Women repay micro-loans at higher rates than men. Some research indicates that women-owned firms have significantly higher annual sales growth than male-owned companies. And several studies positively correlate women on boards of directors with stronger corporate performance.  

At the family level, women’s economic empowerment can increase well-being too. Female labor force participation correlates positively with growing household income. Women spend a larger share of the income they control on food, health care, schooling and home improvements than men; higher female incomes can result in better educated, healthier citizens and greater resilience in the face of crisis.

Yet, despite the fact that women make up half of the world’s population, they are under-recognized as potential drivers of economic well-being. It is estimated that women will control $15 trillion in spending by the end of this year, and that by 2028, women will be responsible for some two-thirds of global consumption spending. That translates to enormous economic power that is under-valued. Similarly, while women-owned firms have enormous potential to drive economic growth and generate employment, women own less than one quarter of all enterprises in most of the world. In places like South Asia, they own less than 3 percent of firms.

All of that said, the barriers to full economic participation by women are not so simple to overcome. In many parts of the world, women are limited by illiteracy and innumeracy. That lack of basic skills inhibits their ability to use computers and cell phones, participate in training programs, or simply read the instructions on packages of seeds and fertilizer. Laws and regulations often disadvantage females: The World Bank recently found that in 103 of 141 economies, at least one legal difference potentially constrains women’s economic opportunity relative to men’s. Compounding the challenges are cultural constraints. Those barriers can relate to perceptions about what women can or should do outside of the home: the hours they can work, the jobs they can respectably do, as well as the modes of transport they can use. Additionally, women continue to bear a larger share of the work burden in the home, including cleaning, cooking, and child care, making it challenging to balance obligations in the paid workplace with obligations in the family. The barriers notwithstanding, the need to engage women in the formal economy is real. As economies stagnate and economic disaffection rises, we must improve our ability to tap the potential of women.

There are real creative opportunities to make progress. During a visit to Kabul, Afghanistan, I had the great pleasure of meeting with a group of young female interns USAID had placed in government ministries as they completed university. The women were enormously excited to share stories about their work. The internship was preparing them for the workplace; it was also preparing the workplace for the women, who were joining the ranks as professionals and changing the images of women in the economy and society. Today, some 140 women have been placed in ministries and provincial offices across Afghanistan; more than 70 percent of those young graduates have received jobs following their internships. It is a small but important step forward.

The statistics and data are compelling and important. But the individual stories are what really paint the picture. Successfully overcoming the barriers to women’s economic empowerment will pay enormous dividends. There is the opportunity, obligation and a need to enable women to fulfill their potential if we are to eliminate extreme poverty. Let’s seize that opportunity and enable societies around the world to thrive.

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

  • Carla Koppell

    Carla Koppell is the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) Chief Strategy Officer (CSO) where she creates and executes strategic initiatives across the Agency, focused on fostering Agency-wide coordination and communications, transparency and accountability. Koppell brings 25 years of experience working in international affairs, including her experience as USAID's senior coordinator for gender equality and women's empowerment, and her extensive work at The Institute for Inclusive Security and the Hunt Alternatives Fund where she worked with leaders from conflict zones around the world.