Powering economic equality: GE, Ashoka Changemakers and social entrepreneurs

Iris Boutros
11 Min Read
Iris Boutros
Iris Boutros
Iris Boutros

Three social entrepreneurs will receive cash prizes from GE and Ashoka Changemakers in the Women Powering Work competition for innovations that will advance economic opportunities for women in the MENA region. Better integrating women in the labour market is good for all. When women have more cash, they better invest in nutrition, health and education. That pays off in healthier and more productive work forces and greater societal wellbeing and resilience. Greater use of female labour also leads to higher economic growth. Estimates suggest that if Egyptian women’s labour force participation was that of males, the country’s GDP could increase by 34%. The United Arab Emirates GDP could expand by 12%.

Value for entrepreneurs

In essence, the competition seeks solutions that make quality livelihoods and securing economic rights for women more possible. The three entrepreneurs whose solutions best show innovation, social impact, and sustainability will each earn a cash prize of $25,000 in unrestricted funding. Entries may originate in any country, but must target women in MENA countries, with the addition of Turkey, Pakistan and Afghanistan. Participating in the competition gives all entrants opportunities to connect with other like-minded innovators, to form partnerships, receive comments from sector experts, and potentially be linked to investors. The deadline for entering the competition is 6 November 2013 5pm EST.

More important than the competition’s cash prizes, are the innovations that could improve women’s economic opportunities with great potential to deliver blended value, financial and social returns. The Women Powering Work competition seeks innovative solutions to advance economic opportunities for women in societies where they are the worst in the world, the MENA region. The competition seeks social entrepreneurial innovations that focus on the barriers women face, those blocking access to employment opportunities, capital, and skills training. Creative solutions addressing limitations on mobility and broader societal and cultural attitudes that fuel gender discrimination in the labour market are also sought.

Each entrant’s submission is openly listed on the platform, including its basic elevator pitch, as well as how the solution aims to solve a particular societal problem. The impacts on women from the enterprise’s specific activities, as well as the barriers faced in implementing those activities are listed for each project. The competition’s platform is a valuable resource for idea and learning exchanges about sustainable innovations with the potential to deliver blended value. These are investments that have both financial and social returns. Platforms like these are also a way to aggregate ideas that evolve into or already are best practices in delivering blended value. Online resources include tips on pitches and other tools designed specifically for social entrepreneurs. Having the right plan and connections are critical for success.

Take for instance, Women’s Digital League (WDL), one of the two early entry prize winners, a business and social enterprise from Pakistan. It is a virtual firm providing digital services to clients while giving economic opportunities to what it calls a “dormant workforce”. It works with women in rural areas without the necessary infrastructure or training to do in-home digital tasks and with urban women discouraged from working outside the home because they are too busy with their other life roles or because of societal and cultural limitations. WDL provides quality control and clients to women, who provide the labour. It is in its growth stage, so a similarly minded initiative in earlier stages could learn from their work. Or perhaps even learn about other possible useful connections, like to their partners, the UAE-based Consult and Coach for a Cause, which is a social enterprise providing consulting and coaching services to social ventures.

Investing in women is a good investment for a society

In targeting the MENA region, with the world’s worst economic opportunities for women, the competition aims to harness the power of entrepreneurship for the betterment of women and societies. The MENA region has the world’s lowest female labour force participation rates. According to a September 2013 IMF publication, women represent 40% of the global labour force; however, this rate masks significant regional differences. Female labour participation in the MENA region is about half that, with only 21% of the over age 15 female population economically active. That rate has been stagnant for some time, while other regions have made good progress. For instance, between 1990 and 2011, female labour participation rates rose some 13-percentage points from around 40% to 53% in Latin America and the Caribbean. In that time, the increase in MENA was a 2-percentage point difference.

The worldwide gaps between male and female labour participation are unequivocally the most striking in the MENA region. The gender participation gap, the difference between male and female labour force participation rates, has been declining globally since 1990. Here again, however, the MENA region lags behind every other region of the world with a 51-percentage point difference in economically active men and women. That difference has been decreasing slowly in the MENA region since 1990 when it was closer to a 60-percentage point difference but it is still the world’s biggest difference. And these differences remain large while gender gaps in education have narrowed, and despite the fact that more women attend university than men in some of the region’s countries.

More pressing given the current circumstances around the region is the disproportionate impact economic crises have on women. All have had to weather the storms from the global financial crisis, the post-revolution economic shocks some countries face, and other types of personal shocks that are an ordinary feature of life. However, women are more vulnerable because they more often work informally and tend to have more unstable employment. For instance, following the financial crisis, the female youth unemployment rate increased by 9.1 percentage points compared to a 3.1 percentage point increase for male youth in North Africa. Yet again, this was the most pronounced gender difference globally.

At the heart of the competition is the value that an organisation like WDL brings to women. As the WDL submission so eloquently puts it: “Simple work at $3/hr can be life-changing.” There is no doubt that families, communities and nations prosper when women have access to economic opportunities. This has been extremely well documented from studies all around the world. The impacts are significant and consistent. Women better invest in nutrition, health and education. Consequently, powerful multiplier effects from investing in women come to nations in the way of healthier and more productive work forces. The better the investments in women, the stronger the impact; these impacts have been powerful and should therefore be difficult to ignore.

Some countries have wisely taken this evidence seriously. Reforms like the UK’s “from the wallet to the purse”, where in 2002 under then Chancellor Gordon Brown, the government redirected public money away from males and to females in the household because of the strong belief that women are more prudent spenders. Although the evidence base was originally focused on developing nations, the results have been consistent globally and have prompted action in many countries, industrialised and developing. The thinking and evidence are clear; providing economic opportunities for women enhances the wellbeing and resilience of societies.

More economic opportunities for women would also significantly contribute to national economic growth. Weeks ago the IMF’s chief, Christine Lagarde, made the case to policymakers to take more decisive action in increasing women’s participation in the workforce. She highlighted the massive gains in economic growth countries could see if female labour participation was that of males. The potential for massive gains in growth are not just limited to countries like Egypt (34%) and the United Arab Emirates (12%). Japan’s GDP would expand by 9% and the US’ by 5% if their female labour force participation was that of males. Those countries that least effectively use their female labour force, however, have the most to gain, like the countries of the MENA region.

Women in the region face high barriers to securing economic opportunities, partly because of the nature of the economies and partly because of culture. Improving opportunities for women is important in rectifying economic injustices and supporting the livelihoods and resilience of families. The impacts are seen in better nutrition, health, education, labour forces, and economic growth. GE and Ashoka Changemakers are seeking innovative solutions from social entrepreneurs to better address these barriers. My hope is for the MENA region to start to take seriously all the lost value from excluding women from the labour market.

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Iris Boutros is an economist and strategist. She focuses on growth, impact investment, and decision-making. Follow her on Twitter @irisboutros