The geography of gender: Where women work, economies grow

Ann Cairns, Executive Vice Chairman at Mastercard.
Africa is full of brilliant possibilities. But they’re not always open to everyone. The opportunities for women to contribute to the African economy are intrinsically linked to where they are born and reach adulthood.

So long as disparities exist in education and opportunity this will always remain the case. This holds us all back. Yet, the business community can, and must, help tackle this divide.

The geography of gender is challenging and complex. The latest Mastercard Index of Women Entrepreneurs (MIWE), which tracks female entrepreneurs’ ability to capitalize on opportunities granted through various supporting conditions within their local environments, highlights the significance of geography in female entrepreneurship. Unsurprisingly, MIWE showed that higher-income, advanced economies, with open and vibrant markets that support SMEs and the ease of doing business provide highly conducive and enabling conditions to support female business owners.

Although the available support in open markets is a significant indicator of success, the Index also revealed that it is not the only consideration. Despite traditionally featuring less favourable conditions, five of the eight African countries evaluated in the Index made it into the top 10 markets out of the 58 measured in terms of female business owners as a percentage of all business owners. Uganda, Ghana and Botswana have the highest percentage of female ownership anywhere in the world – women accounting for 38.2 per cent, 37.9 per cent and 36 per cent respectively.

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The fundamental necessity to provide an income has combined with slightly more favourable socio-economic conditions – such as reasonable gender parity in education levels and the status of women – resulting in these less developed economies outperforming their developed peers.

Looking beyond location

The world is now more connected, with organisations transcending international borders. There is an opportunity for our cultural values to cross borders, political divides and disparities in development; – we must use this position to champion African women. There are huge benefits to engaging women.

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According to “Women Matter Africa”, a report by McKinsey and Company, companies with gender-diverse executive teams are 20% more likely to experience above average profitability. Women also represent the most significant consumer base – 89 per cent of African women are the decision-makers or co-decision-makers for household purchases, according to the IPSOS Women Index.

Having more people at the top who inherently understand their target audience can only be healthy for business. So, it is time the development of women is prioritised within business objectives and becomes a measure of success.

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The responsibility to champion women in work not only benefits profit margins, but also the development of women, institutions and societies around the world. Where women work, economies grow.

Three avenues of change

As the Sustainable Development Goals demonstrate, creating the right culture to open up possibilities for women requires direct and indirect approaches. There are three channels by which organisations can affect change:

1. Education.

Women are still largely under-represented in Science Technology Education and Maths (STEM), on boards and senior roles in companies, especially in tech. Business-led education initiatives play a key role in tackling this. Mastercard’s Girls4Tech STEM programme aims to inspire girls, aged between eight and 12, to both enjoy and continue with STEM subjects. Having reached 400,000 girls in 25 countries, we are now on the way to reaching 1 million by 2025.

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In developing countries, one in four girls is not in school. The inability for caregivers to pay for education is a main driver of children missing days of school or not being able to attend at all. This problem especially affects girls who are pulled out of school at a higher rate than boys.

To help address this, Mastercard, in partnership with UNICEF Uganda and the Ministry of Education in Uganda, launched Kupaa, a digital platform that tackles the challenge of paying school tuition by allowing caregivers to pay in small amounts over time and multiple individuals to contribute funds to the child’s education.

This removes two critical barriers: direct costs, which are the large sum tuition costs, and indirect costs, such as time and travel expenses to make payments. As research shows that each year a child is in school increases earning potential by eight to ten percent — and even higher for girls — such a solution could help change the economic trajectory of a quarter of a million people. And counting.

2. Empowerment.

Education is only the first step. We need to get more women into the workforce and then empower them to thrive. But our MIWE research showed that in many countries there is a clear disconnect between education and financial access, and women’s ability to thrive in the businesses of their native economy. For example, South Africa has a high percentage of female knowledge assets and financial access compared to other African countries included in MIWE.

Yet the business ownership rate is lower than elsewhere – women account for just 21.5 per cent of business owners. Bringing and keeping women in the business ecosystem can in part be achieved through accountability. Senior figures must champion women in their organisations and create role models for the next generation. This can only be achieved by linking management goals closer to inclusivity, so diversity is prioritised, while ensuring everyone is accountable for achieving it.

3. Equality.

Businesses should ask themselves three questions when it comes to gender equality: 1) What can we do for people? 2) What can we do for markets? and 3) What can we do for society? For us, a starting point was setting a global precedent for parental leave being for both men and women. Eighty percent of men from across the business take their paternity leave, helping us develop a sharing environment.

This is now a trend that we’re starting to see become more common throughout business, with Hewlett Packard Enterprise recently announcing that all new parents will receive 26 weeks of paid leave to redress the balance between maternity and paternity leave, while also ensuring that same-sex partners aren’t left behind.

Progressing towards equal pay for equal work is another driver of inclusive growth, with our female employees earning USD1 to every USD1 men earn. While these initiatives began at a leadership level, they ultimately all end with our employees, their lived experiences and workplace culture.

Beyond business

The success of a woman is fundamentally linked to the society and economic conditions in which she lives. And a world that works better for women creates limitless possibilities for us all. As a community, business is well aware of its power of influence. 

To responsibly wield this power, we need to move in a different direction towards engaging all stakeholders in shared and sustained value. By doing so, we can create significant culture change. It can be done, and it must be done if we are to overcome the geography of gender.

The writer, Ann Cairns, is the Executive Vice Chairman at Mastercard.

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