Walking into the United Nations on International Women’s Day, the positive energy was palpable. A conference on “The Role of Business in Empowering Women” spawned a gathering of a geographically and experientially diverse individuals eager to advance financial inclusion, transparent corporate supply chains, and economic opportunities for women.
Representing socially conscious enterprises, multilateral agencies, and NGOs, these women (and spattering of brave male souls in attendance) are spurring momentum for women’s empowerment. The impact of their work extends far beyond the women they serve directly, thanks to women’s tendency, to a far greater extent than men, to invest their income into improving living conditions for their families. To boot, hiring female workers benefits corporations’ bottom line, which creates an incentive for companies to adopt fair hiring practices even if the moral argument fails to compel them.
Consequently, despite the gravity of topics discussed – poverty, malnutrition, exclusion from the formal economy and civic life – optimism abounded, fueled by the tremendous progress recently made toward resolving some of these issues.
“The way I see it,” exclaimed Nadereh Chamlou, Senior Advisor to the Chief Economist of the Middle East and North Africa at the World Bank, “The glass is half full. No, in fact, it is completely full!”
Chamlou boasts that a recent World Bank survey of over 30,000 firms across the Middle East and North Africa found 20-25 percent to be owned by women, adding that many of them are very large. “Not that there is anything wrong with being a micro-entrepreneur, but we are proud to shed light on the fact that there are 1,000 to 1,500 major female entrepreneurs in the region,” she tells MediaGlobal
Journalist Sherly WuDunn (co-author with her husband Nicholas Kristof of “Half the Sky,” a book championing women’s rights) and CEO Jane Wurwand, whose company Dermalogica provides loans to 25,000 women entrepreneurs around the world, figure among myriad speakers sharing inspiring anecdotes. Chamlou credits improved access to education as a major factor underlying women’s advancement, noting that more women earn engineering degrees in Iran and Egypt alone than throughout the whole of Europe.
Nonetheless, those striving for gender equality across all regions still have plenty of work cut out for them. Besides the obvious legislative and social hurdles, a problematic gap between reality and perception is emerging. Apparently, tangible improvements on the ground are outpacing changes in attitudes, creating its own set of stumbling blocks.
For instance, Becky Straw, founder of Adventure Projects, an NGO dedicated to reducing poverty, recounts her puzzlement over the reaction of a TV news station who wanted to film a segment on her cookstove initiative in Haiti.
With 3,000 Haitian children dying from toxic smoke each year, Adventure Projects provided start-up funding for a local factory to produce charcoal-efficient cookstoves that are cleaner as well as cost-saving. The success of the female vendors, who earn a relatively astronomical $60 in daily commissions, disappointed the TV crew, who were hoping to portray poor women in tents.
“You’re kidding?” Straw remembers thinking to herself in disbelief. “They don’t want to report on this initiative because the women are no longer poor?” Clearly, reshaping attitudes and perceptions is paramount so that women need not embody the cliché of helplessness in order to merit the attention of the international community.
According to Andrée Simon, CEO of Women for Women International, even among people who like to think of themselves as enlightened, studies have shown evidence of unconscious bias. As a well-educated, sophisticated, and accomplished Iranian women living in the West, Chamlou is all too aware of this. She expresses bewilderment at how often Westerners think of her as an anomaly.
“I’m not the exception, I am the rule,” Chamlou exclaims in exasperation, adding, “The exceptions are those who conform to the stereotype of being oppressed.” She further insists, contrary to popular belief, that men throughout the Middle East have been instrumental in achieving progress toward gender equality. Recalling how they often support their wives, sisters, and daughters fight against extremist groups who want to restrict women’s rights, she tells me “Our struggle is not women against men, rather it’s modernity against strict conservatism.”
So how does one go about overcoming stereotypes and disproving misperceptions about women’s roles in society? According to Simon, the key lies in leading by example. “It takes a huge amount of courage on the part of the individuals who are willing to be that example,” she admits. Yet, ultimately, in her experience, once the pioneering women “can demonstrate the benefit of earning an income, the logic of investing in childcare becomes compelling” to the entire family, creating a virtuous cycle as the neighbors begin following suit. If properly communicated, success stories can inspire other women to follow in the footsteps of their entrepreneurial sisters.
While the conference centers on economic empowerment, some participants are working to improve women’s lives at a more basic level: providing adequate nutrition. “Its been proven that women in poverty are the ones to eat last because they feed their families first,” Lauren Bush Lauren, co-founder of FEED Projects and the event’s keynote speaker, tells MediaGlobal. Recognizing that starvation hinders everyone’s ability to live up to their full potential, she is committed to ensuring universal access to food because proper nutrition is a pre-condition for participation in the formal economy.
The thoughtfulness, exuberance, and dedication on display here offers hope to women wherever they may fall, by virtue of geography and circumstance, on the sliding scale of equal rights. The devil’s advocate might argue that celebrating these success stories risks whitewashing the dirty realties — physical abuse, inadequate healthcare, culturally sanctioned oppression — still afflicting millions of women around the world. Yet, listening to these accomplished women assert that self-confidence and faith in the possibility of improvement often begets tangible progress, I would wager that even a skeptic could surrender to their optimism. At the very least, the statistics, anecdotes, and personal histories shared the attendees galvanized my own faith in the prospect that women will increasingly exercise the rights and command the recognition they deserve.
Walking out of the building, I thought of a long-forgotten a cappella chant by Libana that we used to sing in rounds at my all-girls school: “There’s a river of birds in migration, a nation of women with wings.” If stakeholders around the globe manage to harness and grow the momentum that decades of work has already set in motion, women everywhere will surely grow wings.