COVID-19 altered our world and people’s lives in countless ways. Among these impacts is a profound step back for women’s economic participation.
A recent report from the United Nations highlighted current, intersecting challenges facing women around the world today. For instance, tens of millions of women have left the workforce since the pandemic struck. Employment for women fell by 4.2 percent globally, while for men, that number was only 3 percent.
This is a significant loss given that women’s economic participation was already relatively low pre-COVID. According to UN Women estimates from 2018, just 63 percent of women between the ages of 25-54 participated in the labor force, compared to about 94 percent of men.
Advancing Women’s Economic Empowerment: 5 Key Areas for Investment
Advancing women’s economic participation helps us address many interconnected sustainable development goals, including reducing poverty, combatting hunger, improving health and well-being, and making progress toward decent work and inclusive economic growth.
Below, we highlight 5 high-impact focus areas for investing in women’s economic empowerment.
1. Ensure Women’s Place in the Digital Economy
Perhaps one of the largest gaps between men and women is in the digital economy. The World Bank estimates that men are 21 percent more likely to be online, and in some low-income countries that number jumps to 52 percent.
Access to the Internet and digital literacy will be increasingly significant determinants for economic prospects and success. For women to compete for jobs—and for women-owned businesses to grow and thrive—we must find ways to close the gender digital divide.
Companies and global development players can partner and co-invest to help women access the skills and tools they need to participate in the digital economy. Key support might include IT infrastructure investments to expand Internet connectivity; advancing women’s training and education in critical digital skills; and helping women access mobile phones and other devices to unlock their participation in the digital economy.
2. Invest in Women Entrepreneurs and Women-Owned Small- and Medium-Sized Enterprises (SMEs)
COVID-19 hit women-owned businesses extremely hard. According to a recent report, women entrepreneurs and women-owned SMEs were more likely to suffer reduced operations and revenue or to close their businesses—temporarily or permanently—during the pandemic.
To compete, women entrepreneurs, globally, need access to capital, financial and digital literacy skills, BDS training and support, and partnerships that help them navigate hurdles and grow. Companies and global development actors can support women-owned SMEs by advancing digital skills, acceleration services, and business training for women entrepreneurs; and by strengthening financial services and investment for women-owned SMEs. Companies can also diversify their suppliers to include more women-owned businesses in their value chains.
3. Support Women’s Access to Secure Land Tenure
In many countries, women face serious and disproportionate barriers to secure land tenure and formal recognition of their land rights. This jeopardizes women’s earning potential, their ability to make decisions about their land, and their agricultural productivity and food security.
The global development community can have an impact on women’s economic empowerment by continuing to explore flexible technology solutions—tapping context-smart and inclusive design—for advancing women’s land rights and secure land tenure.
4. Advance Women’s Access to Safe Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene (WASH)
Women’s economic participation—and schooling for young girls—gets held back when women lack access to safe water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH). It’s estimated that in about 80 percent of homes without water, the responsibility for fetching it falls on women and girls.
Time spent collecting water is time not spent in school or at work, or pursuing other economic opportunities.
However, when companies and the global development community target WASH investments, they simultaneously help close the employment—and education—gap, while also improving community health outcomes.
An example we love? The woman-owned social enterprise Kasole Secrets supplies affordable, high-quality menstrual pads to women and girls in Tanzania. We worked with Kasole Secrets to help grow their business beyond urban Tanzania and into rural and peri-urban areas, providing menstrual hygiene solutions to keep girls and women in school and at work.
5. Empower Women Farmers in Supply Chains
Women make up a significant percentage of the agricultural workforce—especially in emerging markets. And yet women receive unequal access to training, technology, finance, and land. Closing this equity gap could boost the productivity of women-owned farms, with benefits for food security, inclusive economic growth, and agricultural supply chains.
Companies and the global development community can take steps to correct this imbalance, helping women farmers secure the support and resources they need to succeed.
For instance, PepsiCo and USAID have forged a global partnership to demonstrate the business case for investing in women in agricultural supply chains. Their goal is to identify new solutions and strategies to empower women in agriculture, using PepsiCo’s global supply chain as a testing ground.
Investing with Impact in Women’s Economic Empowerment
Women’s economic empowerment is vital to any vision of inclusive economic growth. It also has profound implications for gender equality, food security, and health and well-being.
The pandemic has deepened the gender divide on many key fronts. Yet, by directing investment and effort toward the five focus areas listed above, companies and global development actors can help women secure the tools, support, and enabling conditions they need to compete and succeed.
By focusing on women’s economic participation, we can unlock growth and sustainable impact that can be widely shared.