Two distinct sets of issues are of importance with respect to strengthening women’s voices in business policymaking.
The first is having women at the table where decisions are made. While women operate a significantshare of businesses, they are rarely included when business-related policies are discussed. The second concerns women’s role in setting the agenda and in framing the policy debate. This in turn has two components one relating to the extent to which issues specific to women in business (a gender perspective) are identified and addressed, and one relating to the ways in which women participate in, and contribute to, advocacy on issues that are not gender-specific but are of importance to business more generally.
There is an ongoing debate as to whether it is better for women to establish and work through parallel structures focused on women, or to seek stronger integration into, and engagement with, “mainstream” mechanisms of policy dialogue and business associations.
The review of experience summarized here suggests a dual-track approach, involving both separate women’s mechanisms and better integration into the mainstream, is required.
Strengthening women’s involvement in improving the business environment Women need to be active in business environment reform. This is important not only because they are themselves strongly engaged as entrepreneurs and employers, but also because the obstacles and constraints they face, and the perspectives they bring, can be quite different from those of their male counterparts. Women’s greater engagement in business-climate reforms can be supported in four key ways.
1: Expand gender-disaggregated analyses of business opportunities and constraints First, advocacy for policy reforms needs to be grounded in solid analysis of the opportunities and constraints in the business environment, and, specifically, of the ways in which these opportunities and constraints differ for men and women. Insufficient data have often been a constraint.
Lack of sex-disaggregated data and gender analysis makes it difficult to identify and assess the nature and extent of gender-based barriers in the business environment, and to develop appropriate ways to address them.
International organizations have been filling the gap in recent years. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD)’s Social Institutions and Gender Index (SIGI) database looks at how customary practices affect women’s standing;21 the World Bank’s Women, Business and the Law provides indicators of where legal rights for women differ from those of men,22 and its Enterprise Surveys provide gender-disaggregated data that can be used to examine the effects of the investment climate on male- and female owned businesses; and the World Economic Forum publishes its Global Gender Gap Report.
Country-specific analyses can also be important.
Gender and Growth Assessments, such as those conducted in Tanzania, Kenya and Uganda, provide good examples.
These assessments provided a foundation for defining specific reforms that were responsive to women’s concerns. In Uganda, a gender coalition was established to lobby for the implementation of the recommendations of the assessment. And, as a result, some success was achieved in relation to legal and regulatory reform aimed at benefiting women.
A lack of awareness of methodologies on how to conduct gender-disaggregated analyses of business environment reforms was also a constraint. The World Bank Group has recently published a practitioners’ guide to addressing the gender dimensions of investment climate reform.
It includes detailed suggestions on data to collect as well as strategies for addressing the three approaches discussed below.
2: Strengthen women’s involvement in business associations and networks
The advantages of business networking are clear.
Developing a strong business network and participating in a formal business organization facilitates sharing of market information, helps members identify business opportunities, generates cross-referrals, and is a support mechanism for individual entrepreneurs who might otherwise feel isolated. However, women are often excluded from formal or informal networks of communication.
Gender-based stereotypes and lack of role models often serve as barriers to women’s professional advancement and limit their voices both in business communities and policymaking. Indeed, women consistently raise as a challenge the lack of voice and networking opportunity and associated skills . In some countries, cultural and social imperatives discourage women from mixing freely with men, especially those from outside their families. In such circumstances, the presence of a specialized women’s business association makes sense-such networks not only provide women business owners with the support they require, but it also helps spread new business ideas, facilitates making business contacts and cross-referrals, and can provide avenues for larger-scale marketing and distribution.
To address these issues, women’s involvement in business associations, including women-focused associations, needs to be encouraged and strengthened. To date, participation has often been low. Part of the problem may be that many women are ambivalent about business associations (whether or not they are specifically geared for women). Some women entrepreneurs make extensive use of these organizations as part of their overall business development strategies, but many are either unaware of the existence of such associations or feel that they are not able to access them. Membership in these women’s business associations seems to be relatively low, and this in turn results in the associations themselves struggling for sustainability and credibility. Low levels of association membership also reflect unclear mandates and functions of associations, and therefore perceptions by businesswomen that there is little to be gained by membership.
3: Strengthen the capacity of business associations to engage in policy dialogue Third, the capacity of business associations-particularly women’s business associations-to engage in policy dialogue and advocacy for business environment reforms needs to be developed further. This should take place alongside efforts to improve the capacity of these associations to provide business-related services to their members.
Where there are women’s business associations, these tend to be involved in activities that aim to support women’s businesses through networking, developing market opportunities, improving business skills, and accessing finance. However, they tend not to see their mandate as getting involved at a more visible or policy level; they generally are not involved in lobbying or policy advocacy.26 4: Enable women to be more effective participants in public-private dialogue processes Fourth, given the importance of dialogue between the public and private sectors in improving the business climate, enabling women to be more effective participants in this processes, where they have been largely absent to date, can make a critical contribution to making their voices heard as investment reform priorities are articulated and implemented.
However, even specific mechanisms that have been developed and promoted by international organizations have been slow to recognize the importance and need to explicitly take gender into account. In the case of public-private dialogue, the last three years have seen a marked improvement in terms of gender inclusion. However, this was not an organic development and proactive leadership and commitments were needed.
This absence of women from investment-reform dialogue and programs is costly on many levels. Women in the private sector tend to have different experiences of legal, regulatory, and administrative barriers to business than their male counterparts. Women can be disadvantaged by barriers ranging from legal frameworks that deny them rights to land or property to sociocultural factors that prevent them from engaging in business without the consent of their husbands, which limits their mobility and capacity to network, or which subjects them disproportionately to sexual or other forms of harassment from public officials.
An important initiative in Africa is the recent establishment of the Africa Businesswomen’s Network (ABWN) as an umbrella organization aimed at supporting various national hubs to develop women’s business associations. A specific part of ABWN’s mandate is to share their member organizations’ experiences, to strengthen their capacity to provide better services for their members, and to lobby for policy changes in the business environment that would be favorable to female entrepreneurs. Their members have shown an interest in expanding their advocacy work to include reforming remaining gaps in women’s economic rights. As such, ABWN is helping address all of the four approaches advocated here to improve the efficacy and authority of women’s voices in shaping improvements in the business environment.
Women represent almost 40 percent of entrepreneurs in Africa. Yet they are disproportionately represented among the self-employed and in the informal sector and among those operating smaller firms. As such, women are often earning lower returns on their time and investment than men. However, with the same education, women in the same types of firms perform as well as men. The evidence suggests that where gender matters is much more in the selection of activities to pursue than in the performance within a certain type of enterprise. Women operating in the formal sector have far more in common with their male colleagues than they do with women in the informal sector. To expand opportunities for women entrepreneurs, the agenda should not be to increase entrepreneurship per se, but to enable women move into higher-value-added activities. Increasing women’s human capital (education, management training, and business mentors/networks), removing gender-based barriers to accessing assets (including gender gaps in legal and economic rights), expanding awareness of women’s success as entrepreneurs, and increasing women’s voice in investment climate policy circles are important steps to achieve these results.