Recently there has been a lot of discussion surrounding the gender gap, especially when it comes to economic participation. For everyone who is interested in human rights and understands that involving women in all aspects of government and business only improves dialogue and strengthens democracy, while at the same time rapidly improving the living standards of these women and their families, this fact is frustrating.
No one can deny that women are industrious, innovative, and enterprising, and that given the opportunity and resources, women can be very successful in business and in democratic and economic reform processes. We’ve moved beyond the debate of whether women “can” to the debate of “If they can, why aren’t they? What’s preventing them?”
Perhaps part of the problem is the visibility of women entrepreneurs. Informality is a fact of life for many people around the world where the cost of doing business formally is too burdensome to be feasible. The cost of opening a business, which is sometimes highly restrictive, coupled with serious limitations to capital and education that women face more frequently than men, causes many female entrepreneurs to continue to operate in the informal sector and at a lower capacity than they otherwise would. Informality bars access to credit and ownership for commercial spaces.
Informality also prevents both the public and private sector from effectively providing services to these entrepreneurs by creating a blind spot in the data – making it appear as though fewer women are participating in economic activities, especially entrepreneurial endeavors, than men. As Gayle Tzemach Lemmon said in her 2012 Ted Talk, “You can’t count what you don’t see. And we don’t invest in what’s invisible to us.”
All this points to the idea that there isn’t a scarcity of female entrepreneurs, but rather a surplus of barriers that limit women’s ability to register their businesses, take advantage of property markets, and access credit to grow their businesses. What is needed to combat these problems is a way to open opportunities for women to share their experiences, mentor each other, build the capacity of groups working on women’s issues, and gain access to credit, education, and property rights.
A multitude of organizations are already working to combat these limitations – whether at the international level, such as initiatives from UN Women or the World Bank’s new women’s bond program, or at a more local level, such as the Network of Nicaraguan Businesswomen (REN) and the Association of Business Women in Serbia, both CIPE partners.
CIPE partner REN is a network of businesswomen in Nicaragua working to foster the success and growth of women entrepreneurs through networking, associations, and technical assistance. Furthermore, REN works to help these businesses move from the informal sector to the formal, thus opening up more market opportunities for them.
One of REN’s projects is an internship program targeting young entrepreneurs in order to give them the skills and knowledge necessary to become the future entrepreneurial leaders of their communities. REN achieved this goal by matching nine young college-aged women with professional women in their fields of interest as mentors. Currently, the interns are participating in workshops and working at their mentor’s businesses and professional activities, as well as REN’s events and work.
Another of CIPE’s partners, the Association of Business Women (ABW) in Serbia, is also currently working on a similar program. ABW, which promotes business opportunities and supports business women in Serbia, is conducting a mentorship program with 16 mentees with start-up companies in industries such as food, tourism, handicrafts, consulting and PR, interior design, and healthcare.
These young women were matched with mentors in their fields and are working toward goals such as improved internet communication with customers, developing business plan writing skills, growing their leadership skills, and improving their production processes. ABW and CIPE are working together in this mentorship program to instill values of corporate citizenship, social responsibility, and democratic values in the next generation of entrepreneurs.
Fixing problems around gender inequality is not an easy task, but women already possess the desire and knowledge to start. An immediate goal should be to match experienced women entrepreneurs with young women starting out on the path so that they may develop their knowledge, skills, and businesses. As more women succeed and their successes are highlighted by organizations such as CIPE and in the media, the problem with women entrepreneurs’ invisibility will diminish and so will the gender gap.
Laura Boyette is Program Assistant for Global Programs at CIPE.