Advocates for Change: The Role of Women Business Leaders in Achieving Gender Equality



International Women’s Day is an important opportunity to shine a light on the success stories of women around the world—and their perseverance to achieve equality despite legal, political, economic, and social discrimination. Entrenched gender discrimination continues to prevent women from contributing equally to their country’s overall economic growth and from owning their own capital, which in turns limits their political representation and social status.

Despite these obstacles, numerous grassroots women’s associations have worked tirelessly to train new female business leaders and empower them to become stakeholders in the economy, further enabling them to successfully demand more political and social recognition and inclusivity.

Three influential women leaders and business experts recently discussed the growing economic empowerment and entrepreneurship of women in the developing world in videos for  CIPE’s Development Institute. In these interviews, the discussants explain the vital contribution of women’s associations to not only the financial wellbeing and independence of women in society, but also to the overall economic development of a country.

Selima Ahmad, President of the Bangladesh Women Chamber of Commerce and Industry (BWCCI), started at a grassroots level in the Women’s National Business Association working with women entrepreneurs, and later partnered with CIPE for years to expand the membership of one of the only all-female Chambers of Commerce, BWCCI, to help empower more than 7,000 women through advocacy training programs, mentorship, and legislative change.

(Watch Selima Ahmad’s video)

Former Prime Minister of Malawi Joyce Banda similarly worked with CIPE to help strengthen her newly created National Association of Business Women (NABW) in 1990; by 1997, it had reached 15,000 members

(Watch Joyce Banda’s video)

Henriette Kolb, head of the Gender Secretariat at the International Finance Corporation (IFC), has long been an advocate for gender equality in business, having previously headed the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women.

(Watch Henriette Kolb’s video)

Ahmad and Banda both noted that political advocacy was instrumental in facilitating long-term economic enfranchisement for women. Ahmad realized that in order for women to have the capacity to develop and run their own businesses, there needed to be high-level institutional changes which allowed them to engage with their countries’ economies—such as the ability to take out bank loans to start their own businesses. Continued political advocacy and pressure has also led to various successes for the BWCII, as they successfully fought for and were awarded a separate allocation of money for women in the national budget.

While Banda had achieved great success through the establishment of NABW, she realized that permanent change in the socioeconomic status of women in Malawi necessitated a higher-level legislative impact. Having been appointed the Minister of Foreign Affairs in 2006, she continued to advocate for women’s rights in that position and when she later became Vice President and then Prime Minister.

To gain political recognition from male-dominated governments, women’s associations and institutions often have to showcase the positive economic impact women entrepreneurs and businesswomen have on a country’s overall economic growth. Kolb estimated that countries such as Egypt could increase their GDP by up to 40 percent if women were allowed to participate fully in the economy. Ahmad and Banda successfully advocated for the BWCII and NABW by emphasizing that an increase in the number of female business owners and entrepreneurs in a country would help generate more jobs and decrease unemployment rates.  After years of political advocacy, Banda indicated that she finally saw success when “our men realized that they cannot achieve much if they leave the women behind.”

However, even with political and legal recognition of women’s associations, their success also relies on their ability to expand their network and their influence.  Ahmad explained that while women-led business groups “know what they need, they do not know the means of how to move forward”; women provide that guidance and support. Both Banda and Ahmad noted that women often do not have equal access to education, and thus lack the foundational knowledge needed to develop their own businesses. Therefore, business training programs are integral to developing women business leaders and female entrepreneurs.

Kolb is similarly mindful of these challenges, and makes the case for women to be trained in technological capacities, as technology is quickly becoming a key enabler of international development. More women will have access to capacity building opportunities as long as women’s networks and strong female leadership continues to develop and expand, and as empowered women leaders increasingly address issues affecting them, such as education and maternal health.

Even when formal discrimination is addressed at the legislative level, social norms can hold back women’s participation. Despite the fact that female entrepreneurs are equally as profitable as their male counterparts, women are frequently left with what Kolb referred to as a “disproportionate level of family responsibility,” and are therefore often unable to participate in the economy to the same extent as their husbands.

By working to encourage more and more capable female entrepreneurs and businesswomen, associations help play a transformative role in society, as they provide the resources necessary for women to also have greater social independence. According to Kolb, if women earn their own income, they are more likely to reevaluate their lives in abusive relationships, as they are not financially dependent on their husbands and therefore forced to stay. Additionally, if women are economically independent, they can re-invest in their daughters’ futures and ensure they have more choice and opportunity in the workforce.

In Bangladesh, the BWCCI addressed the prevalent issue of domestic abuse by providing counselling for husbands who beat their wives. In Malawi, Banda’s high position in government and her continued political pressure led to the passage of a bill against domestic violence in 2006. Having lived through an abusive relationship herself, Banda said that economic independence often allows women in Malawi to protect their own assets and provides the means for them to leave abusive husbands.

Ahmad and Banda’s success in expanding women’s entrepreneurship and economic development in Bangladesh and Malawi demonstrates the significant influence grassroots associations of women can have in advocating and achieving long-term sustainable change. Additionally, women who see other women in strong business and political leadership roles are inspired to pursue their own success, knowing that it is possible and attainable. Persistent political advocacy, capacity building, and access to economic opportunity will ensure the expanding success of women in business and enable their continued social empowerment.

Abigail Stoltzfus is a Program Assistant for the Middle East & North Africa at CIPE.