This week, Asia-Pacific Economic Cooporation (APEC) conference on women and the economy took place in San Francisco. “This is the largest diplomatic gathering in San Francisco since the signing of the United Nations charter in 1945,” said Chandra Alexandre, VP of the Bay Area Council Foundation, which helped organize the event. APEC’s mission is to promote economic development and collaboration, and the goal of this meeting was to develop policies to encourage women to lead these charges.
3,000 politicians, female diplomats, and business leaders from the US and 20 countries in Asia and the Pacific Rim were expected to attend the conference. The conference was timed to run in advance of the highly anticipated APEC gathering November 12-13 in Honolulu. These women aren’t just meeting for their health– the goal of the event is to develop a list of policy recommendations to deliver at the larger summit in November.
Four themes were chosen for the conference: Access to Capital, Access to Markets, Skills and Capacity Building and Women’s Leadership.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton hosted the event and gave the final keynote this morning, including the key themes of the declaration.
There will be a temptation on the part of those observing or covering this summit, perhaps on the part of those of us attending it as well, to say that our purpose is chiefly to advance the rights of women – to achieve justice and equality on their behalf. That is a noble cause, to be sure, and one close to my heart.
But at the risk of being somewhat provocative at the outset, I believe our goal is even bolder—one that extends beyond women to all humankind.
But that great, global dream cannot be realized by tinkering around the edges of reform. Nor, candidly, can it be secured though any singular commitment on the part of us here. It requires, rather, a fundamental transformation – a paradigm shift in how governments make and enforce laws and policies, how businesses invest and operate, and how people make choices in the marketplace.
Clinton went on to detail the economic benefits that women have already brought to economies around the world: women’s increased participation in the workforce over the last 40 years translates into real money: more than $3.5 trillion—more than the GDP of Germany, and more than half the GDPs of China and Japan.
So what’s the problem?
Evidence of progress is not evidence of success.
Laws, customs, and the values that fuel them all act as roadblocks to women’s full inclusion in the global economy.
Millions of women are still sidelined, unable to find a meaningful place for themselves in the formal workforce. And some of those who get jobs are confined to the lowest rungs on the job ladder by a web of legal and social restrictions that limit their potential. Or they are confronted with a glass ceiling that keeps them from the most senior positions. Only 11 of the CEOs of the Fortune Global 500 companies are women. That’s less than 3 percent.
Some women in the APEC region don’t have the same inheritance rights as men, so they can’t inherit property or businesses owned by their fathers. Some don’t have the power to confer citizenship on their children, so their families have less access to housing and education, and they must constantly renew residency permits, making it harder for them to work.
Some are subject to different taxes than men. Too often, they are denied access to credit, and may even be prohibited from opening bank accounts, signing contracts, purchasing property, incorporating a business, or filing lawsuits without a male guardian.
Beyond the feelgood factor, why do we care? There’s a huge economic benefit to increasing women’s engagement
Multiple studies have shown that women spend more of their earned income on food, healthcare, home improvement and schooling. In short, they reinvest. That kind of spending has a multiplier effect, leading to more job growth and diversified local economies. And that, in turn, can help ensure more educated and healthier citizens, as well as provide a cushion in the event of market downturns.
Both the inequality and the economic benefits of removing it will be clear to TriplePundit readers. But we’re business people. What can be done at the policy level to foster systematic change?
The summit will adopt a declaration of recommendations to be presented at the larger APEC conference in November. Clinton outlines its tenets:
- We must commit to giving women access to capital so women entrepreneurs can turn their ideas into the small and medium enterprises that are the source of so much growth and job creation in our economies
- We must examine and reform our legal and regulatory systems so women can avail themselves of the full range of financial services. Such reforms can also help ensure that women are not forced to compromise on the well-being of their children to pursue a career.
- We must improve women’s access to markets so those who start businesses can keep them open. For example, we need to correct the problem of information asymmetry – making sure women are informed about opportunities for trade and orienting technical assistance programs so they serve women as well as men.
- Finally, we must support the rise of women leaders in the public and private sectors because frankly, they are more likely to have firsthand knowledge and understanding of the challenges women face. Their perspectives add value and insure that we shape policies and programs that are not just “window dressing” but successfully eliminate barriers and bring women into all our economic sectors.
As a female business owner and feminist, I’m of two minds about these comments. On the one hand, I’m thrilled that it was possible for such a high level group of women to come together and fight for equality, and I was encouraged by the frank nature of Clinton’s speech. On the other, I was disappointed by the vagueness of the commitments in the declaration. I’m also frustrated by the lack of teeth such declarations have in the grand scheme of things.
Is this declaration going to mean anything for business leaders? Not so much. But hopefully, it will be the beginning of real progressive policies that actually support the visionary statements Secretary Clinton shared.