Breaking down Barriers to Women’s Empowerment

Highlights from the International Women’s Day Forum

Gender equality benefits everyone. The evidence is clear that when women are empowered in emerging economies it boosts education levels, creates jobs, promotes agricultural productivity, and alleviates poverty, among a myriad of other positive outcomes.

Coordinated around International Women’s Day 2018, The US Chamber of Commerce Foundation (USCC) and the US Department of State convened the eighth International Women’s Day Forum, titled Partner With Purpose: Business for Gender Equality. The event gathered over 300 leaders from business, civil society, and government to discuss the ways we can advance women’s empowerment around the world. Headlined by former Hewlett-Packard CEO and Republican presidential candidate Carly Fiorina, the lineup of Forum speakers included inspirational female entrepreneurs and leaders from nearly every industry.

The Forum’s discussion highlighted observations on the state of women in the world and the pressing need for their full integration into the global economy. Conference guests addressed topics such as women in leadership, access to finance for female entrepreneurs, and the implications of the #MeToo movement in business and society.

 

In her opening comments to kick off the event, the State Department’s Assistant Secretary for the Bureau of Economic and Business Affairs, Manisha Singh, spoke of the government’s priority to empower women around the world. She introduced the Canada-US Council for Advancement of Women Entrepreneurs and Business Leaders, an initiative that focuses on increasing the number of women in STEM fields, encouraging women to start their own businesses, and helping women-owned businesses grow. “Women make up more than half the world’s population but only 40 percent of the workforce…We can’t afford not to have women participate fully in the global economy,” said Singh.

Keynote speaker, Carly Fiorina, focused on women reaching their leadership potential. She began by stressing the urgency to lift women in all facets of society. “Empowering women isn’t a nice thing to do, it’s a have to do,” she said. Fiorina candidly shared some of her own leadership battles and encouraged attendees to challenge the status quo, pay the price of leadership, and realize their potential. In possibly the most memorable statement from her comments, Fiorina said, “It’s dumb to leave half the world’s potential on the table. It’s not in our self-interest.”

It’s dumb to leave half the world’s potential on the table. It’s not in our self-interest. – Carly Fiorina

The Forum attendees represented many examples of what is possible when women are empowered to influence and shape the global economy. Among these were several emerging female entrepreneurs from India, hosted by the International Visitor Leadership program, a State Department initiative. Through their participation in the Women Entrepreneurs as Drivers of the Economy program, they traveled to the United States as a part of an exchange to showcase the significance of their positions in environments where women are historically relegated to domestic roles.

Rebecca Vaz Mushran, a marketing manager for Bhuira Jams, a business that produces fresh, handcrafted jams and jellies in the northern Indian village of Bhuira, is employing local women and giving them the tools of empowerment. Over a hundred women support the operations of the jam facility and proudly demonstrate how women can contribute to the economy.

Another contributor, Tabish Habib, is the founder of ThinkPod Business Incubators. It’s the first platform dedicated to supporting young entrepreneurs in Kashmir, a region of northern India with an economy predominantly based in agriculture. The organization provides entrepreneurs with a space, and facilitates business registrations, banking, and financing to launch new ventures. To minimize costs, ThinkPod helps participants, many of whom are female, with all the necessary ingredients for a successful start-up.

Forum speakers often referenced the #MeToo movement and its implications in business and society. In the session entitled “#MeToo – Now What?” conference guests Anne Doyle, author of Powering Up!: How America’s Women Achievers Become Leaders, and Marie Nelson of the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS), discussed the need for structural change to enable progress in gender equality as well as issues related to the movement. Anne shared what she believes is a tremendous hunger for structural change. She referenced changes in multi-million dollar corporations that, in the past, ignored abusive behavior, but are now squarely confronting workplace harassment.

Anne emphasized the need for men to be engaged as gender allies. She spoke of a friend’s nephew, a 24 year-old who expressed confusion regarding the #MeToo movement. The young man told her, “I’m really uncomfortable and weary of being accused of something that I didn’t mean… and if I were in a position to mentor a woman, I don’t think I would do it.” Anne lamented such a reaction, keenly aware of the confusion around the issue and the need to welcome and support men who share the same goals.

The International Women’s Day Forum was an important opportunity to convene allies and promote partnerships that advance women’s empowerment. The USCC Foundation’s commitment to the issue of gender equality helps to strengthen the voice of industry leaders calling for change, and amplifies the pressure against the forces of inequality. While increased efforts from influential institutions shine a spotlight on the need for an expanded commitment to gender parity, the inspiration of courageous, empowered women is what is truly driving the change.

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