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Madeleine M. Kunin Headshot

When Women Do Well, Everyone Does Better

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When Betty Friedan published The Feminine Mystique 50 years ago, little did she know that her call for greater gender equality for American women would reverberate around the world and impact the economic condition of women and men.

Today, we have the evidence to demonstrate that there is a direct link between gender equality and economic growth. Those countries that invest in the education of women and girls have showed the highest rate of GDP increase. And the reverse is true; those countries that continue to treat women as lesser human beings and bar them from education because of tradition or religion stifle their country's ability to prosper.

This has been the conclusion of the World Bank, the World Economic Forum and the United Nations. Simply put, when women do well, everybody does better. It is not hard to figure out why. When women step into the world of production, rather than being focused exclusively on reproduction, the economy grows. The greater the percentage of women in the workforce, the greater the number of goods and services will be produced and sold.

Gender inequality is no longer a burden placed on women alone, particularly in emerging market nations like Brazil, Russia, India and China (BRIC). Restrictions on women -- either to education or to their safety -- act like a dead weight on the best-laid plans to boost economic growth and political stability. This was the message from the symposium I recently participated in on "Gender Inequality and Emerging Markets" at Green Templeton College at Oxford University.

Hillary Clinton, as Secretary of State completely understood the nexus between gender equality, economic growth and political stability when she stated in her farewell remarks: "... the jury is in, the evidence is absolutely indisputable: if women and girls everywhere were treated as equal to men in rights, dignity and opportunity, we would see political and economic progress everywhere. So this is not only a moral issue, which, of course it is. It is an economic issue and a security issue, and it is the unfinished business of the 21st century. It therefore must be central to U.S. foreign policy."

When Clinton, upon assuming the post, elevated the Office of Global Women's Issues to ambassadorial level by appointing Melanne Verveer as its first ambassador, many assumed that women's issues would still be side-lined as soft issues. The real action lies elsewhere, they believed, where the men continue to strategize in traditional ways about how to keep the world safe for democracy. But the more we learn about the untapped contributions that women can make to the economy and to civil society, the more clear it becomes that the push for gender equality is central to our continuing quest for global stability. The key to gender equality is obvious: access to education for girls. In a study of 100 countries, The World Bank found that every 1 percent increase in the proportion of women with a secondary education raises a country's per capita income growth by about 0.3 percent.

The high percentage of women in secondary schools and in universities is the most dramatic change that has occurred since the publication of The Feminine Mystique. Women now comprise roughly 60 percent of college students in the United State and that trend is becoming evident in other countries. In Africa, if girls can complete secondary school, they stand a greater chance of leaving poverty behind and seeing prosperity ahead.

Less obvious is that violence against women is toxic to women's ability to improve their lives. Girls and their parents need to feel safe to go to school and to work without fear of being molested, raped or killed.

Where does religion come in? Eighty percent of the population, including women, in the Arab world support sharia law. But that figure does not necessarily doom women to second class citizenship. Many women, having helped ignite the revolution in several countries, are now unwilling to step back into the shadows. Sharia law has many interpretations. Women are reading the (religious) texts themselves; they are fighting religion with religion.

A source of conflict for women everywhere is the pull between reproduction and production. Women worldwide have difficulty in balancing their dual roles as caregivers and providers. Access to family planning is crucial, expressed by women as, "sovereignty over our own bodies." Policies such as maternity leave, sick leave, workplace flexibility and childcare make it more possible for women to fulfill both roles. (Ironically, the United States, the richest country in the world, lags behind the rest of the world in this regard.)

Investment in women's earning power pays a large dividend for the entire family. Studies have shown that women spend their earnings differently from men. They invest it on their children's education, food, clothing and health care. Men are more likely to spend their cash on alcohol, cigarettes, entertainment and cars. One study concluded that women spend 90 percent of their income on their families.

Political leadership is beginning to change from "pale and male" to greater diversity thanks to gender quotas. In 1997 the average percentage of women in parliaments around the world was 12 percent. The latest figure places that percentage at 21 percent. (The below average, at 17.8 percent).

How do we create the needed changes to improve the condition of women everywhere? There is cause for pessimism when we look at the increased rates of trafficking of women and girls.
Some 42 million human beings are trafficked around the world, often into slavery. Female infanticide is growing, with the aid of ultra sounds. "Missing", (or murdered) infants, girls and women number 3.9 million women below the age of 30.

One answer is "naming and shaming." exposing these statistics, in ranking order, to the cleansing solution of sunlight.

There is also cause for optimism. Change is happening in unexpected ways, that have little to do with government intervention.

One of the most revolutionary changes for women in developing markets is access to cell phones. Cell phones enable women to break free from their isolation. allowing them to communicate with the world beyond their own homes, even to become independent entrepreneurs.

In the Arab world, women's vision of their own possibilities are impacted the old-fashioned way -- by watching soap operas from Turkey. Everybody, it seems, is tuned in. On their living room screens they see women who are free to choose their own husbands, who go to school and work outside the home. The curtain is lifted on the outside world.

The most optimistic conclusion is that gender inequality is losing ground and that gender equality is gaining strength. The hard data in support of equal opportunity for men and women is becoming an increasingly powerful tool for change. As countries digest these facts, the pressure for them to recognize that the old ways of suppressing women's potential must be counteracted because they are self-defeating. By limiting opportunities for women, they are limiting their own economic growth. We must speed up the time table for fathers, brothers and sons to provide their mothers, daughters and sisters with the same opportunities that they give themselves. The result will be a more prosperous and stable world, far beyond what Betty Friedan could have imagined 50 years ago.