Any country or company that wants to succeed in today's economy must unlock the power of women's potential. This was the message of Hillary Clinton's far-reaching speech that she delivered to a rapt audience at APEC on Friday.
A host of statistics support Clinton's case. When women are empowered, a nation's stability improves and democratic participation goes up. It's proven that when women have access to jobs and opportunities the positive ripple effects spread. Women are more likely to invest their earnings in their children's schooling, better housing, or in savings, than men. Over the last ten years the growth amassed by women's activity has been higher than that of China. Economists estimate that women will control $15 trillion by 2014 and by 2028 women will control two thirds of consumer spending.
So investing in women is "not only the right thing to do," Clinton said. "It's clearly the smart thing as well."
Yet obstacles continue to block women's full economic participation. In many places it is harder for them to get credit than it is for their male peers (even though women are more likely than men to repay funds). Legislation may prohibit them from opening bank accounts or from filing a lawsuit without the cooperation of a male guardian. Women often face higher interest rates and receive shorter term loans than men. These barriers don't just stifle women, Clinton said; they stifle economies too.
Despite all these facts, the issue doesn't get as much attention as it should. "I wouldn't be talking about it if everybody had signed up to it," Clinton pointed out. "That's why I'm trying to make the argument on the basis of dollars and cents. It is a fundamental human right to be able to make a living to support your family; it is also an economic good."
The Asia-Pacific region offers a friendly environment for women's participation. Already many play a part in farming and in local market economies. The challenge is to help them expand and build their business ideas on a bigger scale.
The moderator, Nina Easton, a columnist and editor at Fortune magazine, asked if Clinton worried about the women of the Arab Spring -- who had sacrificed so much for a cause but whose futures are now somewhat unclear. In Clinton's view it is too early to judge the nascent governments of that region, but she did have a word of warning for them. "Speaking as the Secretary of State of the United States, we're going to continue to strongly advocate that you cannot be a democracy if you do not fully enfranchise all of your population. We're going to hold up both publicly and privately any actions that we think are undermining the rights of women."
In most wars, women and children suffer most. Next month Clinton will launch a national action plan to ensure women's role in peace and security building, which will draw on the part women have played in Northern Ireland and elsewhere. "We have a lot of continuing conflicts around the world and we need help to resolve them."
Clearly a lot of work remains to be done and Clinton is intent on doing it. When asked about her own plans for the future however, she joked that she has been so busy she doesn't have any. "I don't have a dream job," she said. "I have a dream vacation."