Beyond-Aid Approaches to Promoting Gender Equality: Birdsall House Conference Series on Women

How can businesses go beyond traditional forms of corporate social responsibility to integrate gender equality into their value chains? How can the banking sector narrow gaps in access to formal financial services? How can international policy-making levers like trade agreements play a role in combating gender discrimination?

Last November, I attended the Birdsall House Conference Series on Women in Washington, D.C. to explore answers to these questions.

In its second year, the series “seeks to identify and bring attention to leading research and scholarly findings on women’s empowerment in the fields of development economics, behavioral economics, and political economy.”

I have been exploring gender lens investing with WSII, so I was eager to hear what the pros had to say about women in world business. And they delivered! In the quick day and a half conference, we were treated to a well-rounded lineup of presentations from the bright minds of our world’s top global development institutions.

Here’s a taste of my takeaways:

  • The informal economy – Half of all business in India is conducted informally and in the home. A shocking 80% of all automotive manufacturing takes place in the homes of these Indian workers. And these statistics are not uncommon; the informal economy of Nigeria, for comparison, is about two-thirds the size of its formal economy. The proportion of women workers in the informal sector exceeds that of men in most countries. These off the books, paid-by-the-piece workers have to absorb the overhead and risk associated with production and often take a loss overall. Dr. Marty Chen of Harvard’s Kennedy School spoke passionately about the world’s informal economy and the essential function it serves in today’s global economy. She pointed out that these workers are most often overlooked and argued that they must be considered in conversations about global economic policy and supply chain regulation.
  • Gender differences – I suppose it’s safe to say that women and men are not the same, Mars and Venus and all that. But have you considered how those inherent differences inform financial behavior? Rosita Najmi of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation pointed out that women are quite different from men when it comes to business. “They get, spend, save, and protect money differently.” To improve women’s economic inclusion, these differences must factor in to the creation of financial instruments across the globe. She cited FINclusion Lab, an interactive data analytics platform that tracks financial inclusion data. Fascinating information, especially in light of the day’s discussions.

Similarly, Mayra Buvinic of the United Nations Foundation and Double X Economy called for the sex desegregation of banking data “so institutions can see biases and create products for women.” She also emphasized the need for supply- and demand-side data in financial programming. In other words, these experts were “not calling for women-specific products, but products that realistically incorporate the differences of women.”

  • Alternate routes to equality – How do we measure equality? What questions do we ask? How often do we ask them? Yale Professor of Economics Dean Karlan spent some time outlining his considerable financial inclusion research. He focuses on microeconomic issues of public policy and poverty, with particular attention to policies to increase income and financial wellbeing for those in developing countries. I was surprised to hear some of the characteristics his team considers when trying to gauge gender equality progress. For example, “What crops do you plant on the family’s plot?” I never knew that there are “men’s crops,” usually cash and export crops; or “women’s crops,” generally subsistence crops. But considering information like this can help researchers understand community power dynamics and the financial lifecycle of families in the developing world.

So in the end, when I look through my conference notes, I see the word “consideration” frequently.

Consider the informal workers. Consider the differences between women and men. Consider the whole person, family, community.

I see that the millions of dollars and decades of work in this field are not in service of promoting women alone, but are meant to enlighten us to the brilliant potential of how women can enhance to the global economy overall. WEConnect International’s CEO and Co-Founder Elizabeth Vazquez said it in a way that makes sense to me: “It’s in men’s best interest for all of us women to contribute more.”

Mo Lally, a WSII Senior Fellow, is finishing her MPH in the Perelman School of Medicine. On the Global Health track, she is passionate about applying sustainable business solutions to public health issues both domestically and internationally.