The advancement of women in business improves bottom-line performance and strengthens corporate culture, which ultimately drives GDP and socio-economic development. That’s the view of Graça Machel, founder of the Graça Machel Trust.

Mrs Machel, who was delivering the keynote address at the Trialogue Business in Society Conference, told delegates, “women must be allowed to assume positions where they can unleash their transformational power in business and society. There’s still an enduring view that women have a collateral and auxiliary role, rather than reflecting the 52% of the society which they make up.”

Women’s economic inclusion could turbocharge global GDP

Mrs Machel referred to the Women Matter Africa McKinsey Global Institute Report, which found that African companies with a greater share of women on their boards of directors and executive committees perform better than their male-dominated counterparts. Specifically, the earnings before interest and taxes (EBIT) margin of companies with at least 25% of women on their boards was on average 20% higher than the industry average.

The report also found that $12 trillion could be added to global GDP by 2025 simply by advancing women’s equality. Mrs Machel said, “I’m no mathematician, but the calculation is simple: without women participating in the formal economy, our economies do not grow to the extent they could or need to grow. There are untold benefits for our continent should we really begin to seriously invest in our female employees and women entrepreneurs.

“Empowering and educating women is a critical driver to social and economic development on the continent. There is untold benefit for employers to bringing on more women as a part of their workforce. Studies have shown greater access to education and participation by women in male-dominated occupations in Africa could increase worker productivity by up to 25%.”

However, she says, when women don’t earn to their potential, development suffers and that hamstrings GDP, which in turn hinders social development. “There is a growing body of evidence which demonstrates that when women do not reach their full economic potential, the economies of their countries suffer.”

The experience of women entrepreneurs in East Africa

Research conducted by Graça Machel Trust into the barriers to growth for female entrepreneurs’ businesses in East Africa found that the majority of female entrepreneurs are young and well-educated (64% hold degrees). Over half of the 660 female entrepreneurs surveyed cited access to finance and markets as the two most significant challenges within their businesses. Of those who applied for a loan, only a quarter were successful. Most do not have a board, advisors or a business industry mentor, and have not participated in any business-specific training.

Equal work, equal pay

The first step towards placing women on an equal footing to men, she says, is to address disparities in remuneration: women still earn around 10% less than their male counterparts. Beyond that, adds Mrs Machel, is the challenge faced by many women of work-life balance. Information technology presents a powerful opportunity, through accelerating the trajectories of the careers of women, by enabling telecommuting and remote access, for example.

In societies with high percentages of female participation in the economy, the more influence women hold in the workplace and the more authority their voices hold, the more esteem and respect women tend to be given as a collective beyond the boardroom as well. When women’s contributions are recognised and valued from an economic perspective, a profound social shift and elevation of their status often transpires as a result.

“Empowering and educating women is a critical driver to social and economic development on the continent. There is untold benefit for employers to bringing on more women as a part of their workforce. Studies have shown greater access to education and participation by women in male-dominated occupations in Africa could increase worker productivity by up to 25%.”