Consul General’s Corner
September 19, 2011
Nearly 90 years ago in rural Arkansas, my grandmother needed to walk to the next town to attend a teacher’s training college. It was her ticket to independence; in those days, her father assumed that, as the youngest child, she would stay home and look after him. The journey was too far for her to make each day on foot, but a kindly family in the college town offered to rent her a room. My grandmother was thus able to leave home and finish her education, eventually marrying a fellow Arkansan and finding work in the industrial North.
Flash forward 50 years: In my own family of five sisters, it was assumed we would all go to college (and we all did). As I’ve written before, my older sisters were part of the first generation of women to storm corporate America in the 1970s. I followed their lead without thinking of how difficult this would have been for my grandmother or even my own mother.
As the just-concluded Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Women and Economy Summit has shown, women still need help achieving economic empowerment. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton chaired this first high-level policy dialogue last week in San Francisco, which included hundreds of private sector leaders and government officials. Although women are already key drivers of economic growth in APEC economies, they still face barriers to participation. Women may participate in low-skilled work or work in the informal sector, leading to significant wage gaps. They have less access to credit, markets and social networks.
Such an unequal situation is not good for economic well-being, as the World Economic Forum Gender Report shows: Those countries and economies where the gender gap is closest to being closed in a range of areas – from education and health to economic and political participation – are the most competitive and prosperous. Narrowing the gender gap could lead to a 14% increase in per capita incomes by 2020 in several APEC economies, including in China, Vietnam, Indonesia and the Philippines, according to an OECD report on the gender initiative (http://www.oecd.org/dataoecd/7/5/48111145.pdf). Not surprisingly, this report notes that since women must juggle the responsibility for caring for children or elderly relatives, the availability of affordable care will decide whether and how much women can participate in the labor market.
When they do participate, they can make an enormous difference. A statistic I’m fond of citing is the increased performance by corporate boards with more women directors, which have 66% higher return on investment and 53% higher return on equity. Moreover, the 2009 McKinsey study “The Business of Empowering Women” indicates that one-third of executives reported increased profits as a result of investments in employing women in emerging markets.
Secretary Clinton challenged the leaders of APEC economies to promote greater access to financial services for women entrepreneurs, improving women’s access to markets, and working to support the rise of women leaders in both the public and private sectors. In an interview with World Affairs Commentary, U.S. Ambassador for Women’s Issues Melanne Verveer said that “collectively, the 21 countries of the Asia Pacific region lose between $42 to $46 billion of GDP annually by not tapping into women’s economic potential.”
Here in Thailand, we have the Thai first female prime minister and an increasing number of women business leaders. My friend Titiya Chooto is General Manager of the Four Seasons Resort in Chiang Mai, and I hadn’t realized the significance of her holding that position as both a women and a Thai. Ninety years on, it’s worth remembering the struggles of those that went before us and realizing how much work we still need to do.