Chasing the Gender Effect

My new essay on “Thinking Critically About Women’s Entrepreneurship in Developing Countries” can be downloaded from the link at the end of this post. I will be offering  the booklets at IFC tomorrow,

During the past ten years, I have been fortunate to be involved with many prominent efforts to create and evaluate support systems for female entrepreneurs in developing countries. My colleagues and I published the first independent evaluation of Avon‘s ability to help poor women build businesses (in South Africa).  The Avon system has become a template for many seeking to build networks of entrepreneurs among poor women in developing countries. Our team was the first on the ground to study the award-winning Jita system in Bangladesh, an Avon-like network built by CARE to serve rural poor women. For two years, I taught on the Goldman Sachs 10,000 Women course in China.

Today, I serve on the International Council for Women’s Business Leadership, a high-level group (first founded at the US State Department and now at Georgetown University) that focuses on supporting women-owned businesses. I advise the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women and evaluated their online mentoring program, which assists women in more than 30 countries. I am on the International Advisory Council to the Walmart Women’s Economic Empowerment effort, which has a strong focus on women-owned businesses, large and small.

Tomorrow, I intend to bring all this experience to a speech I will give at the International Finance Corporation in Washington, DC. My goals are several:

to highlight the blind spots I see in international efforts to design and evaluate such support systems

to argue for closer attention to reflecting gender constraints in measurement design

to illuminate the data collection and reporting difficulties faced by these large programs

to suggest how findings from such programs could change global perspectives on a number of issues important to women.

Jim took this photo of a woman in the Jita network back in early 2008. CARE has had to make many adaptations to make this system work. Fortunately, they are true gender experts and have very deep credibility on the ground in Bangladesh. They have brought this effort to a point where it wins major awards.

My point of departure will be the insights we have gained in our efforts to design measurements for a global system that bridges developed and developing nations. Walmart’s Empowering Women Together (EWT) is intended to help early stage female entrepreneurs by giving them access to a large base of consumers—the Walmart shopper. The program is still small, in terms of the number of businesses it engages, but it is already working in thirteen countries on four continents. These small companies involve a wide range of industries and products (toys, women and children’s apparel, home furnishings, jewelry, food and beverage, and so on). Many of the companies involved are social enterprises and many are organized to benefit at-risk employee populations, such as refugees and recovering drug addicts. All these aspects make the system unique among efforts to date: never before has anyone tried to design measures that will work to assess impact and diagnose problems for women-owned businesses in any industry, any place, for any group of women.

We are currently up to our ears reviewing the academic and institutional literature that reports results of related studies and programs. We already knew when we started that the academic literature on women’s entrepreneurship is largely devoted to enterprise in the rich nations. Those studies do not evaluate activist projects such as the ones we are looking at and they mostly concern themselves with figuring out why women “underperform” as business owners compared to men–rather than assessing the positive effects of supporting women as entrepreneurs.  Furthermore, these scholars have tended to think of gender as a subjective self-perception, rather than a concrete set of economic constraints.

On the other hand, we were surprised to see that efforts to measure “women’s economic empowerment” had been conducted only in a handful of countries in the developing world—and that the measures of gender empowerment had never been tested against the obvious counterfactual: men.

Dr. Jiafei Jin and I wrote “Finance After Hours” based on research among women entrepreneurs and bankers in China. We found that the bankers’ negative attitudes toward lending to women were driven by informal attitudes about women’s reproductive roles rather than formal criteria for credit. The women avoided even applying for loans–not for lack of training or confidence, but out of quite realistic expectations about what would happen if they did.

The findings of the women’s entrepreneurship literature did flag up the central issue, however. The “underperformance” of female entrepreneurs can be explained by a single dummy variable: gender. This one thing tells you we must quickly be about identifying, articulating, and measuring progress against the real-life constraints that gender norms put on the performance of businesses. Other studies that have tested to see what business variables can be adjusted until female entrepreneurship is brought statistically in line with male performance. The list is basically an itemization of gender-related conditions: the amount of time devoted to the business (a proxy for family obligation), the collateralization of loans (always and everywhere, women control fewer assets and therefore have nothing to pledge), and the “choice” of industries (women are in industries that pay less, grow slower—there is a chicken-and-egg aspect to that).

Because the entrepreneurship literature is mainly limited to variables that are considered “just business,” such as revenue growth or debt level, they don’t pick up some of the really troublesome gender-specific influences, such as sexual violence and access to contraception. We have been taught to think of birth control and rape as issues totally unrelated to business. In practice, you find out pretty quickly that few events burden a growing business like the appearance of an unwanted pregnancy or being beaten by a resentful husband or getting jumped in the streets as you walk home from a customer visit.

We learned from our fieldwork that the women’s empowerment questions often used in developing country work simply do not transfer to the developed world. For instance, it is quite reasonable to ask whether a woman can leave her home without her husband’s permission when assessing female freedom in the global “South.” But if you ask an entrepreneur in, say, San Francisco or London the same question, you imply that she is being abused.

This microbrewer in a mountainside village in Uganda gets the maize and water she needs to serve her beer from her husband’s farm output. Since he owns the land, he could claim all her proceeds, but he does not. Sometimes entrepreneurial success depends on random factors like having a “good husband,” as much as more predictable business inputs.

We have unearthed many other problems in our fieldwork. Measures of employee well-being consistently assume that the workers are in a “Fordist” factory environment—an assumption that is really dated, in addition to being out of step with the occupations of most women around the world. Many women’s empowerment efforts use a measurable rise in confidence as an indicator that they have had a positive impact. And, actually, that is often the most logical choice since the business and cultural situations may vary too much to compare in other ways. In trying to test standard measures for confidence and self-efficacy, however, we ran into a very funny situation in which a population of felons scored well above the mean. What do you do with that?

One business we studied converted itself from a piecework, home-based operation to an efficient factory in order to comply with international standards. But after that, the owner had a consistent problem with employee turnover, even though wages were higher, because the workers did not like the commute and the fixed hours. Go figure, right?

Do you like commuting? How many women do you know who struggle to balance family demands with inflexible hours? We have met lots of American women who purposely take lower-paying jobs in exchange for family-friendly conditions. Why be surprised by the reaction when it occurs among the global poor?

I will tell these stories and others tomorrow in order to make the conceptual issues come to life for the audience (and because some of the stories are funny—that will help keep them awake).

But the stories I will tell are not anomalies. They all merely show the very large gap between Western “gender neutral” business expectations and the facts of life on the ground for women entrepreneurs everywhere.

Why should anybody care about this stuff? Well, the main reason is the positive social impact that is expected to come from economically empowering women—which often must be done through entrepreneurship because formal employment opportunities are few in some countries. The international community has reason to believe that money in the hands of autonomous women goes to benefit children and communities in ways that ripple across a population with very positive effects, such as better education for the next generation, lower violence levels, and less disease. Here, however, is where the data collection and measurement get really tricky.

Think for a moment how hard it would be to assess the quality of education and nutrition, or the incidence of domestic violence, among the relatives of the people you work with. Yeah. Wow.

Unsettling as it may seem to rich nation readers, it is important to bear in mind that most of the world’s population lives in the developing world, with the majority in rural areas.

Then take that imagined scenario and plunk it down in the rural areas of East Africa. You would probably have to drive more than five hours to get to each settlement where you want to interview. Across a single country, there may be 10-20 languages spoken, so you would have to have that many translations of the survey and a veritable army of interpreters. Plus there would usually be no reliable connection for your tablet or laptop so you could upload their answers. Forget thinking your respondents will just jump online while you sip a latte in Bethesda or Oxford. The people you want to reach will likely have no experience with computers and zero connectivity.

The costs, in both time and money, for collecting that level of data in the remote rural areas of the developing world are staggering. Yet this is where we are looking to have an impact.

If we could somehow pool resources and standardize questions and figure out how to deliver such research across all these large programs, we would learn so much about how to lift women out of subjugation and poverty that it would change our whole perspective. We would know what to do. We would understand. It would be worth it.

The world is up to its eyeballs in economic data collection systems implicitly based on a notion that gender doesn’t matter. Yet we know that gender is a major driver of inequality all over the world. We should not turn away and say it is impossible. We must take the steps necessary to learn, know, and act.

Information about tomorrow’s talk, which is open to the public, is available here.  You can also attend the meeting online.

 “Thinking Critically About Women’s Entrepreneurship in Developing Countries,” which I will offer to the audience at the International Finance Corporation talk tomorrow, can be downloaded here.

“Finance After Hours:  A Case Study in Women’s Access to Capital” can be downloaded here.

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