From left, Mary Ellen Iskenderian, and her associates, Karen Miller and Emily Shaked, standing in front of the poster of Eleanor Roosevelt that hangs in Mary Ellen's office. The Roosevelt quote underneath is: "No one can make you feel inferior without your consent." (Not sure I think that is true, but I grant it's an inspiring concept.)
Women, as a class, have been excluded from major financial transactions since the invention of money. In the developed nations, gradual changes in inheritance laws, property rights, and credit access over the past 200 years have given women an equal footing with men, at least from a legal perspective. Inequalities still exist, but they are fading.
In the developing nations, however, basic rights of financial participation are still largely closed off. Even where statutes have been enacted to give women legal equality, countries where much of civil and family law is still conducted by tribal or religious councils still have major barriers between women and capital of all kinds.
Very often, I find, people from the West take such rights so completely for granted that they forget many women in developing nations do not have equal access, even technically speaking. I suspect that, even in the developed nations, there are, within families, still very important practical divides in terms of control over major assets. And we know that women access banks for business financing much less than do men, are quite a bit less likely to get venture capital, and so on. So, the challenge of getting and controlling capital remains an important frontier for women’s economic empowerment, everywhere.
I had a stimulating conversation with Mary Ellen Iskenderian of the Women’s World Banking and Herta von Stiegel of Ariya Capital late last week, in which we compared notes about capital availability for women entrepreneurs in the UK and Western Europe versus Africa and other developing regions. We noted that whenever the topic of finance for women’s businesses comes up, the focus seems to always zoom into debt instruments. Seldom does anyone consider the question of equity financing in women’s businesses. Yet ultimately, equality can only be had when investors are as willing to take equity positions in women’s businesses as in men’s.
Land rights remain a big issue. In many countries–including nations in the West–there is a long tradition, hundreds and hundreds of years old, in which women cannot inherit and hold real property. In a technology economy, this doesn’t seem like that much of a problem, but in agricultural societies, it means everything. And there are follow-on effects. In Nigeria, for instance, loans cannot be collateralized with “moveable” assets. Which is to say, only land can be used to get credit.
Around the world, women own very little of the land. Many readers have probably heard the statistic that females own less than 1% of the land, even though they do the most farmwork. A recent Atlantic article called attention to the lack of data behind this assertion (which can be traced to Robin Morgan’s 1971 Sisterhood is Powerful, if you can believe it). The author’s point is not that the statistic is untrue–and I think we know enough about the situation at this juncture to say that women own very little land around the world, but we just don’t know how little.
Instead, the Atlantic author’s point is that we need to be careful about assuming we have the data to make such statements. To this day, there are large swaths of the world economy–especially the female component–that are simply uncounted. Hard to believe, but it is true.
Today, I have been emailing with Doug Thompson of the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor about their data on female entrepreneurs in sub-Saharan Africa. It is clear from the correspondence that GEM has been careful to adjust for typical biases–such as conducting research over the phone where many women don’t have even mobile phone access–but many others are not so careful. There are a lot of numbers that fly around, for instance, about what percentage of SMEs are owned by women–when we know that percentage of registration is low among women as well as men in many countries. It is important to name what we don’t know, not gloss it over or keep repeating myths.
I suspect a lot of research into women’s use of financial products and access to capital still needs to be done. Some of what is known will be described at the upcoming Power Shift Forum, at which both Mary Ellen and Herta will be speakers.