Women have been singularly barred from literacy since the invention of writing. Around the world, females still compromise the largest subgroup of illiteracy. The effect on their knowledge base, their job skills, and their citizenship is remarked upon often. Seldom do we notice that illiteracy also bars women from the texts of the financial system: from contracts to credit agreements, if you can’t read, you can’t participate. Here, during a break from work, a woman from Rwanda (right), teaches a refugee from Congo to write. Photographed in Boise, Idaho, where they work with Full Circle Exchange and are part of the Walmart EWT system.
Our announcement of the Oxford-Walmart research project will elicit disapproval in some quarters. Many more folks will simply glance at the story without grasping its importance. Here I want to provide a backdrop that may make the historic nature of this work stand out more clearly.
Women, as a class of economic actors, have been defined by their exclusion from what we now call “the formal economy.” It’s a commonplace observance that women work long hours unpaid—far more than men do in every country, even today—and that they have been excluded, until recently, from paid work, all over the world. The inrush of women to the labor force that has typified Western economies for the past 50 years is a unique phenomenon in history and has contributed significantly to the prosperity and power those nations enjoy.
Financial literacy is a problem for women everywhere. Here, at the Women’s Bean Project in Denver, female CPAs volunteer to teach basic skills to the disadvantaged women who are trained and then placed into careers by the project.
But that aspect of women’s situation—confined to reproduction, excluded from paid production—is only part of the story. Far less often recognized are the many other barriers to economic participation that women have faced, and continue to face, in every part of the world. For instance, it has been the norm for women to be unable to inherit wealth: this is true today in the Muslim world, but the 19th century feminists in America and England had to fight for the right to inherit, too. Indeed, if we look carefully, we often find that the “cultural factors” that inhibit women in developing countries today are exactly the same limits that women in the West confronted at the time the whole notion of “women’s rights” was born.
Other points of exclusion have included prohibitions against having bank accounts, getting credit, and entering into contracts. Though a few elite women in history have been able to transcend such barriers by virtue of aristocratic status, far and away most women in history have been flatly excluded from the systems that circulate money and wealth. Dame Stephanie Shirley, an icon of technology and philanthropy in the UK, had to get her husband’s permission to open the checking account that founded her fabulously successful software company back in the early 1960s. The women who went to work for her had been forced to quit (as had Shirley herself) by the British law that said women had to stop working if they got pregnant. Today, millions of women all over the globe still struggle with this same systematic exclusion—no job, no bank account, no credit card, all by virtue of gender alone. Cut off from the modern system, these women barter, try to influence their men, marry or prostitute themselves, and just generally carry on as if they lived in a premonetized society.
This report by OECD, released last year, calls for businesses to "Act Now" to close the gender gap. When OECD, IMF, World Bank, and other such institutions start calling for gender equality, it's time to sit up and pay attention.
Today, however, quite a number of (perhaps unlikely) institutions—IMF, World Bank, OECD, McKinsey, Goldman Sachs, Booz & Company– are telling us we have to figure out how to include women in the economic system. Why? Because, without the participation of women, the wealthy Western economies are going to reach their growth limits very soon. Because, without the participation of women, growth markets like China and India will never form the middle classes that are so important to stability for a market economy. Because, if the women don’t get more rights of all sorts (economic and reproductive), regions like sub-Saharan Africa are going to continue to swim in the misery of high fertility, runaway disease, filth, hunger, and conflict.
There are now mountains of statistics to tell us how closely related women’s rights are to the health and wealth of nations. It simply is no longer a controversial topic. Already, however, it has become clear that including women in the formal economy (after millennia of trying to keep them out) is not as easy as it sounds. You can’t just throw out a few loans or stage a couple of entrepreneurship courses and have it magically happen.
Studies like this recent one by Intel show us that, in the developing countries, the digital gender gap is as much as 40%. This exclusion from the global communications infrastructure is just the most recent example of how women are barred from the technologies of basic economic literacy.
There are many reasons why knitting this “economy of the excluded” into the formal economy is harder than it seems. Long enculturation leads women themselves to believe, for example, that money is dirty or technology dangerous or ambition unseemly. So financial illiteracy and technophobia prove more intransigent than we expect—a single course offering will still show the females underperforming males, though we have long since learned that believing women are somehow “naturally” less competent in these areas is pure bigotry.
The young Muslim men who set up the Jita system under CARE Bangladesh had to negotiate with local elders and clergy to get permission for salesladies like this one to leave their households and walk their routes unaccompanied. A surprise outcome, even to them, was the enthusiastic way the customers responded to her arrival—in conservative rural Bangladesh, women are so excluded from the economy that they are not even allowed to go out shopping!
And then there is the violence. When we were working with CARE in Bangladesh, we learned that the businesses so carefully cultivated by the women under the NGO’s influence might be burned to the ground when the community activists left. From Sri Lanka to Mexico, sexual predators stalk female factory workers on their commutes. One company I studied had to institute a private bus system to keep their workers safe going to and from the factory. Then they had to install an on-site banking system to keep male relatives from physically forcing money from female operatives as they left the factory on payday. When I interviewed women entrepreneurs in China, they told me one of their biggest barriers to growth is that bankers expect them to go out for long boozy dinners followed by late Karaoke nights. This is normal behavior for Chinese businessmen, but women feel it is inappropriate and dangerous for them to participate in such things.
These are not issues that can be dealt with solely through legislation. Many barriers are simply not within the purview of the state (inheritance laws, for instance, are often governed by religious courts or a separate code of family law, not ordinary government statute). So, we need institutions in different domains—especially in the economic arena—to focus their attention on the challenge.
Carefully lettered signs like these two are posted by every women’s economic empowerment group I have ever visited in Africa. This particular one is connected to Walmart’s EWT system. The pro-social ethic evidenced in these messages is a key reason world economic institutions want to empower women: females reinvest their earnings in children and communities, producing a ripple effect that benefits many beyond themselves.
Several have stepped up to the plate already, including, for instance, companies like Goldman Sachs, ExxonMobil, and Coca-Cola. Despite some important successes, these companies often find integrating women into the world economy harder than it looks. To get it right, you must be very patient, pay very close attention specifically to the gender issues, step very carefully, and stand always ready to try a different approach or invent a new procedure for bringing this shadow economy into the global community.
The Empowering Women Together project is, I believe, a breakthrough innovation. I have four reasons why I think this is true:
The Walmart system can give women-owned businesses access to a large market. You can teach entrepreneurship skills or open access to capital all you want, but until a woman has a customer base, her business is not going to grow. Those of us who work in this space on a day-to-day basis have learned in the past couple of years that “access to markets” (as the phrase goes) is a key problem for the Double X Economy.
EWT is holistic: it links women-as-consumers to women-as-producers in a way that can allow the Double X Economy to function like a modern system. Female consumers consistently demonstrate their interest in helping other women. By closing the loop between production and consumption, then working to connect up all the necessary points of contact from sourcing standards to shipping, EWT can help the world learn how the tricky businesses of knitting the Double X Economy to the formal system can be done.
The sheer size of Walmart will draw other companies and even governments into the effort on behalf of women. As an economic entity, Walmart is the size of Norway. As a global provisioning system (“retailer” is not a big enough word), Walmart draws from an extraordinarily wide swath of supply chains. What Walmart chooses to do in any particular part of their market affects every other organization that participates in that market.
This effort is operating within the actual Walmart business system. If it can be made to work and be sustainable, it will not be a one-off CSR initiative, but will presage a fundamental change in the way world business works.
Full Circle Exchange, an “aggregator” in the EWT system, carefully cultivates women’s businesses, helping them to grow into full suppliers to big companies. This particular group is composed of refugees who have relocated to Boise, Idaho, courtesy of a remarkable collaboration between Full Circle and the State of Idaho.
Many companies today have awards they give high achieving women or charitable efforts that benefit poor mothers or special “leadership” seminars for their female employees. EWT holds the promise of an entirely different order: it points toward systemic change.
Beginning with the empires of Mesopotamia, major institutions of societies everywhere—the church, the state, the military, the universities—have worked to exclude and subordinate women. Today, multinationals represent a new kind of organizational sector, a commercial force with a unique kind of power and unprecedented command of resources. For one of the biggest of these to suddenly throw its weight—its thinking, its systems, its capabilities—into the world arena on behalf of women is something the likes of which has never occurred in history. I wanted to be there to see it.