There is a lot of rhetoric around supporting women these days, in both the international policy and the corporate world.
In the end, the rubber has to meet the road. There need to be clearly articulated goals, measurable targets, and indicators for monitoring progress. Programs need to be adequately funded and staffed. Regulations need to be meaningful and enforceable. Antidiscrimination laws need to be treated as laws and not just as polite suggestions.
All efforts need to be designed with a realistic awareness of the constraints that women face that are specifically attributable to gender. For example, recently, I was interviewing several reasonably successful entrepreneurs in a training program in China. I asked them what, now that they had gotten some business training, would be the next obstacle that needed to be addressed in order for them to succeed. Without hesitation, they pointed to sexual harassment in the government and banking sectors that made it difficult for them to get loans or licenses. The men in these positions expect to be taken out for drinking and then on to karaoke bars, where, the women said, the situation becomes “dangerous.” Without these relationships, however, their growth is severely restricted.
Government officers and bankers who expect sexual favors in return for financing and licenses is a problem that is directly related to gender and will not be changed by training programs in entrepreneurship–nor will it be changed by any effort that is focused on “fixing the women,” rather than fixing the situation that constrains them. The situation cannot even be known unless you are willing to see women as women–and not as just some kind of genderless small business.
It is also of increasing concern to me how many programs are being targeted at the so-called “missing middle,” in societies where there is no middle class to speak of. Such programs are often positioned as women’s empowerment or (rather disingenuously) as poverty alleviation programs, but I fear they skew in their effects toward benefiting elite family-owned businesses. And in those cases, one needs to be careful of whether the person really in control is the woman.
I fear that Western players design these programs with themselves in mind. They want to deliver a certain kind of program and want to reach an audience that they imagine to be their own mirror images. Too often, the homework is not done to find out in advance what the situation really demands and whether those “others” on the ground are really just like middle class, white Americans, with plenty of internet access, good English, adequate computer skills, and so on.
So there need to be measures and monitoring to ensure that efforts are pointed in the right direction, designed with the realities on the ground in mind, and designed to make a difference among the people intended as beneficiaries.
So, in particular, we need the new Millennium Development Goals to specifically set targets, goals, and indicators that will show us whether we made the mark or simply blew a lot of smoke about it.