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Making Women Visible

“If it turns out to be true that we each have our own private hell waiting for us, mine is going to be trying to explain to economists why they should think about women.” My opening for the launch of the report on Thursday at Chatham House reflected several anxiety-producing conversations I have had with traditional economists over the past year.

The persistent problem in these conversations has been the economists’ abiding skepticism about the importance of women in the world economy, even when you point them to any one of many authoritative projections (IMF, OECD, World Bank) about the potential for growth that lies in equalizing the gender gap.  There are several causes behind this pervasive attitude within the dismal science, but I think the core issue is methodology:  economists have based their measurement systems on the tracking of money and usually rely on households as the smallest unit of analysis.  These methods tend to make women’s economic engagement invisible.  Because of this invisibility (and due in no small measure to simple prejudice), economists go further to assume that any effect that women may have on economics, especially at the national or international level, must be trivial. (Esteemed economist to Linda in late 2016:  “Why should the G20 worry about women?  They have important things to think about.”)  It thus is utterly mysterious to them why corporations should care about the economic empowerment of women.


I wrote this report to summarize and synthesize the Coalition’s considerable experience with women’s economic empowerment. I am hopeful it will help convince other companies to join this movement, but that it will also help other types of organizations understand what a resource businesses can be (well beyond just writing a check), as well as to be a little more informed about how corporations work in this space. Click here for the report.


So, I took the occasion of launching the “Lessons Learned from Years of Practice” report to illustrate the way women’s invisibility in economic data leads us to overlook their importance to the operation of the world economy.  It made particular sense for me to do this because of a central lesson gleaned from the conversations among the Global Business Coalition for Women’s Economic Empowerment, which form the basis for the findings of the research report.

The GBC4WEE (which I will take the liberty of calling “the Coalition” here) agreed that a corporation’s first step into the work of women’s economic empowerment should always be “making the women visible.” They have learned the common assumption that women are neither present nor important in a particular business or sector is an erroneous one.  A corporate team therefore begins by making the conscious effort to find them–and they nearly always learn that (1) women are present in their business, (2) they are important, and (3) something nearly always can be done that both helps the women and benefits the business.

I began by creating what I called “a patch of visibility” for the audience.  That is, I illuminated the economic conditions for women within a single sector and then showed

  1. how their systemic disadvantages hurts the local economy and makes them painfully vulnerable

  2. how that same disadvantage sums up to a significant influence on national economies

  3. why the corporations operate the way they do when they design programs to address the disadvantages

  4. why the corporations care about women for both social and business reasons and

  5. why economists should, too.

I began with agriculture because most of the world’s economies, in the past or present, have been built on farming—and that industry continues to affect all of us to a profound degree.  The starting point is the place of female landholders in the industry.  The Food and Agriculture Organization Gender and Land Rights Database has only made this information available in the past few years.  A sample of 106 countries shows that women are 18.3% of the world’s landholders.  Because men tend to own more land, that means males control 80%+ of the world’s arable surface.  This is a hugely important fact, but one that we have only recently had decent data to show.

FAO goes on to explain that the comparative land poverty of women means that they are considerably less able to buy capital equipment (from plows/oxen to tractors) and capital inputs (fertilizer, pesticides).  They are also far less likely to learn new techniques, because agriculture agents are prone to assume women haven’t means to act on innovations—and anyway think what is taught to men will trickle down to women (it doesn’t).

As a consequence, women produce lower yields and are more likely to lose land when there is blight or bad weather—they don’t have as big a cushion to absorb risks that men do.  (Now I am talking about men versus women as a large group here.  Obviously, not all men have better situations, but, as a group, they do.)

FAO emphasizes that when the resource constraints are made equal, women have proven to produce as much as the men.  Equalizing resources therefore would increase women’s output by 12 to 13%.  And since most of the developing nations are agricultural societies, closing this particular gender gap would increase their output by 3% to 4%.  Nothing to sniff at.


Source: Food and Agriculture Organization Gender and Land Rights Database. Notice here that men control an extraordinary amount of the world’s land. This difference is due to centuries of law and practice, pretty much everywhere, that only allows land to pass from male to male. The Downton Abbey principle. Since land has been the world’s main store of wealth, just think about what this has meant for male control of capital as the world shifted from agriculture to industry.


Further, this agricultural gender gap unnecessarily reduces the world food supply.  The knock-on effect is to increase food insecurity, which then stimulates conflict.  And the human rights impact is significant:  the United Nations says that 150 million of the world’s chronically hungry could be fed if all we did was to equalize the gender gap in agriculture.

Yeah.  It’s big.  And it’s getting worse:  as men migrate to cities for better-paying jobs, more and more farm work is done by women.  To the degree that they continue to have less access to inputs and technology, the world’s food supply will eventually be reduced.  Already, the world supply of some crops is in jeopardy.  (On the “endangered list”?  Chocolate and coffee.  OMG.  You should care.  So should economists.)

Now think about it.  Big grocery retailers, like Walmart and Marks & Spencer, sell a lot of chocolate and coffee.  They need a stable and high quality supply of produce.  Big food and beverage manufacturers similarly need a stable and high quality supply of the produce that makes the ingredients for their products.   Coca-Cola needs fruit for juices.  Mondelēz International (the new name for Cadbury’s/Kraft/Nabisco) needs cocoa for chocolate.  So, if you want to protect Double-Stuf Oreos and your crucial cup of morning Joe, you need to be paying attention here.

Please note:  Coca-Cola, Walmart, Mondelēz, and Marks & Spencer, are all members of the Coalition.  The report details their programs for helping women and thereby protecting these supplies.

One thing they have found is that women often are more active than men in the planting, cultivation, harvesting, sorting, processing, and packaging of produce for market. But it’s the men who actually take the food to market and they usually pocket the money they get.  They often work though agricultural boards and coops that do not allow women.  This means that women are effectively shut out of volume markets.  It also means that if you are only counting the transfer of money, you are going to think that the men are the economic force—even though the women did most of the work to bring the crop to market.  Yet again, the women’s contribution has vaporized under the narrow lens of traditional economics.

But even more females are hiding in the shadows.  Women, because they are seldom land-owners and often lose what land they have, are usually laborers on farms.  FAO estimates they do at least 47% of