We want more than a seat at the table

2017 has been a lot of things, but a shining beacon in the history of women’s rights isn’t one of them. From the reinstatement of the Global Gag Rule to the alarming extent of sexual assault and harassment from Hollywood to Westminster, it does cause one to wonder quite how long the fight will need to rage on before we get to enjoy true equality.

The World Economic Forum’s (WEF) latest Global Gender Gap Index found that the global gender gap is widening again. And the economic pillar, which covers things like salaries, workforce participation and leadership, has one of the fastest-growing gaps. Women’s earnings around the world still significantly trail behind men’s and, at the current rate of progress, the economic gender gap won’t be closed for another 217 years.  

As the Chief Executive Officer of a charity supporting women entrepreneurs to build successful and sustainable businesses in developing and emerging economies, we refuse to wait for 217 years for economic equality. The tenacious women we work with are testament to the fact that – while it is still a man’s world today – the future is on her way.

November 19 is Women’s Entrepreneurship Day – a day to celebrate the huge contribution women entrepreneurs are making to economies, as well as highlight the enormous barriers they still face on their entrepreneurial journeys. Barriers such as restrictive social norms, sexism, difficulties in accessing finance, a confidence gender gap, limited access to markets and networks, and a dearth of educational opportunities.

The business owners we work with at the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women become entrepreneurs for a variety of reasons. For some, it’s the culmination of a long-held aspiration. For others, however, entrepreneurship is a matter of survival. In contexts where access to safe and decent work for women is limited, starting your own enterprise offers a crucial lifeline. And in a world where women do twice as much unpaid care work than men, it is often the only way women can juggle their family commitments with the need to make money.

While the contexts and initial motivations might differ, the ripple effect these women have on their families, communities and economies is a story that repeats itself over and over again. Typically, women invest 90% of their income back into their families, while McKinsey estimates that closing the gender gap in economic activity would turbo charge the global economy to the tune of up to an extra $28trn by 2025.

But the most exciting ripple effect we see in our work is the fact that women entrepreneurs often go on to invest in other women – whether that’s through sharing their time, knowledge or resources.

Perhaps there’s more we can aspire to than finding a seat at the table in a male dominated world. How about building our own?

Priyanka, one of the women we support in India, is a great example of this. As a journalist, Priyanka realised not only that she was earning less than her male counterparts, but also that she lacked the financial knowledge and support to optimise her money. After speaking with friends, she realised she was not alone. In 2011, she decided to strike out on her own and launched Women on Wealth, a social enterprise offering financial management classes and resources to women.

After joining our online Mentoring Women in Business Programme, Priyanka was matched with a mentor from the UK. Together, the pair created an ambitious strategy for growth which has already seen Priyanka train four volunteers, double Women on Wealth’s membership community to 100 women and expanded its network of event attendees, video and newsletter subscribers to over 7,000 women. As her membership has grown, Priyanka has been able to reduce the fees she charges for her training programmes, enabling more women to access her services. Most importantly, Priyanka’s classes are already having a ripple effect on the women she works with including one who has been able to pay off a high debt and use her newly accessible capital to launch her own bakery.

By supporting women entrepreneurs to access the skills and tools they need to become successful business owners, the impacts multiply. From our mentee community 80% pass on what they’d learnt to others, while 50% become mentors to others.

The barriers to economic equality remain, but with more of us there to scale the hurdles (and give others a leg up in the process) we have strength in numbers. And with the latest research showing that women’s entrepreneurial activity is up 10%, our collective entrepreneurial clout is growing.  

217 years for economic equality is not a timeframe anyone can afford to accept. While achieving economic parity between men and women can only be achieved with the involvement of all genders, we thank those who are doing all they can to bring others up with them.

Helen McEachern, Chief Executive of the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women

Helen joined the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women in 2017 after over a decade at ActionAid, most recently in the role of Director of Fundraising for ActionAid UK. She brings over 20 years’ experience in international NGOs and has held senior leadership positions at Greenpeace, ActionAid UK and ActionAid International. Helen has a BSc. in Social Policy from Birkbeck, University of London, and an International Executive MBA from the IE Business School in Madrid.

What WEN Wants

WEN

Across the globe, women are more vulnerable to the adverse effects of climate change than men. They constitute the majority of the world’s poor, rely more heavily on threatened natural resources for their livelihoods, and often face multitudinous socio-economic and political barriers that limit their capacity to cope. From issues such as food security and agricultural practices to reproductive health and the cosmetics industry, the livelihoods and health of women are closely entangled with the health of our planet. As such, a gender-sensitive response to the effects of climate change and environmental degradation is essential.

Historically, women have the least responsibility for causing greenhouse gas emissions. Today they are underrepresented in climate policymaking, typically being the first affected by environmental challenges but the last to be consulted. One of the key challenges for women in the green movement today is therefore to make themselves heard. Women’s Environment Network (WEN) wants to see women included at all levels of policymaking, from the boardroom to the grassroots level, educating and empowering women at the local level to make positive decisions both for themselves and the environment.

We live in a world in which both nature and women are devalued as commodities to exploit. WEN wants to highlight the intersectionality of gender, ethnicity and the environment in order to induce policymakers to address the oppression of women and girls and of the planet together as part of the same problem. We want participatory grassroots organisations here in the UK to inform, educate, and empower women of all backgrounds to become agents of change in their families, communities and in society. We want women to be inspired to make environmentally-informed choices and to participate equally in a more environmentally sustainable future.

We want women to play a central role in the global food sovereignty movement, for example by participating in small-scale food-growing projects in order to tackle food security and dietary health on a local level, reconnect with nature in urban environments and build a stronger sense of cross-cultural community. We want the sanitary protection industry to be more innovative and catch up with the needs of menstruating women in an environmentally responsible and sustainable manner. We want women to be able to make well-informed decisions about the cosmetic products they use in their homes and on their bodies.

Women across the globe are a major untapped reserve when it comes to coping with contemporary environmental crises and innovating responses. WEN’s vision is of an environmentally sustainable world in which we have achieved gender equality. This can be achieved through participatory approaches which harness the potential of women and place them at the forefront of the fight for our planet. WEN fosters such a participatory approach within its own structure and, through cooperation with groups such as the Black Environmental Network, aims to create a space for marginalised groups of society to participate in the environmental movement.

Women will only get what they want in the environmental movement if they are given a platform for their voices to be heard. This was the founding mission of Women’s Environmental Network in 1988 and continues to be central to our purpose into the twenty-first century.

An honest journey

An early piece of advice we were given was: if we want to scale the What Women Want 2.0 campaign in the future by making it available to others, then forget tools and templates, the most valuable thing we can do is capture our journey.

Our dream scenario, like many campaigners, was that an organisation might spot the value and potential of our campaign early on and help us by financially underpinning the whole campaign, thereby ensuring a much smoother ride. (I should point out that we have a fantastic first partner in vInspired, whose money and value in kind has given us the best possible start).

The reality of course is that money is tight for everyone and we need to prove the value first. We knew there would be false starts, hairpin bends and even speed restrictions. We also knew that we might feel these more keenly because we are volunteers that need to also keep working elsewhere and because we are a collaboration principally between two organisations, Long Run Works and We Are Women. We are united by our shared purpose but what we need, want and can give, varies – and not just between the two organisations but as individuals and over time.