Skip to main content

With holiday gift-giving in full-throttle, I've decided what should top my wish list: an invitation to the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, Switzerland this January. Granted, not only do the chances of securing an invite seem less likely than a ticket to the Oscars, last year only 17 per cent of the delegates were women. Since I'm not an influential business or political leader – or married to one – my opportunity is further diminished.

In a dream world where I not only get invited but someone foots the incredulous bill, I'd aim to convince business leaders to better capitalize on the burgeoning female work force as a way to spur the global economy.

Admittedly, it's not a new idea. Over the years, many people have drawn the correlation that investing in women means investing in communities, including Dina Powell, president of the Goldman Sachs Foundation, who stated last year that 90 per cent of the income women gain is reinvested in society, including education and health care. Microfinance organizations often focus on women for this very reason.

But these initiatives seem tainted with an air of pity, despite the fact that repayment rates by women to microfinance organizations are significantly higher than men. During my magical time at the WEF, I want to disengage the pity angle and refocus the conversation squarely on the impact to a country's bottom line.

To prove my point, I'd take copies of a recent report, entitled Empowering The Third Billion, by Booz & Co., a global management consulting firm . The "third billion" refers to the nearly one billion women who are set to enter the global economy in the next decade, rivalling in importance the growth of India or China.

Failing to capitalize on this growth would translate into a missed opportunity in developing and developed economies alike, the report showed. For example, if female employment rates matched men's in the United States, it would boost the country's overall GDP by 5 per cent. In a country such as Egypt, the economy would grow by 34 per cent.

Although Canada ranks relatively high, in the seventh slot, on the Third Billion Index – which measures how effectively a country is boosting women's economic strength – the report suggested there remains room for improvement.

"Canada has one of the largest wage gaps in the OECD between men and women working full-time," said Leila Hoteit, principal with Booz & Co., adding that although the differentials are narrowing, the gap remains near 30 per cent.

The gap is attributed to the relatively high incidence of part-time work among women, and their occupational choices. Nearly two-thirds of graduates in the humanities, arts, education, health and welfare fields are women, Ms. Hoteit said, and traditionally those jobs can be on the lower end of the pay scale. More work needs to be done to encourage women to enter disciplines needed by the market: engineering, computer science and other technology-related fields, she said.

Women in Canada, as in many other countries documented in the report, bear the brunt of the "care economy," which is the unpaid work done to look after children and others, and that impacts the number of hours they can work, and therefore their overall wages. For example, women in OECD countries spent on average 2.4 hours more on unpaid work each day, compared with men.

In our increasingly interconnected world, there remain many innovative ways to capitalize on the underutilized female work force. Mounira Jamjoom, senior research specialist with the Ideation Center, Booz & Co.'s think-tank in the Middle East, explained that virtual jobs may make up 15 per cent of global jobs in the future, an opportunity that could be filled by underemployed women.

To prove the point about how empowering women in the Third World with well-paying jobs can impact the bottom line in Canada, I'd bring with me to the WEF a sterling-silver purse, hand-crafted in a remote village in Cambodia.

Mehrak Mehrvar, a Toronto-based gender and governance specialist, discovered the purses in a remote part of Cambodia a couple of years ago and began her mission to sell them through her company, NiNi Boutique. The luxury items are priced at up to $3,000, but Ms. Mehrvar ensures the for-profit enterprise remains sustainable for the artisans, who receive a more than fair wage and will eventually become shareholders in the company.

"It's not about aid, it's about empowering people," Ms. Mehrvar said from Cambodia, adding that she hopes more people will find innovative ways to stimulate business opportunities for these women.

If the purses take off as Ms. Mehrvar hopes, as a luxury item along the lines of Persian rugs, perhaps more business leaders will realize that not investing in women is like leaving money on the table.

Global companies are on board with this message as well. Emma Fox, senior vice-president of marketing for Wal-Mart Canada, said the company's international division plans to recruit 500,000 associates over the next five years. Since 75 per cent of Wal-Mart's customers are women, finding ways to better relate to them remains a tactical business move. The chorus of voices advocating for a more engaged, global female work force keeps getting stronger and if enough women can penetrate the Davos crowd, perhaps more leaders will listen.

Leah Eichler is founder of Femme-o-Nomics, a networking and content portal for professional women and r/ally, a mobile collaboration app.