By Sanola Daley*
Eight years ago, a newspaper article changed my life. It stated that, although more Jamaican women (70%) than men were enrolling in and graduating from higher education institutions, they kept having a significantly higher unemployment rate –15.6% and 5.7% respectively-. As a Jamaican woman then working her way through university, it marked my professional path forever.
What I didn’t know at that time was that this situation was pretty much the same throughout all Latin America and the Caribbean. Women have either achieved parity or bypassed men in terms of enrollment in tertiary education in most countries but, at the same time, their labor force participation is still low, averaging just 37% in most Central American countries and around 44% in Peru, Bolivia and Uruguay.
The absence of women from the labor market has serious consequences for companies and for economies. When women have access to decent employment and income, they can improve the quality of life for themselves and their families. They can purchase the goods and services they need, and they can pay taxes.
Furthermore, recent research finds a strong correlation between gender and diversity in the workplace with improved business performance. They argue that companies with more women in leadership are better at developing the goods and services to respond to the changing consumer demographic.
Why should companies care?
Women are powerful consumers, controlling $20 trillion – yes, I wrote trillion– in spending power and influencing up to 80% of purchasing decisions worldwide. Financial institutions are just beginning to realize the market potential for the unbanked and underserved women in the region. In 2010, Banco Nacional de Costa Rica launched Banca Mujer, a program providing financial services and business support for women entrepreneurs. By 2013 they had made loans to almost 15,000 clients, prompting their local competitors to develop rival products.
Since I read that article I have championed gender inclusion as a necessity for sustainable development in Latin America and the Caribbean. My work has led me to many countries across the region and in each place, I’ve seen firsthand how the private sector plays an active role in development, and that investing in gender inclusion is one of the most concrete ways. The key lies in companies
- recognizing the women graduating from universities as highly qualified labor
- providing good job opportunities
- investing in training and professional development
- purchasing the goods and services of women entrepreneurs
- considering women as powerful and influential consumers
For smart companies and financial institutions, this is a business opportunity and they know to get out ahead of the curve. For me, this is more than business, it’s development. The private sector is the engine of the economy. Let’s also make it the engine of development and gender equity.
*Sanola Daley is part of the Young Professionals Program in the Structured and Corporate Finance Department at the IDB, where she focuses on the integration of women’s economic empowerment and gender equity in the strategy and operations. She is originally from Jamaica, by way of New York, Puerto Rico and Costa Rica.