March 1, 2017

3 Ways to Boost Women's Opportunity

Around the world, barriers to education and independence stand in the way of women's achievements.

In fragile economies around the world, women continue to face barriers to their education, financial independence, and civic participation. Yet when women participate in the institutions of society, communities are enriched.

Here, EDC development experts offer ideas for boosting women’s economic power and access to education around the world.

1. Challenge gender norms

Traditional gender roles remain one of the biggest barriers to women’s participation in civic, economic, and educational activities.

“Women are often responsible for keeping the family unit functioning,” says EDC’s Susan Ross, who has led workforce development efforts in Mali and Nigeria. “Taking care of family health issues, getting kids to school—these activities traditionally fall on women.”

These roles are not set in stone, though, and Ross says that small educational interventions can begin to chip away at long-held beliefs. Teaching lessons about gender equity in school, for example, can begin a slow and steady shift in cultural perceptions about a woman’s place in society.

“You want to make sure that classroom materials value mothers and fathers equally, and that the content reinforces messages of gender equality,” she says. “Introducing those norms are essential to long-term change.”

Another way to promote change is to create programs that support women in attaining positions of power. This approach has worked in North East Kenya, where EDC’s establishment of local and regional community groups has enabled women to participate as civic and economic leaders after years of exclusion.

2. Make schools safe, welcoming, and accessible

The World Bank determined that 62 million girls between the ages of 6 and 15 are not in school, and 16 million girls ages 6 to 11 will never attend school. EDC’s Robin DePietro-Jurand says that issues of accessibility and safety are core reasons why so few girls attend school.

In some communities, protecting girls’ health and safety may mean enforcing school policies that bar the sexual harassment of students. In others, it may mean building separate restrooms for girls—an especially important consideration during the adolescent years. And in communities where girls and women simply cannot attend school during the day, implementing classes at alternative times—for instance, in the evenings at community centers—can help expand access.

"What is ‘safe’ for young women may not be the same as what is acceptable for young men,” says DePietro-Jurand. “We need to design schools that consider the needs of all children if we are going to increase rates of attendance for girls.”

DePietro-Jurand also suggests communities hire more female teachers. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, only 28 percent of primary teachers are women. In Liberia, that number falls to 14 percent.

“Female teachers show girls that they can be educated and independent,” she says. “Just having these role models can encourage girls and young women to continue their education.”

3. Increase market access

Women’s economic power remains an untapped resource in many communities. The United Nations reports that in most countries women earn between 25 and 40 percent less than men, and that only half of all working age women are in the global workforce. (By contrast, 77 percent of men of working age are in the workforce.)

But supporting women in the workplace can transform communities—and the world. According to one study, achieving gender parity in the workforce could add $12 trillion to the global economy by 2025.

“Women help spur innovation regardless of the size or sophistication of the local economy,” says EDC’s Nancy Devine, pointing to EDC’s work in Mali and the Philippines. “Time and again, we have seen that economic opportunity is greater for everyone when women participate.”

One way of encouraging greater participation is to actively involve women in workshop development trainings, and then after the training, to help them find internships and connect with women’s business associations so they stay engaged.

Devine says it’s also important for organizations like EDC to practice what they preach.

“We try to model equity even in our own hiring practices,” she says. “We look for opportunities to bring more women onto our teams, and then we make sure they succeed.”