Speech: “Women entrepreneurs can drive economic growth”—Lakshmi Puri

Remarks by UN Women Deputy Executive Director Lakshmi Puri at the SHE·ERA: 2017 Global Conference on Women and Entrepreneurship, in Hangzhou, China.


Mr. Jack Ma, Founder and Executive Chairman of Alibaba Group
Ms. Zhang Wei, Alibaba Pictures President
Dr. Jim Yong Kim, President of the World Bank Group
Honorable Bardish Chagger, Minister of Small Business and Tourism of Canada
Dear friends,

I want to express my deepest appreciation to Mr. Jack Ma, chair of the Alibaba Group and the Alibaba team at large for the invitation to speak at this SHE·ERA: 2017 Global Conference on Women and Entrepreneurship. Jack Ma and his team’s leadership is to be commended for convening such a monumental conference, bringing the attention of the world to a pathbreaking SHE-ERA that transforms the globe through sustained investment in and support to women’s economic empowerment. We thank you again for your unconditional and solid support to UN Women. We need more leaders like you in the world.

You have brought together an impressive lineup of champions of gender equality and women's empowerment with a focus on one of the key drivers of GEWE - women's entrepreneurship. I bring you the greetings of Madame Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, UN Women’s Executive Director. I would also like to convey the support of the Secretary-General of the United Nations, Mr. Antonio Guterres, who is a true Gender Champion and supports all such initiatives that strengthen the global movement for gender equality!

Jack Ma and Alibaba partnership with UN Women

We commend your leadership Mr. Ma and you have been a pioneer in:

  • Forging a transformative partnership with UN Women since the historic first ever Gender Equality Summit with nearly 70 heads of States and governments, co-hosted by China and UN Women in 2015 where you spoke on behalf of the private sector.
  • Launching a Private Sector Forum for supporting UN Women and contributing to the implementation of Sustainable Development Goal 5 on achieving gender equality and empowering all women and girls.
  • Financing our core institutional capacity especially on women's economic empowerment and women's entrepreneurship.

We continue to count on your support and on your inspiration for other private sector leaders in China and the world to join this movement of a socially accountable and gender responsive private sector who thinks and acts and impacts gender equality in their companies, in the market place and in the community.

Your quote last year, “women are the ‘secret sauce’ behind your company’s success,” continues to resonate, Mr. Ma, as a loud and clear invitation to the private sector leaders everywhere to emulate your employment practices and a gender equality and women's empowerment focused business model.

You have demonstrated that your quest for gender balance in the management and workforce of the company is achievable, that it empowers women as managers, traders, suppliers, producers and consumers and that this in turn generates and drives the exponential growth of your business.

We are convinced that women entrepreneurs can drive economic growth, but only if they are enabled to realize their rights and if we work in partnership with business, government and civil society to improve their opportunities and outcomes in global value chains. And this is what this conference is about.

Our deliberations for the next two days will contribute to strengthen the message that gender equality and women’s empowerment is the most important undertaking for our societies, economies and the international community as we enter a new and defining time for sustainable and inclusive development and peace and security with women’s leadership as a key driver.

The Essence of women's economic empowerment

Women’s economic empowerment is one of the world’s most promising areas of investment, biggest emerging markets, talent pools and demographic dividends to be tapped.

And when we speak of women’s economic empowerment we refer to women's economic rights including equal access to, ownership of and control over land, property, productive assets and resources including finance and capacity building and access on an equal basis as men to decent work and full and productive employment; their economic independence or full ability to freely assert their autonomy and exercise their choices; and their full access to decision making in all economic decisions that affect their lives and the lives of their families, communities and societies.

These three aspects of empowerment must be recognized and promoted as an integrated whole. If one aspect fails, the full empowerment cannot be realized and the whole sustainable development future is jeopardized.

Women's economic empowerment generates tremendous dividends for the society- Let me share some examples:

If women and men have the equal access to land, technology, financial services, education and markets, the consequent 20-30 per cent increase in agricultural production on women’s farms could lead to 100-150 million less hungry people.

If women participate in economic activity, own and control productive assets, it leads to development by helping to overcome poverty, reducing inequality and improving children’s nutrition, health, and school attendance.

If female employment were to match male employment, GDP could increase everywhere, for example, by 27 per cent in the Middle East and North Africa and by 19 per cent in South Asia.

If women and men stood on identical footing in terms of participation in the economy through paid work and entrepreneurship, the world could see as much as 28 trillion dollars in global growth by 2025- imagine that it would be the GDP of US and China put together!

There is growing global consensus on women’s economic empowerment as a force multiplier for good governance, economic growth, poverty eradication, ending hunger and achieving food security and nutrition, achieving sustainable consumption and production patterns and environmental sustainability, and SDG achievement overall.

Indeed, gender equality and women’s empowerment are integral to the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in September 2015. As a universal call to action for all stakeholders, including in business, government, youth and civil society, the Agenda articulates priorities for joint efforts, so that all women and men, including young women, can share the benefits of economic growth and development, with no one left behind.

Market forces and enabling and special measures.

However, we can never lose sight of the fact that efforts to promote women’s economic empowerment require that market-based approaches and economic gains and incentives must go hand in hand with creating a deliberate ecosystem that enables women to realize their rights and level the capacity and opportunity playing field. This means governments and the private sector taking special measures. This is because historically systematic discrimination against women constrains their full and equal participation in the economy.

Entrepreneurship and decent work are the bedrocks of economic empowerment. They support the economic empowerment of women and men, families, communities, and countries. The Addis Ababa Action Agenda on Financing for Development and 2030 Agenda on Sustainable Development recognize the importance of entrepreneurship and decent work, specifically in Goal 8.3, “Promote development-oriented policies that support productive activities, decent job creation, entrepreneurship, creativity and innovation, and encourage the formalization and growth of micro-, small- and medium-sized enterprises, including through access to financial services.”

The agenda further elaborates on the criticality of women’s economic empowerment through other sustainable development goals (SDGs), particularly:

  • SDG4 on Education (target 4.4)
  • SDG5 (target 5.a and b)
  • SDG8 on Economic growth and employment
  • SDG17 (target 17.17) on Global partnership

It is recognized that just entrepreneurship alone fuels the creation of decent jobs and builds wealth when businesses thrive and grow. In China, if women started successful growth-oriented businesses as men do, it is estimated that 74 million more jobs could be created.

Global perspective on women and entrepreneurship

I will start by discussing some of the common structural barriers women entrepreneurs face and outline some of the solutions, drawing especially on the recommendations of the UN Secretary-General’s High-Level Panel on Women’s Economic Empowerment and our own work in global norm and standard setting, strategic partnership and advocacy, knowledge hub and operational work Finally, I will highlight concrete areas where UN Women is working to make a difference.

Structural Barriers to women’s entrepreneurship

A number of constraints on women’s entrepreneurship lead to unequal economic opportunities and outcomes compared to men. They are rooted in structural barriers and discriminatory laws and social and cultural norms and stereotypes that limit the realization of women’s rights and treat women as inferior and subordinate to men including in the productive economy. The World Bank estimates that in 155 out of 173 economies, at least one gender-based legal restriction exists on women's employment and entrepreneurship.

As a result, there is increased feminization of poverty, pervasive gender disparities in wealth and income from work – which includes both paid employment and self-employment and women entrepreneurship. Furthermore, these constraints are linked to poverty, ethnicity, race, disability, rural and remote location and status, resulting in multiple and intersecting economic marginalization for many women.

Major areas of gender inequalities in the economy include women’s predominance in the informal economy, occupational segregation, discrimination in the entire recruitment, retention, promotion and reentry chain in formal employment, gender pay gaps, lack of assets, unequal and inadequate access to productive resources, capacity building and finance and a heavy and disproportionate burden of unpaid care and domestic work and sexual harassment at the workplace.

Some 70 per cent of women workers are employed or self-employed in informal jobs, which are insecure, unprotected and poorly paid.

Occupational segregation by gender means that women are still overwhelmingly clustered in low-paid, poor-quality jobs- sticky floor phenomenon. The most pernicious impact of segregation is pervasive gender pay gaps, which mean that women are systematically paid less than men for work of equal value. The global gender pay gap stands at 23 per cent.

One cause of occupational segregation is the expectation that women are the primary care-givers for families. Care work is seen separated from formal economic activities, and is not remunerated. Globally, women spend an average of 2.5 times more time on unpaid care work compared to men.

It is well recognized that the time women spend on unpaid care work constrains the time available to dedicate to paid work activities, the types of work in which they engage, and their earning potential.

Another major structural barrier is women’s lack of access to productive assets – often dictated by laws on inheritance and property rights – which means that women have less collateral to raise capital to invest in a business. As result women remain in sectors with low barriers to entry and limited growth potential.

Although women-owned enterprises have been the target of microfinance interventions, there has been a dearth of activity supporting “the missing middle,” or mezzo-level financing for women-owned small and medium enterprises (SMEs) with high growth potential. For example, only about 14 to 19 percent of International Financial Corporation loans are issued to women-owned SME clients, despite evidence that they perform just as well as those owned by men!!

Breaking the glass ceilings and glass walls through entrepreneurship and innovation: Solutions based on recommendations of the High-Level Panel

Recognizing that advancing women’s economic empowerment is a global imperative and its catalytic potential in achieving the SDGs, the UN Secretary-General established the High-Level Panel (HLP) on Women’s Economic Empowerment in 2016 and President Kim is a distinguished member of the Panel.

The panel identified seven primary drivers of women’s economic empowerment which apply to women's entrepreneurship as a key means and made recommendations thereon calling for:

  • Tackling adverse norms and promoting positive role models
  • Ensuring legal protection and reforming discriminatory laws and regulations
  • Recognizing, reducing and redistributing and provisioning unpaid care and domestic work
  • Building assets—Digital, financial and property
  • Changing business and private sector culture and practice
  • Improving public sector practices in employment and procurement
  • Strengthening visibility, collective voice and representation

UN Women is working to address these drivers and implement the recommendations of the High-Level Panel through its flagship programming initiatives.

Procurement as a key driver of women's entrepreneurship

For example, one of the key drivers the Panel identified was leveraging procurement to create economic opportunities for women-owned businesses as suppliers to governments, international organizations and corporations which procure goods and services from companies to carry out their functions.

Whether these entities are delivering health services, building a road, or manufacturing a product, smaller private sector companies are involved as suppliers. Public procurement alone accounts for 15 to 30 per cent of GDP in countries. This creates market opportunities that have long been recognized as an engine for growth in SMEs, yet women-owned enterprises are severely underrepresented as suppliers, securing only an estimated 1 per cent of contracts.

The SG's UN Panel estimates that even a 1 per cent increase in the share of procurement would result in 60-70 billion dollars in revenues for women-owned businesses. This is equivalent to the economy of countries like Cambodia, Costa Rica or Tanzania… a great deal we have in hand!!

It recommends that governments establish and track government-wide targets for women’s participation in procurement and encourage suppliers to do the same. Women-owned enterprises and women’s collectives should furthermore be trained on how to do business with government.

Corporations are also well positioned to promote gender equality and empower women in their workplaces, in their communities, and through purchasing policies and practices. The sheer size and volume of corporate purchasing worldwide means that corporations have the power to dramatically influence the way suppliers and supply chains operate.

By overlooking women-owned businesses, many corporations are missing an opportunity to expand their global markets, diversify and upgrade their supply chains, grow the economy, and increase the purchasing power of women consumers while simultaneously improving the lives of women and girls around the globe. Alibaba group is seizing these opportunities and kudos to you for that. You have made e-commerce a powerful vehicle of women's entrepreneurship and empowerment.

UN Women’s Transformative Programming

Women’s economic empowerment is at the core of UN Women’s priority areas. Working with a variety of partners, our programmes around the world and specifically in 75 countries on the ground seek to promote women’s ability to secure decent jobs, accumulate assets, and influence institutions and public policies determining growth and development. Our aims are higher incomes, better access to and control over resources, and greater security, including protection from violence.

One critical area of focus involves promoting women’s entrepreneurship, with a particular target on reaching out to women most in need, often by engaging with grass-roots and civil society organizations. Particularly marginalized groups include rural women, domestic workers, refugees and migrants, disabled and low-skilled women. At the global corporate level our advocacy seeks to influence gender parity in the Boards and management of companies and for them to join the Women's Empowerment Principles.

Some examples:

Since 2013, UN Women has facilitated EmpowerWomen.org, an innovative online knowledge, engagement and learning platform on women’s economic empowerment. It has made available over 2,500 documents and videos, 850 stories, 2,600 discussions, 500 events and opportunities and 220 organizations showcasing their work.

Empower Women has grown into a global movement with more than a million viewers and over 20,000 passionate and ambitious women and men contributing from the private sector, civil society, academia, governments and international organizations from more than 190 countries.

As part of our strategy to drive industry-wide action in the area of gender equality and innovation, UN Women is creating a collective action platform called the Global Innovation Coalition for Change (GICC) to be launched later this year. The GICC is a dynamic partnership between UN Women and key representatives from the private sector, academia and not for profit institutions focused on developing the innovation market to work better for women and accelerate the achievement of gender equality and women’s empowerment. The GICC will focus on market awareness of the potential for innovations that meet the needs of women and innovations that are developed by women and identify key actions to address their needs and remove barriers at an industry wide level.

Another example of UN Women’s transformative power is its “Women’s Entrepreneurship in Gender Responsive Procurement” flagship programme to generate opportunities for women entrepreneurs, so that they can earn sustainable income, create jobs, and drive sustainable, inclusive economic growth. UN Women released a guide this year for corporations to practice gender-responsive procurement, called “The Power of Procurement: How to Source from Women-Owned Businesses.”

The work includes conducting gender assessments that analyze the opportunities and barriers for women entrepreneurs, identifying strategic sectors in which to focus, and supporting the development of financial services that meet the unique needs of women-business owners.

As part of our flagship program “Women’s Entrepreneurship in Gender Responsive Procurement,” we will be creating opportunities for substantial impact in this area. For example, in December, the Women’s Economic Empowerment Summit to be held in Sharjah, UAE, and will feature activities to boost the capacity of both buyers and sellers to interact, negotiate and do business and bring investors and entrepreneurs together to explore avenues for partnership.

Also, promoting young women’s economic empowerment and skills development is a key pillar in UN Women’s Youth and Gender Equality Strategy. On World Youth Skills Day, 15 July 2016, UN Women launched the Global Coalition of Young Women Entrepreneurs to promote young women’s innovation and entrepreneurship and provide a platform for exchange between leading young women entrepreneurs, stakeholders and advocates, as well as men and boys who can also play an important role as partners and allies. The coalition will work to generate a Knowledge Toolbox for advancing young women entrepreneur’s skills and share best practices, to then be adopted by countries world over.

All these and the many UN Women programmes on the ground that have empowered millions of women economically have benefitted from the precious partnership between UN Women and Alibaba! Long live that partnership! 

Call to Action

At this conference, I would like to call upon all stakeholders from government, business and civil society to engage in collective actions to:

  • Foster an enabling business and financial climate for women entrepreneurs
  • Eliminate structural barriers
  • Take concrete actions through strategic policies and partnerships
  • Create new and innovative opportunities for women-owned businesses to thrive and grow
  • Leverage procurement as a powerful tool to drive transformative results

I want to take this opportunity to call upon you to convey a meeting of male business leaders to stand together on gender equality and women’s empowerment in China. I hope Mr. Jack Ma you can take the lead on this and it can be done early next year.

I call upon male business leaders around the world to be inspired by and be like Jack Ma, and be a real HeForShe who has inaugurated a true SHE-ERA for women and girls by creating ecosystems that transform families, communities, markets and societies by recognizing women as equal and powerful economic agents of change.

The ambition of achieving the sustainable development goals cannot be achieved without putting women in the center of our efforts. Their talent, vision, leadership and entrepreneurial spirit unleashed are quintessential to reaching the present and future women and girls want, need and deserve but also for a sustainable, peaceful and prosperous future for all of humanity.

Now I call upon all of you to join UN Women’s global call on achieving a

Planet 50-50 by 2030 and to Step it up for Gender Equality. 

Repeat after me,

Planet 50-50 by 2030: step it up for Gender equality 

Who will do it?

We will do it.

Will we get there?

We will get there.

With visionaries and champions like all of you we are better positioned to keep this tryst with our gender equal destiny within a generation and not wait another century!

I thank you.