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U.S. Department of State

Diplomacy in Action

A Preview of the Special Event on the Economy and Women at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD)

Melanne Verveer
Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women's Issues 

Donald Steinberg, Deputy Administrator, USAID
Washington, DC
October 27, 2011

11:00 A.M. EDT


MODERATOR: Thank you so much for joining us today. Ambassador Melanne Verveer is here. She is the Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women’s Issues, and she’s going to talk today about women’s economic integration and how it can translate into GDP growth and the context of the upcoming OECD special pre-G-20 event on growing economies through women’s entrepreneurship. And that’s going to be held on October 31st. So, we’ll start with some opening remarks from the ambassador and then open it up to some questions.

AMBASSADOR VERVEER: Well, first of all, thanks for coming out on a rainy day and we’ll be a close, cordial group here and feel free to interrupt or whatever is useful to all of you, which is why I’m here.

As you just heard, I am here because I think my activities that I just concluded and I’m about to embark on are illustrative of the topic that we want to discuss, which is why the State Department and, particularly, Secretary Clinton making it a priority, has put women’s economic participation on the top of our priority list.

I just returned last night from a conference that the State Department sponsored in Zagreb, Croatia, which was for the Southeast European region; for women, small and growing business entrepreneurs, to provide them an opportunity to meet with government officials, to meet with potential investors, but certainly lots of experts so that in many ways they can jumpstart their economic efforts more broadly, because there’s still tremendous inhibitions and probably something you know a great deal about in terms of the kind of progress they would like to make. And that was one of several conferences we at the State Department have been sponsoring called Invest for the Future. By investing in women’s economic participation, we believe that all of us engaged in this are investing for the future.

We did one earlier this year in Turkey, for the Caucasus, Cyprus and Greece. We had another one in Bishkek for the Central Asian women economic actors, as well as – they were joined by Afghanistan. And then on Monday of this coming week, I will be in Paris for a pre-event that is taking place at the OECD on the opening days – just before the opening days of the G-20. And it is to, again, focus on what greater efforts can be made to grow SMEs – women-run SMEs in particular – and overcome the kind of barriers they confront.

Now, why does all of this matter? I mean, why should it be a matter of such considerable importance? Well, we think it matters just from operating in an evidence-zone, making the case based on today’s compelling evidence. And there is a growing proliferation, whether it comes from institutions like the World Economic Forum, from think-tanks, from corporate entities, from the World Bank, other multilateral organizations, increasing numbers of research studies and data that demonstrate several things. One, as the World Bank puts it, gender equality is smart economics.

And I will be in New York on Tuesday for the release of the World Economic Forum’s annual Gender Gap Report. And what that report shows – it looks at the gap between men and women in all the countries for which there is data, and the measurement takes place on the basis of four metrics, if you will. One is access to education between men and women in a given country; another is access to healthcare and survivability, economic participation, and political empowerment.

Now, in no countries on those indicators is there gender equality, but in the countries where the gap is closer to being closed, those countries are far more economically competitive, prosperous, and have higher productivity rates. And that has led the World Bank, obviously, to initiate a series of programs under this theme of gender equality, equal/smart economics. And in the last month the World Bank released, at its annual meeting, the first-ever Women’s Development Report, which has significant new data in it about the importance of women’s economic participation, what that does to productivity rates within countries, and what kinds of barriers need to be removed if there is going to be the greater release of that.

Secondly, some of the studies are focused on, specifically, women-run, small and medium-sized businesses. Goldman-Sachs, for example, has done a study that shows that women-run, small and medium-sized businesses are great growth accelerators. If you want to grow GDP, invest in women-run businesses. Again, the data is there, but we aren’t quite there in terms of the reality. And it seems that too often we operate in an evidence-free zone. When we’ve got data that also shows that women use their incomes far more significantly, up to 90 percent, to reinvest in their families for investments like education, health, et cetera, which, again, brought in the investments for the community more significantly.

The Economist has pointed out that increases of employment of women in developed countries over the past years shows a direct correlation with productivity. For example, in the United States alone, women own nearly eight million businesses, amounting to $1.2 trillion of our GDP. And I’m not going to go into all of the studies, but I would point you to a speech that Secretary Clinton gave in San Francisco this past month at the APEC Summit, and it was the first-ever Summit on Women and the Economy, and she went through a series of studies and facts that I think compel us to really look at the way, as she put it, to achieve economic expansion we really need to unlock a vital source of growth, and that source of growth is women. So I call your attention to that.

Now, with all of this study – all of these studies – this research, this data, why are we still not seeing the kinds of numbers of women participating, whether it’s in the workforce or in driving small and medium-sized businesses? And certainly it has a great deal to do with barriers. And we can talk through some of those barriers, but some of them are structural, some of them are customary. In some countries they – there are regulations and laws that are very discriminatory for women. There are so many hoops that one has to get through, one can’t possibly get through them.

But there are serious issues, like access to finance -- probably the most serious impediment that women confront, access to markets, how to achieve those markets, better access to export potential, access to technology, which is something critical that women don’t always have the ability to access, even when it comes to mobile technology, the simple cell phone. According to GSMA, the association of mobile telephone operators and the Cherie Blaire Foundation, there is a 300 million women gap from men in terms of those who don’t access technology. And even the poorest women with a cell phone can have tremendous improvements in their economic situation.

Another major impediment is access to training, mentors, to networks. And these are various impediments and obstacles that are shared the world over, they’re not always exactly the same. When I sat in Zagreb yesterday with business women from Southeast Europe, I heard story after story of the difficulties they confronted. One woman told me

me, in great detail, how difficult it was for her to get a loan for her business. And when she finally was able to procure it, when she was down to the last possible commercial lending institution that could provide it, she got it, she paid it back ahead of time. She has a very successful business. She wants to grow the business, and basically told me she’s got a really terrifically difficult time trying to persuade, again, that she should be worthy of that loan.

And what we find is there’s a real disconnect between commercial lending institutions and their understanding of women-run businesses, which are often seen as much more fraught with risk, as well as women themselves not always understanding what they need in terms of the kind of evidence that they should show for the credit worthiness of their – starting their new business or their growing business.

There are also so many issues of incorporation of women into leadership. We know in the United States, for example, there are so few women, about 3 percent, who are the CEOs of the major 500 companies. I heard this morning that that will rise to 15 CEOs by the end of the year. And if you look at middle management, there’s really a sticky floor, I guess is the best way to describe it in terms of the inability of women to progress in many ways in the wider and larger corporate sector.

Now, why is this important? Because women are better than men, or men are better than women? Hardly. It has to do with tapping the talents that are available. And if you look at the consumer – the consumer market today, which is predicted to be I think something like $15 trillion by 2014, that women confront, vast growth in women’s ability to represent the consumer markets around the world today. If you’re a company, you clearly have to sell to women. If you don’t have any women in your design, doing your product designs, making your strategic plan decisions, incorporating in the emerging markets where you intend to grow your own business opportunities, whether it’s providing services, selling services or products. Well, you’re not going to see the kind of bottom line profitability that you would see. And again, there are plenty of reports that are increasingly showing this, including the correlation with women on boards of directors, corporate boards, and profitability of companies.

So that is yet another area of difficulty that women confront. In some parts of the world, women have no property rights; they have no inheritance rights. They are really climbing steeper mountains, if you will, to try to achieve their entrepreneurial goals. So there is that vast arena of barriers that need to be overcome so that women’s economic potential can be released. So what the State Department is trying to do is look at the many ways that we can be a catalyst in the platforms in which we engage, and also provide additional resources and possibilities to help women overcome these difficulties.

And let me just give you a few examples of that. I had mentioned APEC, which last year was under the baton – Japan had the leadership of APEC last year. And we made the case that really to have an agenda that was focused on growing the 21 economies of the Asia Pacific region that did not focus on the role women could be playing in this dynamic region in making growth that much more – increasing it that much more seemed to be a major omission of APEC’s focus. And the Japanese adopted, in concert with the 20 other economies, adopted a first ever discussion of this topic on their – under their leadership. And then coming to the United States this year, it was elevated to a very high-level ministerial and high-level private sector participation forum. And in the Summit on the Economy that took place here, there was an adoption of the San Francisco Declaration, which focused on these issues, as I’ve just described them, and raised four areas of concerted effort, sharing of best practices, collaborative work and work within countries, addressing particularly women’s access to finance, to training, to markets, and then focusing on the whole area of leadership. Now that declaration is going to Hawaii and will be before the leaders when they gather in the APEC Summit next month.

Additionally, we have focused on Africa with the Africa Women’s Entrepreneurship Program. We have an agreement with many of the African countries called the Africa Growth Opportunity Act, which is a trade agreement that we found women rarely access. And this is not just true of Africa. Women don’t, for the most part, know how to access beneficial trade agreements that could help them grow their businesses. And so this a real effort to enable them to be more export-ready. We will be doing the same thing – started a program in South America called Pathways to Prosperity to work with women in that region.

In addition to Invest for the Future, we are also working in the OECD, which is probably one of the most preeminent platform for the collection of data and studies that give us a very good picture of what is happening on economic issues in the countries in which OECD works. And this past May, at a ministerial at the OECD, Secretary Clinton was in the chair, and at that time the OECD adopted a gender initiative focused on the three Es: education, employment, and entrepreneurship. Because it’s very clear that without sound data, without benchmarks, without indicators, we can’t understand the whole picture of what is happening in these areas, let alone measure ourselves at where we are and where we need to get and the steps that are being taken. So OECD has now embarked on this major gender institute – initiative.

And as I said, we will be gathered there on Monday. It will be a global event to highlight a study that was offered as a commitment in the last G-20 meeting that took place in Korea. The study has been done by the U.S. Treasury Department and the International Finance Corporation, which looks at ways to strengthen women-run SME growth and specifically looks at the whole area of access to finance, which is a major, major stumbling block. So that study will be unveiled on Monday, as well as an announcement of a USAID commitment of $10 million to launch and vigorously evaluate pilot programs aimed at expanding women-run SMEs. So again, a real effort to take this issue and move it more significantly on the G-20 agenda because of what it represents for the kind of growth all of our countries would like to see.

So I will end there. It’s just a snapshot of while we’re still engaged on these issues, the kinds of outcomes we would like to see for the benefits of economies around the world, and obviously because where there is economic prosperity there are, indeed, fewer problems and people share in the higher quality of life, that makes things generally better for everybody.

MODERATOR: Great. Thank you very, very much. I’m going to pass the microphone – open the floor and pass the microphone to you. So if you take the microphone, please state your name and your news organization before asking your question. And who has the first one? Great.

QUESTION: Good morning. I’ll maybe for you now it’s difficult. You are the only man amongst (inaudible) right now.

MODERATOR: I like (inaudible) --

QUESTION: Good morning, my name is –

AMBASSADOR VERVEER: He’s in an enviable position. (Laughter.)

QUESTION: Yeah. My name is Dagmar Benesova. I’m from World Business Press Online News Agency. And my question is as the latest statistics shows that especially in the least- developed countries when – where the women were given chances, they contributed tremendously to the GDP and to the economic growth. As we know, in the developed world, now is the financial crisis and many more problems. Where are the reserves? Where can women contribute more to improvement the economic situations? And which steps or arrangements should we implement it as first, or something like that? Thank you very much.

AMBASSADOR VERVEER: Well, we know in the United States where our labor force is now just about equal, men and women – and that has been occurring as the – we’ve gone through our economic difficulties. And one of the things that’s obviously happened as women increasingly have had to step to the fore, assume roles as co-breadwinners or even breadwinners because of the difficulties. So had it not been for that kind of female economic participation, I think the situation would have been even more aggravated.

But what we see in the Asia Pacific region, for example, according to a study by the United Nations, is that upwards of $40-plus billion annually is shortchanged the region because the potential of women isn’t tapped. And let me give you an example from the agriculture sector and how significant that sector is certainly in the developed world but particularly in the developing world.

Women farmers are absolutely vital to the agriculture sector. In many countries, they are the majority of the small farmers. And yet studies show, and most recently the Food and Agricultural Organization, FAO, put out its first ever State of Agriculture Report on Women Farmers. Why? Because what they found is that resources to male and female farmers are nowhere near equal; and if those resources to seed, to fertilizer, to extension training programs, to decision-making seats, as that could be equalized, it would enhance productivity, agricultural productivity, by a significant percentage.

Now, what are the headlines in the world today? Food shortages, hunger problems, great need to enhance agriculture productivity. But we’re missing one of the primary sectors where we should be making that investment. So one of the major initiatives of the Obama Administration is called Feed the Future. It’s about food security and enhancing agriculture productivity. And in the determining the specifics of the initiative, we’ve applied the gender lens, recognizing how critical female farmers are in many, many countries, to the agriculture sector in many countries.

So that when resources are made available, we’re recognizing that women/men farmers are equally important, but their needs are not the same necessarily. And we need to ensure that we’re factoring in the needs of women farmers, particularly when their numbers are so great in so many countries.

So these are the kinds of issues that policy makers, both at the macro level and particularly at the country level making decisions about how resources are going to be available and what kind of affirmative steps are going to be taken, factor in the possibilities for their own countries. I think one of the things that we still haven’t achieved, in my view, is a recognition at the levels where so many decisions are being made why it is so important to ensure women’s economic opportunities are met, because it is essential to the very kind of outcome the decision makers want to achieve.

So I think whether it’s in the developed world or the developing world, we aren’t doing anywhere near the kind of job we should be doing.

QUESTION: I’m Susan Milligan. I’m writing for the State Department’s magazine, actually. I want to follow up on that question a little bit and – because historically, it’s been times like during the war in the United States and even in Kosovo when a lot of men were lost in the war there that that’s what provided an opportunity for women to get into the workforce in a way they hadn’t before. But I’m wondering whether now, because of the economic crisis around the world, whether there might be less of a willingness to bring women in to – into jobs. And so I think it was a Pew study just a few months ago showing that while women had lost more jobs during the recession, it was actually men who were overwhelmingly getting the jobs in the recovery. And it made me – I was thinking about it at the time, but I’m wondering whether worldwide there could be a problem there as well where people – there aren’t that many jobs available, there isn’t that much available for investment, and so they’re going to feel more comfortable giving it to men.

AMBASSADOR VERVEER: Well, it’s not a zero-sum game. And I think that’s one of the unfortunate assessments that may be taking place, which is if men win, women lose; if women win, men lose. That’s not the case at all. Both win and nobody loses when you’ve got these kinds of affirmative steps taken. And I think we’ve seen it – as you said, we saw it in this country with Yes, We Can, with Rosie the Riveter, and all of the women taking their places in the factories. Now, what did it do? Did they stop working when the war ended? No. It really expanded women’s economic opportunities in the United States in ways that have devolved exceptionally to positive economic development in this country. So once they came in under very serious circumstances to play their part in keeping the manufacturing base going, they didn’t leave. And it’s had, obviously, extremely positive impacts.

So I think there is a misunderstanding that when one gains, the other loses, when this is a case of win-win. And if we looked at it as win-win and looked at those areas where greater growth could and should be taking place, I think we’d see beneficial outcomes.

The other thing in all of this and so many issues that are women’s issues, they’re viewed as sort of this narrow set of issues that somehow affect a special category and are a favor to women, when we’re talking about half the world’s population at least. And the reality is when women thrive, everybody thrives. This is enormously beneficial to society. So it’s not a narrow special interest topic, as important as it is to women. It’s something that we should all be concerned about if we want to see the kind of growth we want to see.

QUESTION: Thank you. Could you talk a little bit more – you mentioned APEC coming up here in a couple weeks. Could you talk a little bit more about what we can expect to hear there or any particular meetings or summits that we might see about women and economic development?

AMBASSADOR VERVEER: Well, this topic, as I said, will be on the leaders’ agenda. There is, at the time that there is the convening of leaders, there’s also a convening of the CEOs, some of the major world CEOs who will be gathered. Secretary Clinton will be chairing one of the ministerials. President Obama will be chairing the leaders meeting. She will be chairing a ministerial with her counterparts and she will also be speaking to the CEOs who have a session devoted to this very topic.

And I think that’s something interesting to talk about here, which is that the growing recognition of the role of corporations in this whole area, companies increasingly realize that their markets are going to be in the emerging – where the emerging markets are located. And that means that benefits to those societies, whether it’s trained workforce, potential workforce, whether it’s educated consumers, is not an altruistic consideration of companies. It is something that is absolutely essential to their bottom line. And so what we’re seeing today is tremendous growing interest on the part of companies in raising up women’s economic participation and in developing their skill set.

Let me just give you some examples. Coca-Cola has announced a major initiative called 5 BY 20 to train 5 million new women entrepreneurs by 2020. And as their CEO, Muhtar Kent has very articulately laid out in his remarks accompanying the announcement of this initiative he says we can’t possibly grow the world economies the way we need to see that growth unless we grow women’s entrepreneurship. And Wal-Mart, during – actually announced the week of the APEC Women and the Economy Summit, and then the Secretary underscored it in her speech at San Francisco – Wal-Mart announced a major initiative as well, with resources for greater training of women around the world in retail, in agriculture, enhanced commitment of their supply chain, being – factoring in women-run businesses.

And this is one big way that women small and medium-size businesses can grow exponentially, is when companies do increasing amounts of their buying, their – the goods that they need for their supply chain from the local – from local businesses. And we see an increased interest on the part of companies to do that. It’s true in the United States. There are many, many companies in the United States who are committed to at least a portion of their supply chain going to buy their goods and services from women-run, small and medium-sized businesses, which has a – has had a very positive impact on the growth of those businesses, which, in turn, are the engine for economic growth because we know what small and growing businesses mean to the U.S. economy. It’s always meant a great deal, which is why we have so many programs focused on that area.

And there have been a range of companies that have either produced reports, from Ernst & Young to Deloitte to McKenzie, or have announced major initiatives like Wal-Marts and Coca-Colas and Exxon Mobils and so many more – Goldman Sachs training 10,000 women in small and medium-sized businesses in the developing world – again, realizing, as their own data has shown, that this is the way to go. These are smart investments; these are investments that pay high-yield dividends.

QUESTION: I have one more question. Well, I just would like to mention, then, it’s very – really very interesting when you pursue this fact that in Asia, the growth of the women in contribution to the economy – that scientists point out that there are – there is lack of women, actually, according to the facts. So there are less women and better growth. But my question is: You mentioned that there are already three CEOs in the U.S., and there will be 15 by the end of this year. So could you please spell some feedback or something like that? What was behind these decisions? Are there some summits like APEC or so to – what made the people to make such a big difference in such a period of time? Thank you very much.

AMBASSADOR VERVEER: You mean from 11 to 15?



QUESTION: From 3 to 15 you mentioned.

AMBASSADOR VERVEER: No, it was 3 percent.

MODERATOR: Three percent of CEOs.

AMBASSADOR VERVEER: There are 11 CEOs now. There will be 15 by the end of the year, which is approximately about 3 percent of the 500. It’s been about 3 percent.

QUESTION: Yes. So if you could please --

AMBASSADOR VERVEER: Well, I think one of the things may be that there is greater recognition of the role that women have – growing experience and talent to be tapped. I think companies increasingly are recognizing that diversity is a positive value, not an imposition, not an add-on, if you will, but that it is all about their bottom line and profitability. So it’s hard to make conclusions just based on this small progress, but I think we’re trending in the right direction. And I think that’s what’s important, obviously. There is a great deal of impatience that I hear from women in top echelons of companies who feel that they just are not still breaking through the – I don't know if it’s a glass ceiling or a concrete ceiling, but they’re not able to break through. And questions always arise – should additional steps be taken?

Norway, for example, responded by mandating a quota, and we haven’t – it’s fairly new and we haven’t begun to see the results, but it’s possible that others will take other steps. I know that in the UK, a study’s been done and there are greater affirmative steps in the works. I know in the European – I think it’s in the European Union, there is an effort to do better, and I have heard some spokespeople say if it doesn’t happen in the natural way, well maybe we will need to take some other kinds of measures.

But obviously, there is an increased focus on all of this because the talent pool, among other things, is growing rather significantly.

QUESTION: I’m really struck by what you were saying about these U.S. companies or Western companies doing stuff abroad because I guess when I would think about trying to help female entrepreneurs abroad, I think of things like microloans and that sort of thing. But is it easier culturally if you have a company that’s in a part of the world where they’re a little bit more used to women working, and even a few of them in positions of authority, than giving business to women abroad maybe in countries where they’re not quite used to that, as opposed to trying to help a woman start a business in that country? Does that make sense?

AMBASSADOR VERVEER: Well, I think what we’ve seen is there have been some companies – financial institutions, for example – that have participated in micro-lending schemes. Because oftentimes – not often enough, but oftentimes, those very many, many businesses – micro businesses – grow into something that constitutes a small business, and would then be business potential for the lending institutions, so they see a real coalescence between that kind of investment and their own interests.

But I think, more broadly, what we see is micro-businesses tend to remain micro. They are significantly important. They provide enormous livelihoods for people – for the poorest of the poor who otherwise would not have any kind of economic independence, where they can have an income for their families, they can make do in a way that they’ve never had the opportunity. But they tend not to be the places, the kinds of businesses that grow and are the jobs creators.

Where we have a – where we need to see greater growth is in this missing middle, the small and growing businesses that are the jobs creators, that are the – as has been called, the accelerators of GDP. And that’s why overcoming the barriers that are now increasingly being identified and work is going towards figuring out how to overcome those barriers because – becomes such an important exercise, because we want to create jobs. Everybody wants to create jobs, everybody wants to create greater growth, and this is an area that cries out for that. And I think companies realize that because they can spin off business to those small and growing businesses, they raise up the economic vitality of the countries in which they are doing their business, which is – certainly makes it a greater investment on the part of those companies. So it’s a win-win for them. It’s both the right thing to do and it’s the smart thing to do. And that’s why they’re increasingly engaged.

MODERATOR: Art (ph), did you want to (inaudible)?

QUESTION: So in terms of what…the State Department can do, is it a function of training these women and helping them get access to this stuff, or to try to break down legal barriers or cultural barriers and other --

AMBASSADOR VERVEER: It’s a whole lot of things, and obviously, one way that we’re operating is part of these platforms in which we are participants, whether it’s APEC or it’s trade agreements that we have entered into, OECD, et cetera.

Another way is through our development agency. The kind of announcement that AID is going to make Monday at the OECD to really look at business SME models and pilots that are working much more successfully, have the potential to be replicated, both in terms of access to finance, but generally. It means in our development programs working with advocates in countries, whether it’s cross-sectoral work by women in business, government, NGOs, or just grassroots efforts to change laws, to try to change practices that really impede the opportunities for women. And where it happens, it obviously begins to make life better for everybody. So there are any number of development programs in which we’re engaged that have that as their real goals, working with others in countries who are eager to see this kind of change.

And then there are the specific kinds of programs, the African Women’s Entrepreneurship Program, the Pathways to Prosperity, where we come together as the State Department, often in collaboration with the private sector, because the Secretary is a firm believer in public-private partnerships and the fact that we don’t all have the competency in every area, nor do we have the resources. But when we come together, we can really have greater impacts. The African Entrepreneurship Program is a partnership with programs within the State Department, various programs as well as with NGOs and businesses.

So it’s a variety, but it’s all trying to address the same goal, which is gender equality for economic growth.

MODERATOR: I know you have a telephone interview to do with another reporter, so we have time for maybe one more question. But if there is nothing else, we will wrap up here, then.

Anything else?

QUESTION: But just so the – sorry, so the – what you – the newest development on this would then be the $10 million announcement that USAID is going to make Monday? Or is there another new development you think is a --

AMBASSADOR VERVEER: Well, on Monday, we are going to be involved with OECD – and we can give you the write-up of all of this – and it’s the announcement of the study and the USAID commitment. And then on Tuesday, the World Economic Forum will be doing its launch of its annual Gender Gap Report. And who knows what else is coming out of the coming week. (Laughter.) You are the ones to keep track of that.

MODERATOR: Okay. Thank you very much for joining us today.

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