CWEIC Chief Executive Richard Burge gives keynote speech at WinTrade Week 2018

WinTrade stands for ‘Women in Trade’, and this business summit taking place over a week in May was a platform to connect international businesses run by women. The event was attended by women from all over Africa, Europe and the Americas, and featured a fantastic array of speakers. Richard Burge, Chief Executive of the Commonwealth Enterprise and Investment Council was among those invited to give a keynote speech.

Drawing upon examples of the various barriers to women’s economic empowerment and parity, Richard presented a number of statistics, highlighting the progress that has yet to be made: women’s economic equality can add $12 trillion to global growth by 2025, according to a 2015 report by McKinsey Global Institute, and it is calculated that women could increase their income globally by up to 76% if the employment participation gap and the wage gap between men and women was to be closed.

There is a clear financial case for women’s economic equality, however no ‘case’ needs making at all – women should have economic equality as a basic human right. Yet throughout the Commonwealth and beyond, barriers exist which hinder women and girls’ access to fair working practices, equal pay, inclusion in the formal economy and a host of other key pillars of parity.

Education is at the absolute heart of promoting entrepreneurship and general prosperity, however in many countries, including many Commonwealth nations, women are denied access to the same education available to men. For example, the percentage of female entrepreneurs with higher education in the USA is 83%, whereas the figure in Pakistan is currently only 15%. Again in Pakistan, working women with high levels of literacy skills earned 95% more than women with weak or no literacy skills, whereas the differential was only 33% among men.

Facts such as these illuminate how limited women’s access to formal education is in some countries, and how detrimental its effect on their career prospects it is – something which, as shown in Pakistan, presents far less of a problem for men.

Another issue is that of the informal labour market, which is specifically a problem for lesser developed and developing countries. According to the International Labour Organisation, formal wage and salaried workers comprise 15% of the female labour force in India, compared to 94% in the United States. Over 80% of women in South Asia and 74% of women in sub-Saharan Africa in non-agricultural jobs are in informal employment. Informal employment paves the way for further discriminatory practices, such as unfair maternity pay, which is enabled at least in part by a lack of scrutiny with regards to employers’ adherence to employment laws and regulations.

In Richard’s closing comments, he addressed the challenge of achieving gender equality in business and the economy, especially in lesser developed nations. Due to institutionalised, ingrained beliefs about the role of women in society, or about the necessity of higher education for girls, there is still a long battle to be fought.

Initiatives such as SheTrades Commonwealth, however, are positive examples of how female entrepreneurship can be encouraged. Moreover, events such as WinTrade highlight the fantastic array of businesswomen who are hugely influential in their fields and continue to inspire other female entrepreneurs at all levels.

Finally, equal access to education, fair employment practices, and the inclusion of women on boards need neither a business case nor justifications. Women’s economic equality is a basic right, and the ‘case’ is as simple as that. Providing support for women helping them to trade, grow businesses and thrive is a universal good, and ought to be a top priority for all countries.