In the wake of economic crisis and recession, global growth relies increasingly on the dynamic economies of Asia and the Pacific - a dynamism driven by the creative energy of small business.
Small and medium sized enterprises account for 90% of businesses along the Pacific Rim and employ between 60% and 80% of national workforces in economies as diverse as China, Japan, Sri Lanka and Uzbekistan.
Women entrepreneurs are rising partners in the regional charge to build economies and create jobs. The proportion of women employers in Asia and the Pacific nearly tripled between 1991 and 2010, with the greatest gains in South and South-West Asia.
Yet, too often the collective ambition of this growing population of women entrepreneurs is checked by discriminatory policies, business practices and social barriers that block equal access to critical inputs - namely assets, credit, information, skills and time. As a result, women-owned enterprises are consistently smaller than men-owned equivalents and concentrated in less profitable sectors.
Barriers for business owners mirror broader limits on women in the workplace. Today, women's labor market participation in Asia-Pacific still lingers at 62 women for every 100 men. At all levels of employment, women are clustered in sectors and jobs that limit their mobility and restrict them to low productivity and informal or vulnerable employment.
These barriers come at a high cost for women, and for our economies.
Estimates suggest that output per worker could increase by 7-18% in a number of Asia-Pacific countries if women were to work in the same sectors and jobs-types as men. Even more striking - the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP) finds that women's full participation in the Asia-Pacific labor market could expand the regional economy by an estimated US$89 billion each year. In Japan alone, research conducted by Goldman Sachs shows that matching the female employment rate to that of males could increase GDP by as much as 14%.
Beyond individual output and aggregate growth, investing in women pays in the quality of economic and social development it seeds. Economically empowered women are better placed to claim their rights, take ownership, and assert their position where decisions are made.
In practice, the more they do so, the more they invest in core social goods that fuel wider, more balanced, more equitable growth. In developed and developing economies alike, savings rise and spending shifts toward food, health and education as women gain bargaining power over household income.
It's a simple argument: gender equality and women's empowerment are basic human rights - and sound economics. And it's an argument that's gaining traction and inspiring innovative and powerful partnerships.
Over the last year, ESCAP and the Goldman Sachs 10,000 Women initiative have joined forces to promote policy and legal environments that better enable the vision, skill and energy of women business owners across the Asia-Pacific region.
ESCAP, the most comprehensive UN platform for governments in the Asia-Pacific region, promotes inclusive and sustainable development and places women's economic empowerment at the center of its efforts to support national policy agendas that fully integrate the needs of women, guarantee their rights and advance empowerment and equality across the region.
The Goldman Sachs 10,000 Women initiative is a five year campaign to foster greater shared economic growth by providing 10,000 underserved women around the world with a business and management education. Within 30 months of graduating from 10,000 Women, 83% of surveyed scholars increased revenues, 77% hired additional employees and 90% mentored other women, multiplying program results by transferring newfound knowledge and skills.
ESCAP and Goldman Sachs 10,000 Women's public-private partnership has brought national policymakers together with women entrepreneurs, business leaders, academics and civil society to leverage our collective experience in developing policies that maximize opportunities and impact for women-owned businesses.
Nearly twenty years ago, the Fourth World Conference on Women outlined the watershed Beijing Platform for Action to advance a global agenda for gender equality and women's empowerment. The Platform identified six strategic objectives related to women and the economy, ranging from resource access and control to training, occupational desegregation and work-family balance.
When asked about the barriers they face and the policy support they need, women entrepreneurs in Asia and the Pacific echo these six critical objectives in nearly every answer.
Their experiences highlight many of the bottlenecks that need to be broken to mobilize the talents of women across the global workforce. New policies must guarantee equal rights to education and job training and enable women and men to pursue fields based on aptitude and passion rather than social convention. They must eliminate discriminatory labor practices and ensure women's equal access to assets and credit. They must support women in their efforts to balance work and family and encourage men to assume a greater share of domestic responsibilities. They must ensure women's safety from violence and sexual harassment, access to justice and political voice.
With less than 1,000 days on the clock to achieve the United Nations' Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), the global community is scaling up, taking stock and looking forward.
Urged to renew a shared vision of "the future we want" by the Rio+20 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, decision makers are zeroing in on the critical investments necessary to drive inclusive, equitable and sustainable growth in the coming decades.
As priorities are set, governments, international organizations, the private sector, civil society and individual women and men must rise to the ambition set in Beijing nearly 20 years ago.
Together, we can put gender equality and women's empowerment at the center of a collective drive toward inclusive, equitable and sustainable global development.
Dr. Noeleen Heyzer is Under-Secretary-General and Executive Secretary of the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP). Ms. Dina Habib Powell is President of the Goldman Sachs Foundation and Global Head of Corporate Engagement at Goldman Sachs.
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