As the world watches events in Egypt unfold, its leaders have a unique opportunity to be an example for the region by fully empowering its women to play a greater role in the economy and society. Egypt will never reach its full potential and its economy will continue to struggle until it gives women an equal seat at the table.
Power outages, fuel shortages, high youth unemployment, and struggling small businesses are only a few of the many symptoms of Egypt's floundering economy. Over the last two and a half years, GDP growth has slowed dramatically and foreign investment collapsed. Without change, the economy is likely to get worse. While Egypt needs to resolve a myriad of challenging issues, the economy needs to be the primary focus of the next government. Until young people find jobs and the economy stops its free fall, Egypt will continue to suffer wide spread discontent and disillusionment. And one way to increase economic growth is to expand the role of women in the economy.
Historically, women have played a critical role in Egypt's economy and government. In recent years, however, attitudes toward women in Egypt have unfortunately taken a turn for the worse. The limited rights women have fought so hard for are imperiled and violence against women appears to be increasing. Human Rights Watch has reported that over the recent four days of protests, 91 women were sexually assaulted in Tahrir Square. A 2013 United Nations study found that a shocking 99 percent of Egyptian women have experienced some form of sexual harassment, an increase from 2008 when a similar study suggested that 83 percent of Egyptian women have been sexually harassed.
Egyptian women are severely underrepresented in the economy. According to World Bank data from 2011, only 24% of Egyptian women participate in the labor force. A 2010 report on Egypt published by the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor concluded that the entrepreneurial gender gap in Egypt is among the highest in the world. The paucity of women business owners is damaging to the Egyptian economy especially since the World Bank has found that female owned firms in the region hire more workers than male owned firms.
My firm, Goldman Sachs, has conducted research that shows that narrowing the gender gap in employment could increase global income per capita as much as 20% by 2030. Research also suggests that educating and empowering women catalyzes a virtuous cycle that positively affects the health, education and productivity of future generations. As a result of this research, Goldman Sachs launched the 10,000 Women initiative in 2008, a global initiative to help local economies grow and bring about greater shared prosperity by providing 10,000 underserved women entrepreneurs with a business and management education, access to mentors and networks and links to capital. 10,000 Women fully capitalizes on woman entrepreneurs, which is just the boost that Egypt's economy so desperately needs.
In Egypt, over the last four years, the Goldman Sachs 10,000 Women initiative has made meaningful progress helping empower women by working in partnership with the American University in Cairo and the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania to train more than 300 high potential women business owners in Egypt from nearly every governorate throughout the country. The 200-hour curriculum focuses on leadership and entrepreneurial skills. Participants also receive access to business advising, networking and ongoing training workshops. In addition, 10,000 Women works closely with the Social Fund for Development in Egypt to provide qualified participants with capital.
Despite challenging local economic conditions, eighteen months after graduation, the majority of 10,000 Women participants are successfully growing their business: 60% of surveyed participants in Egypt increased revenues over the previous year and nearly 60% added new jobs. In addition, over 90% of Egyptian 10,000 Women participants mentor other women in their communities.
At the last 10,000 Women graduation I attended at the American University in Cairo, I met Sayeda, an inspiring entrepreneur who runs a growing cleaning business. Most of her employees are women, many widows and divorcees that have had very difficult lives. The jobs she is providing give them a sense of pride, dignity and confidence and most importantly optimism in their future. She believes everyone should be allowed to dream and one's dream should not be limited. If Egypt can live up to that aspiration and motivate and inspire women like her, its future will be very promising.
Nearly 100 years ago, the Egyptian Poet Hafez Ibrahim said that when you educate a woman, you create a nation. Even though Egypt is known as the very cradle of civilization, this proud ancient civilization is birthing a new nation filled with the hopes and dreams of its young population.
If the new Egypt, the most populous Arab nation in the world, empowers its women fully, it can also become the strongest, most prosperous and hopefully most peaceful nation in the region.
Dina Habib Powell is the President of the Goldman Sachs Foundation, a former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State, and currently a member of the Egyptian-American Enterprise Fund. She is a native of Cairo, Egypt.