The Progress and Promise for Women Around the World

Today, we celebrate the extraordinary progress and accomplishments of women around the world.

Perhaps the most profound stories, however, are the one emanating from the most unlikely places, the nations of the developing world.

In places where billions of women still eke out a living and care for their families amid extreme poverty, one can find examples of transformation that are startling in both speed and breadth.

The story is unfolding in governments. Sub-Saharan African nations, for example, have historically had very patriarchal societies. Today, women make up roughly 40 percent of the parliamentarians in Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa and Senegal. In Rwanda, an astounding 64 percent of the parliamentarians are women.

In Latin America, three nations--Nicaragua, Ecuador, Mexico, and Bolivia--all have more than 40 percent female representation in the lower legislative assemblies.

By comparison, these levels are roughly double the global average and the U.S. level. Developing nations have, at least on this metric, leapfrogged advanced economies ranging Canada, Finland and Norway to The United Kingdom, Germany and France.

It is worth noting that--in the United States, at least--women now hold the CEO slots at several of the leading development and aid agencies for the first time in history, so voices for empowering women are being heard more clearly in the executive branch than ever before both at home and abroad.

In far too many countries, women never get a foot on the lowest rung of the economic ladder, much less have opportunities for economic leadership.

As reported by the World Bank Group last year, women still face a wide range of job restrictions in 100 countries, including prohibitions barring them from certain types of factory jobs (41 nations), prohibitions against working at night (29 nations), and an inability to obtain employment with the permission of their husbands (18 nations).

Tragically, regions that have some of the highest unemployment rates, the Middle East and North Africa, restrict women most.

Yet there are promising chapters in the economic story of developing nations, too. Phenomenal steps forward in women's access to finance are now underway in Eurasia, Sub-Saharan Africa, and Latin America.

In Kenya, for example, women are now slightly more likely than men to have a mobile cellphone for conducting financial transactions. Several connectivity initiatives, including some by the Obama Administration, now aim to make such parity the norm across ever more developing nations.

In recent years, both the developed and the developing world have begun to appreciate just how much economic value is lost by holding women back, regardless of the origin and early trajectory of their lives.

A series of studies--including those from blue-chip organizations such as McKinsey and Credit Suisse--evaluated the gender composition of corporate boardrooms and found that companies which include women on their boards have better financial performance than companies that exclude them.

Likewise with the research from female-led hedge funds, where the evidence in favor of women's leadership mounts.

Women-owned or women-run hedge funds have beaten the industry average on a 1-, 3- and 5-year basis, and since 2007 outperformed non-female peer funds by 59 percent to 37 percent.

Given those facts and how critical job creation is today's economy, it is disappointing to find that less than five percent of Fortune 500 companies have women CEOs. It is not just women CEOs who are missing out because of biases. Employees and shareholders are worse off.

The coming years clearly look brighter than ever for women. Legal and institutional barriers will most likely continue to fall. Education and income will continue to rise. Still, it will be extremely hard to change deeply ingrained perceptions.

Ancient proverbs and metaphors about women's contributions are becoming more and more popular. "Women hold up half the sky," and so forth. Maybe it is time to find a forward-looking metaphor, one that fully captures the vastness of their true potential.

Perhaps we should think of women as the ultimate in renewable energy.

Regardless of sun, wind, water or place, they adapt, connect and deliver results around the clock.

When we invest in them, we achieve both direct returns, and better results for our people and planet. They are more inclined to take a view that straddles two and sometimes three generations.

Last but not least, when women move from off-grid to on-grid in the global economy, they transform how we work and think. They enlighten, and they transform.