I got together with my friend Asma'a one evening at a popular Cairo café overlooking the Nile. Like many of the young Egyptians I had met that summer, Asma'a was smart, motivated — and unemployed. Since graduating with a law degree, she had applied for countless jobs to no avail, and had all but given up on finding a job in her field of study. She was particularly upset that evening because her parents had forbidden her from accepting a waitressing job, deeming the work to be morally inappropriate. Feeling ever more desperate, Asma'a said she would be willing to take any job just to be able to work.
Asma'a is one of 865 million women worldwide who have the potential to contribute more fully to the global economy. These women represent a powerful resource for driving economic growth and development. Yet the underuse of women's talents and skills is holding many countries back. An International Monetary Fund study estimates that if women like Asma'a were to participate in the labor force at the same rate as men, they could raise GDP in Egypt by 34 percent. Employed women also invest more of their income in their children's health and education, helping families to escape the cycle of poverty.
Across the world women face persistent legislative and cultural barriers to participating in the workforce. Of the 143 countries surveyed by the World Bank's Women, Business and the Law project, 79 have legal restrictions on working hours, sectors and occupations, limiting the type of work women can pursue. Moreover, more than half of the women who do participate in the global workforce are engaged in the informal economy, without the benefits and security of salaried or wage work.
Overcoming these barriers is not possible without engaging with the private sector, which accounts for almost nine out of ten jobs in the developing world. Forward looking companies increasingly recognize that supporting women workers is not only the right thing to do, but it makes their businesses more competitive. The challenge is getting more companies to recognize this fact.
To this end, IFC, a member of the World Bank Group, launched the WINvest partnership. This initiative brings private sector companies together to develop ideas and best practices to advance working conditions and employment opportunities for women, while improving business performance. Drawing on the experience of WINvest companies, a new IFC report outlines the business case for investing in women's employment.
For instance, companies benefit from introducing work-life balance initiatives such as child care support, health services and flexible work arrangements. These relatively low-cost measures can dramatically reduce staff turnover and absenteeism through increased employee satisfaction. For Nalt Enterprise, a Vietnamese garment factory, reducing staff turnover is an ongoing business concern. But after establishing an onsite kindergarten for workers' children, Nalt found that staff turnover rates fell by one-third.
When it comes to recruiting the best talent, many companies say they simply cannot afford to miss out on the employment potential and skills of half the population. One company that has benefited from instituting inclusive recruitment policies is Odebrecht, a Brazilian organization consisting of diversified businesses. Odebrecht was able to expand the pool of job candidates on its construction sites and increase the quality of its workforce by strongly encouraging local men and women to apply for its pre-hire skills training program, even though construction is often perceived as a "man's job."
The practical experiences of these companies can have a demonstration effect and provide important lessons for other firms operating in emerging markets. IFC will continue to offer a learning platform and provide guidance to companies who wish to create change. But this alone is not enough. Unleashing the potential of Asma'a and 865 million women like her will require a coordinated effort on the part of policy makers, development practitioners and the private sector. While the challenge is formidable, the costs of inaction are even greater.
This blog post originally appeared on the Huffington Post.