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Gender-smart development starts with the right questions (Pt. 1 of 2)

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WASHINGTON, May 14, 2015—Six hundred million jobs. That’s what the world must generate over the next decade just to keep up with population growth. And that’s not even counting the 200 million or in developing countries who are jobless now, and the millions more, mainly women, who are either underemployed or shut out of the workforce entirely.

Most of these new jobs will come from the private sector, so private entrepreneurship solves part of the problem. But unleashing the untapped productivity of female entrepreneurs will be essential.

Around the world, female-owned firms are 7 percent to 10 percent smaller and their workers are about 6 percent less productive than businesses owned by men. Women managers have fewer years of experience running businesses and are more likely to engage in home-based enterprises. In developing countries, women own and manage around 30 percent of small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). In Africa, women account for 50 percent of the self-employed but only 25 percent of employers. But why?

Development professionals often discuss the need to incorporate considerations of gender equality into programming. It’s now widely accepted that ending poverty and boosting inclusive growth demand the full and equal participation and productivity of women and men.

But we’re a long way to fully tapping female productivity.

First, a rising tide doesn’t necessarily lift all boats: In many instances economic growth alone hasn’t shrunk significant gender gaps across a range of indicators, from productivity to labor force participation and access to essential assets, such as technology and financing.

Second, women and girls globally still face a wide range of constraints that don’t apply to men and boys—social norms that channel family resources to sons, for example, or laws that prevent them from owning property of opening bank accounts without a husband’s permission.

First-hand lessons

I learned some of this several years ago when I supervised a program in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) aimed at reforming state enterprises, reviving the private sector, and creating jobs in a country just emerging from years of devastating conflict.

As we tried to identify constraints to job creation and competitiveness, we surveyed corporations, officials, lawyers, and many others who understood the environment well. We followed existing routines and relied on instincts honed from experience elsewhere. But something was missing.

No one had yet scrutinized the country’s economy and business climate through a gender-sensitive lens. DRC was routinely branded one of the world’s worst countries for women because of its epidemic gender-based violence, but what about women in commerce?


“…We surveyed 1,400 companies… to find out why, with so many hard-working, astute, and entrepreneurial women, the economy was still lagging behind its vast potential.”


Insiders and experts largely understood that in the midst of post-conflict reconstruction, women were responsible for most of the economic activity that kept families nurtured and society functioning.

In this fragile environment, it was the women who kept things running—overwhelmingly without training and largely for survival. Generations of men meanwhile grappled with trauma and nostalgia, and dreamed of civil service jobs, with the entitlements and patronage of their fathers’ era.

So with funding from the United Kingdom, our multi-skilled team—from IDA, Doing Business, and Women, Business and the Law—analyzed barriers and reviewed laws pertaining to business and regulation from a female perspective.

We asked questions. We listened closely. We partnered with key experts and national stakeholders. We asked every question twice, making sure women’s voices were heard equally and their views reflected.

Starting a business, registering property, signing contracts, applying for credit: We probed each step of the entrepreneurial process using customary gender-neutral methodology, and then repeated it to see through the lens of women entrepreneurs. We enrolled women’s associations into our brainstorming working groups and steering committees, and we integrated them into our project design teams.

What we learned was staggering.

Read Pt. 2 of Gender-smart development starts with the right questions



Steven R. Dimitriyev

Senior Private Sector Development Specialist, Trade & Competitiveness

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