Influencing Change: Charting the Path From Personal to Economic Empowerment
Interview with Anna Falth, manager for UN Women’s Knowledge Gateway for Women’s Economic Empowerment, on the challenges and opportunities for women’s global economic empowerment.
[Editor’s Note: I was first introduced to Anna in July, 2014, when I was selected to serve as one of 44 Global Community Champions for Women’s Economic Empowerment through the Knowledge Gateway platform. Through my volunteer work and engagement with UN Women, I’ve had the opportunity to deepen my own learning and understanding of the various issues and complexities of women’s global economic empowerment, connect and collaborate with women and men from around the world, and share my own experience and perspective on the importance of personal leadership development in advancing gender equality. It is through these types of platforms, programs and opportunities that each of us can lend our own individual voice and expertise, creating a collective voice and force of change that can help enable women and girls from around the world to achieve their fullest potential.]
(Sharon): As the manager for UN Women’s Knowledge Gateway for Women’s Economic Empowerment, can you share more about what the Knowledge Gateway is and what are you hoping to achieve with the platform?
(Anna): The Knowledge Gateway, or as we increasing refer to it “Empower Women”, is a global movement for women’s economic empowerment. We provide useful tools, resources and data, and inspiration for action and cross-border collaboration for gender equality in the economy. We leverage a deep and expanding portal—EmpowerWomen.org—that puts an unparalleled wealth of resources within reach of women and men everywhere. We would like each woman to be able to reach her full individual potential and all women and men to contribute to improving the global economy. We find original ways to effect real change, leveraging technology, partnerships and the power of the collective.
Today, our 100,000+ general users and 4,000+ members are women and men of all ages and backgrounds working in working in government, civil society, academia and the private sector.
Our Team is based at UN Women HQ in New York as well as in our regional offices in Bangkok, Cairo, Dakar, Nairobi, Panama and soon Istanbul.
Our vision is that EmpowerWomen.org inspires women and men around the world to take action to empower women and girls in their local communities. We also seek to inspire organizations, companies and women and men to team up with us and each other for effective advocacy and concrete action for women’s economic empowerment.
We have an exciting year ahead of us and we will partner with several organizations to provide more learning opportunities on leadership and other skills as well as online employment, business and entrepreneurship training through our Business Hub and Learning Center (including iLearn). Many new features will be added throughout the year to enhance the experience of our members and users.
To enable more women and men to join us and participate, the platform will be available in Arabic, French and Spanish. Our iLearn mobile-learning platform will also be translated into additional languages, such as Hindi and Swahili.
In a few weeks, we will launch our next Champion Programme, which has proven very successful in reaching out to and engaging women and men with a passion for women’s economic empowerment. A group of five champions conceptualized our next campaign I am (Wo)man—to be launched on February 5th. It will showcase stories of women and men around the world who have benefited from empowered women in their lives.
(Sharon): How do you define women’s economic empowerment and how do you differentiate between economic empowerment and economic independence?
(Anna): We see women’s economic empowerment as the process of unleashing the potential of women and giving them real power over economic structures and decision-making processes that influence their lives and priorities.
A discussion on the various definitions is available in Naila Kabeer’s paper of 2012. She points out that one key difference between these definitions is whether they are defined purely in economic terms or whether they take into account the spill-over effects in other domains of women’s lives.
While economic independence is not a widely used term within the UN, it is often used as a synonym to women’s economic empowerment. See for example the Government of New Zealand’s definition. The term seems to have emerged in debates that has positioned women’s economic gains as a risk factor to family structures and that it may lead to increased divorce rates.
Personally, I see economic independence as a status that can be assigned to an individual at a particular point in time. You could be independent one day earning an income from a job and doing generally well. However, the next day you lose your job and don’t have any savings in your bank account. Could you still say that you are economically independent then, or have you lost this status overnight?
Whatever term you decide to use, it is important to emphasize that women’s improved economic status, empowerment or independence is intertwined with interdependences within families, communities and society. It is strongly aligned with public policies, legal rights and ability to have a voice and be able to take decisions.
(Sharon): What are some of the biggest external barriers faced by women when it comes to economic empowerment?
(Anna): It really depends on what you mean with “external”.
At a broader and more systemic level, external barriers may include: (1) market failures (e.g. inequalities, unstable markets and lack of information); (2) women and girls’ care responsibilities within the household; and (3) States’ policy/legislative failures. These are underpinned by social norms and stereotypes that prevent women and girls from contributing fully to the economy and from their full economic empowerment. Additional external factors are closely related to women’s security, such as women in situations of armed conflict, disasters and food insecurity.
Let me give you two examples of recent external events with major impact on women’s economic empowerment (WEE): (1) economic crises; and (2) Ebola outbreak and other health-related epidemics.
(1) The global financial and economic crisis had major impact on WEE. While important progress had been made before this crisis in terms of women’s access to employment and decent work, the crisis led to major layoffs and increased unpaid care work in many countries. As a result, previous gains made were reversed and led to increased poverty in many economies. It touched every level of women’s lives. Forgotten in these discussions are often the poorest women making a living from waste management, when the prices of waste went down as a result of this crisis (see here).
(2) We can also consider the recent Ebola outbreak as an external event creating additional barriers to women’s economic empowerment. Its effects on women have gone far beyond health. Contaminated water supplies increases in women’s time spent collecting water, which impedes their ability to participate in work, education, and other aspects of life. Moreover, the majority of small-scale traders and farmers in the affected region are women. Emergency border closures and travel bans leave many unable to travel to markets to sell their produce, devastating their income and ability to provide for their families. The result is a crisis of food security and nutrition and in WEE. In many communities, the school system acts as a brake on harmful practices like child/early/forced marriages and female genital mutilation. With school disrupted, authorities are unable to monitor girls’ safety, and desperate families may look to them as a source of income. The Ebola virus disease threatens not just the health of millions of people, but the social and economic fabric of families, communities, and nations.
(Sharon): What is the relationship between women’s economic empowerment and personal empowerment? What role, in your opinion, does personal development play in the fight for gender equality?
(Anna): Women’s economic empowerment is a dynamic process that links to not only the individual woman but more importantly the collective of all women and girls. Any woman’s personal empowerment depends on whether the whole society ‘enables’ women’s economic empowerment. For example, in some parts of the world, women are prohibited from owning their own land, which is clearly a barrier to their personal empowerment. Often local customary law (particularly in rural areas) dictates community rules and regulations, often in contradictions with national law. In that sense, the factors that influence women’s personal empowerment depend on where they live and the social group they belong to.
On the other hand, personal development contributes to enhanced voice and agency of women that enables them to claim spaces in the economy. For example, women’s confidence is very important for their success, whether in the political, economic or social spheres. Confidence enables women to turn opportunities into tangible results: An interview opportunity fueled by confidence can be turned into a job. A confidently delivered pitch for a business idea can be turned into capital. Confidence also enables women to assert themselves in the marketplace, workplace, in family decision-making and in the society more broadly. It enables women to influence decisions and challenge social and cultural norms. For the marginalized and poorest groups of women, confidence is essential for their greater inclusion in the economy.
We are using the EmpowerWomen.org Blog and iLearn to showcase women’s success stories. It is evident that confidence is a key ingredient for their effective and successful engagement in the economy, whether as business leaders or as entrepreneurs. As one of our champions (Marie-Angele from Cameroon) put it, “There is a common factor in each success story featured on EmpowerWomen.org: women succeed when they dare to put their dreams into action.”
However, we need to ask ourselves: “What are the factors that stimulate such confidence among women and girls at a societal level?” From our own experience, it is instilled in women and girls when the environment they grow up in enables and encourages them to be who they want to be, and do what they want to do. If this potential is unleashed, girls can grow into confident and effective leaders in their communities, economies and societies at large. This requires having a society with government policies that clearly shows that the society believes in, values and prioritizes women and girls. A society that allows them to believe that they can be successful in whatever they pursue. This includes laws and policies that promotes women and girls’ education, land ownership, citizenship, access to their own bank accounts, and equal pay for equal work, among many others.
That doesn’t mean that individual or groups of women cannot make breakthroughs for women’s rights for the benefit of the whole society. We have seen many examples in history as well as in more recent years. Women’s suffrage movement is one such example which eventually led to women’s right to vote. More recently, Malala stood up against all odds for girls’ rights to education. We have also witnessed women in Saudi Arabia standing up (or sitting down…) for their right to drive a car. These women (and many others) have been ready to do this over and over until changes start happening and society has accepted the rights they’ve been advocating for.
We can all be such advocates in our own lives and stand up for what we believe in and for what is right.
(Sharon): So much of the dialogue around gender equality is focused on access to skills, capital, etc., and the accompanying policies that create enabling environments to support women and girls’ empowerment. Noticeably absent is a focus on personal empowerment and character-based leadership development. Do you agree with this observation, and if so, to what do you attribute this gap?
(Anna): Learning from past experiences, and with limited resources available to women’s economic empowerment, an increasing focus has been placed on creating systemic change through national policies, laws and programmes that benefit the larger society, rather than a small group of women. Increasing focus is also placed on creating scalable solutions. That is, focusing on successful approaches that have the potential in creating change and benefits for a larger group of people.
Small initiatives that only benefit a small group of women are getting less attention and funding since it is not as ‘cost-effective’, is riskier and cannot be widely replicated. Similarly, employers are investing less in their talents’ skills development today since mobility has been on the rise (and hence the investments may not have direct pay offs to the employer).
When schooling is mandatory, the education system can be a powerful entry point for inducing change for gender equality and women’s empowerment. This includes education reforms that take into account higher quality education and that address gender stereotypes, since it has the power of reaching all girls and boys in the society. It lays the foundations for changing perceptions around what women and girls can do, what they can dream to become and what professions they can pursue.
That does not mean that working with individual women on their personal issues and development is not important. Indeed, increasingly ‘high-potential’ women leaders and entrepreneurs are seen as focal points to increase opportunities (e.g. employment) for other women and investments in form of capital, training and coaching are being spent on these point women. Since the outcome very much depends on each of these individual women ‘giving back’ to their communities, we therefore need to engage them in broader efforts to advocate for and achieve results for women’s economic empowerment.
(Sharon): What tools, resources and opportunities are available via the Knowledge Gateway to help women and girls develop their own voice and personal leadership?
(Anna): In the first year of EmpowerWomen.org, we focused on the Beijing+20 agenda and broad issues of concern to the international development community, and not directly to help women and girls develop their own voice and personal leadership skills. However, through the Knowledge Circles we established a dedicated space for our members to raise concerns and topics of interest to them.
In parallel, we have collected resources in the Library and Learning Center that may equip women and girls in this area. The Champions Programme has propelled young women and men to contribute and debate around these issues. As one of our Champions said; “Before I joined EmpowerWomen.org, I didn’t know that I had a voice”.
We recently featured a blog of a woman, Kounila, who tells her story from acquiring awareness of the existence of the Internet to becoming a well-known blogger in Cambodia. She emphasizes the power of the Internet, “The internet has changed my life in a gradual but meaningful way, and I can see it happening to others too.” The women sharing their blog articles and stories in iLearn are true role models for other women as well as girls can identify with and learn from.
Moving into our second year, we will be expanding iLearn to new areas and languages (e.g. French, Spanish and Swahili), building on the resources we now have. We are also working on a series of job-related learning material for young women, a webinar series on leadership, and a course for start-up businesses in emerging economies.
(Sharon): Where do you see other gaps in the gender equality conversation, whether in terms of policy, programming or resources?
What is missing in conversations is the accountability of various stakeholders (e.g. the state) and how to measure results. There won’t be any systemic changes and major efforts to implement commitments, laws and policies without these. And as many have already said before me, “What gets measured gets done.”
Another gap in conversations is the powerful role that women’s collectives (e.g. unions, associations, and other institutions) play and could play for women’s economic empowerment. One of the categories in our Business Hub is women’s collectives for this particular reason. We hope to bring more collectives onboard to start dialogues on the success of leveraging their power for women to gain access to capital, markets and financial resources.
(Sharon): Where do you see the most progressive policies and best practices originating from in support women and girls empowerment? Do you have a favorite initiative(s) you’d like to highlight?
(Anna): There are a lot of progressive policies and programmes in my own country, Sweden. Not only did the Prime Minister announce that his government is feminist a few months ago, but other norms are being generated to promote gender equality: a new seal for certifying games that promote gender equality, day care centers where the use of ‘boy’ and ‘girl’ is prohibited to avoid introducing and reinforcing gender stereotypes at an early age.
Otherwise, some of my personal favorites include innovations that relate to reducing women and girls’ unpaid care work. This includes technologies driven by solar, wind or water energy, that enable women to do other things other than cooking and cleaning all day, and enable girls to go to school. One of such practices is being adopted by Solar Sister as highlighted in the WE Inspire blog on EmpowerWomen.org. This blog is a good source for good practices and innovations on women’s economic empowerment. We ask women and men to share their own innovative approaches. It has proven very successful as most of us can relate their experience to ours.
I also get excited around innovations in information and communication technology for and by women and girls and we are soon to launch a dedicated space to highlight new initiatives, practices and approaches in this area.
(Sharon): In the face of deeply entrenched social norms and values that may limit opportunity for women and girls, many feel hopeless to change their situation. What strategies are most effective in incentivizing women and girls to take the initiative to access and leverage resources, training and tools, including those available through the Knowledge Gateway?
(Anna): I believe that one of the successes of our platform is that we have raised awareness of young women on the role they can play in voicing their opinions and concerns in our e-discussions, webinars and Google Hangouts among other online initiatives. In fact, many of our active members are young women and men. They have used the power of an online community to voice their opinions and share their own experience and skills. I think the incentives have been to showcase their profiles and skills in global fora, such as EmpowerWomen.org.
(Sharon): Shifting gears, who are your female role models and how have they influenced your own work in support of women’s economic empowerment?
(Anna): Actually, most of my role models are men. Men who have stepped out of their comfort zone and stood up for what they believe in: gender equality and women’s empowerment. The first one was of course my dad who encouraged me to travel and learn from other people and their cultures (despite others’ hesitation). The second one was my first supervisor at the European Commission who tried to make a difference in European programming on gender equality at a time when it wasn’t ‘in trend’ to promote this issue, in particular as a man.
(Sharon): What advice to you have for women and girls who may be struggling to come into their own voice and leadership?
(Anna): It is all about your passion. Once you find it, you’ll find your path where you can use your voice, grow and lead.
As a girl, I was very shy and afraid of speaking up for myself. I was even afraid of making a dentist appointment. Suffering from this, I set out to challenge myself with public speaking, talking on the phone and making presentations.
Just after high-school, I applied to a school to become a tourism guide. On the first day, I learned that we had to stand on a scene and introduce ourselves in less than 5 minutes in front of over 200 people. I had a total blackout and couldn’t remember what I said in these 5 minutes but were encouraged by my peers who said my life had been very interesting so far and they wanted to learn more about me. In the 2 months that follow in this school, I had to make presentations to fake tourists in bus rides, etc. Little by little I started to feel more comfortable. At the end of the two months, I was offered a full time position in Tunisia to guide tourists on Tunisian history, religion and culture and did so for over a year.
Coming back to my home country Sweden, I challenged myself again by applying for a job as telemarketer. I hated that first phone call and the ones that followed, but after about twenty of them, I started to lose my fear of talking with people over the phone.
While pursuing my Masters at the University of Hamburg, I decided to volunteer for every opportunity presented by the professor to make a presentation. I recall that my classmates asked me “Why do you always volunteer for these presentations? I hate making presentations and I know you do too?”. I responded that “if I don’t practice my presentations skills now in this small group setting, can you image what an awful feeling it’ll be once you have to make presentations as part of your job and then risk being seen as unqualified and unprofessional?”.
I have challenged myself a lot and also made a fool of myself, such as when I tried to get a job in language that I hardly could speak. But as we say in Sweden “Övning ger färdighet” or “Practice makes perfect”. Never expect that you’ll master something the first time, or even the next couple of times, but expect to practice a lot.
Or shall I say: Practice and Passion makes Perfect? Find your passion and practice a lot to overcome your weaknesses or fears and you’ll be able to pursue whatever dreams you have.
(Sharon): Thank you so much, Anna. It’s always a pleasure to work with and learn from you!