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The geography of gender is challenging and complex, says Mastercard. Picture: SUPPLIED/MASTERCARD
The geography of gender is challenging and complex, says Mastercard. Picture: SUPPLIED/MASTERCARD

Africa is full of brilliant possibilities but they’re not always open to everyone. The opportunities for women to contribute to the African economy are intrinsically linked to where they are born and reach adulthood. So long as disparities exist in education and opportunity this will always be the case. This holds us all back. The business community can and must help tackle this divide.

The geography of gender is challenging and complex. The latest Mastercard Index of Women Entrepreneurs (MIWE), which tracks female entrepreneurs’ ability to capitalise on opportunities granted through various supporting conditions within their local environments, highlights the significance of geography in female entrepreneurship.

Unsurprisingly, MIWE showed that higher-income, advanced economies, with open and vibrant markets that support SMEs, provide conducive and enabling conditions to support female business owners. 

Although the available support in open markets is a significant indicator of success, the index also revealed that it is not the only consideration. Despite traditionally featuring less favourable conditions, five of the eight African countries evaluated in the index made it into the top 10 markets out of the 58 measured in terms of female business owners as a percentage of all business owners. Uganda, Ghana and Botswana have the highest percentage of female ownership anywhere in the world, with women accounting for 38.2%, 37.9% and 36% respectively. 

The fundamental necessity to provide an income has combined with slightly more favourable socioeconomic conditions, such as reasonable gender parity in education levels and the status of women, resulting in these less-developed economies outperforming their developed peers.

Looking beyond location

The world is now more connected, with organisations transcending international borders. There is an opportunity for our cultural values to cross borders, political divides and disparities in development; we must use this position to champion African women. There are huge benefits to engaging women.

Mastercard, in partnership with Unicef Uganda and the ministry of education in Uganda, launched Kupaa, a digital platform that tackles the challenge of paying school tuition

According to the Women Matter Africa report by McKinsey & Company, companies with gender-diverse executive teams are 20% more likely to experience above average profitability. Women also represent the most significant consumer base — 89% of African women are the decision-makers or co-decisionmakers for household purchases, according to the Ipsos Women Index. Having more people at the top who inherently understand their target audience can only be healthy for business. So, it is time the development of women is prioritised within business objectives and becomes a measure of success.

The responsibility to champion women in work not only benefits profit margins, but also the development of women, institutions and societies around the world. Where women work, economies grow.

Three avenues of change

As the UN Sustainable Development Goals demonstrate, creating the right culture to open up possibilities for women requires direct and indirect approaches. There are three channels by which organisations can affect change:

1. Education: women are still largely under-represented in science, technology, education and maths (Stem), on boards and senior roles in companies, especially in tech. Business-led education initiatives play a key role in tackling this. Mastercard’s Girls4Tech Stem programme aims to inspire girls aged between eight and 12 to both enjoy and continue with Stem subjects. Having reached 400,000 girls in 25 countries, we are now on the way to reaching 1-million by 2025.

In developing countries, one in four girls is not in school. The inability of caregivers to pay for education is the main reason for children missing days of school or not being able to attend at all. This problem especially affects girls who are pulled out of school at a higher rate than boys. 

To help address this, Mastercard, in partnership with the United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef), Uganda and the ministry of education in Uganda, launched Kupaa, a digital platform that tackles the challenge of paying school tuition. Kupaa allows caregivers to pay in small amounts over time and multiple individuals to contribute funds to the child’s education.

This removes two critical barriers: direct costs, which are the large sum tuition costs, and indirect costs, such as time and travel expenses to make payments. Research shows that each year a child is in school, their earning potential is increased by between 8% and 10% — and even higher for girls. Such a solution could help change the economic trajectory of more than a quarter of a million people.

2. Empowerment: education is only the first step. We need to get more women into the workforce and then empower them to thrive. But the MIWE research showed that in many countries there is a clear disconnect between education, financial access, and women’s ability to thrive in the businesses of their native economy. For example, SA has a high percentage of female knowledge assets and financial access compared with other African countries included in MIWE. 

Progressing towards equal pay for equal work is another driver of inclusive growth, with Mastercard’s female employees earning $1 to every $1 men earn.

Yet the business ownership rate is lower than elsewhere — women account for just 21.5% of business owners. Bringing and keeping women in the business ecosystem can in part be achieved through accountability.

Senior figures must champion women in their organisations and create role models for the next generation. This can only be achieved by linking management goals to inclusivity, so that diversity is prioritised, while ensuring everyone is accountable for achieving it.

3. Equality: businesses should ask themselves three questions when it comes to gender equality: What can we do for people? What can we do for markets? What can we do for society?

For Mastercard, a starting point was setting a global precedent for parental leave being for both men and women. About 80% of men from across the business take paternity leave, helping us develop a sharing environment.

This is now a trend that we’re starting to see throughout business, with Hewlett Packard Enterprise recently announcing that all new parents will receive 26 weeks paid leave to redress the balance between maternity and paternity leave, while also ensuring that same-sex partners aren’t left behind.

Progressing towards equal pay for equal work is another driver of inclusive growth, with Mastercard’s female employees earning $1 to every $1 men earn. While these initiatives began at a leadership level, they ultimately all end with its employees, their lived experiences and workplace culture.

Beyond business

The success of a woman is fundamentally linked to the society and economic conditions in which she lives. And a world that works better for women creates limitless possibilities for us all. As a community, business is well aware of its power of influence.  

To responsibly wield this power, we need to move in a different direction towards engaging all stakeholders in shared and sustained value. By doing so, we can create significant culture change. It can be done, and it must be done, if we are to overcome the geography of gender.

About the author: Ann Cairns is the executive vice chairman at Mastercard.

This article was paid for by Mastercard.