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OPINION March 9, 2018

Why Companies that Employ Women are More Effective than “All Male” Companies

Forbes: Lilia, what is your assessment of women’s participation in economic processes in Kazakhstan and around the world?

Lilia Burunciuc: There has been obvious progress in achieving gender equality around the world over the past two decades: more girls are attending school, more women are working and are being elected to public office, more women hold management positions, and the situation involving women’s legal rights has also improved.

A great deal still remains to be done, however, to achieve equal outcomes for women and men. Globally, the employment rate for men is 75 percent, while for women it is around 50 percent. By the way, historically, the employment rate among women in Kazakhstan has been high at 75 percent, and the figure for men is 82 percent. However, women earn 24 percent less than men for the same work, both throughout the world and in Kazakhstan.

At the same time, women work more than men in all parts of the world: they perform almost two and a half times more unpaid work at home than men do.

Kazakhstan is in a good position in terms of indicators such as ensuring equal access to education and health care, but women’s access to political and economic opportunities is still limited, unfortunately. Women continue to be a minority in parliament, in ministries, and in executive government positions, including akims (mayors). For example, women account for only 27 percent of the members of Kazakhstan’s parliament, and just 13 percent of the ministerial staff in Kazakhstan.

Women are also underrepresented in managerial positions. In Kazakhstan women account for no more than 19 percent of the managers.

Forbes: What are the most common obstacles for women in terms of gaining access to more economic opportunities?

Lilia Burunciuc: The following factors can be singled out in Kazakhstan:

Career choice. Young women traditionally choose fields such as the humanities, health care, and education, in which the wages are lower. Men, on the other hand, more frequently choose STEM professions: science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and other technical fields, where the wages are higher.

Legal restrictions on work. Kazakhstan’s labor code prohibits women from working in 25 occupational categories. This includes, just as an example, 33 occupations in the mining industry alone. The total number of occupations in which women are not allowed to work has risen to 299. The roots of this list go back to legislation of the Soviet Union from 1932, which considered these to be hazardous occupations for women.

Female entrepreneurship and access to financing: In Kazakhstan women are the owners or co-owners of 28 percent of the registered firms (according to 2013 data). Women entrepreneurs, as a rule, work in small enterprises, and in rural areas they are often engaged in home-based production activities or other work that is compatible with their household responsibilities. Their access to financing, and in particular access to lending programs offered by commercial banks, is a critical problem.

Access to childcare services. In Kazakhstan childcare responsibilities fall mainly on women. There are also problems related to access to childcare services. According to data from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, in Kazakhstan the percentage of students who have not attended preschool is one of the highest at 65 percent, which is the second worst indicator among 64 countries. Of course, this does not help women return to the labor market after giving birth.

Forbes: On the other hand, are women themselves interested in gaining greater opportunities, especial in Eastern and Muslim countries?

Lilia Burunciuc: We are now seeing throughout the world growth in movements in support of women and women’s rights. This speaks to the fact that women – and society as a whole – are interested in gaining greater opportunities.

But it is not just interest that needs to be considered here. In Kazakhstan the number of children born out of wedlock is rising – up to 20 percent of children are being raised by single parents, primarily women (data from the International Labour Organization for 2005‑2009). The country is also in 10th place in the world in terms of the number of divorces, and in most cases the children remain with their mothers.

Consequently, the question is not so much one of interest, but rather a woman’s need to be economically independent.

Forbes: Are there data indicating that work by women and men in identical positions leads to a different economic impact?

Lilia Burunciuc: What we really need to be talking about is the inclusion of women in the overall economy. There is a strong business case for offering economic opportunities to women, and many studies are pointing to this.

For example, in one of our studies we found that the world’s most competitive economies are those in which the gap between opportunities for men and women is minimal.

Some countries are losing up to 27 percent of their GDP as a result of incomplete inclusion of women in the labor market (data from the International Monetary Fund). Raising women’s participation in the labor market up to the level of men’s participation could significantly boost countries’ GDP. For example, in the United States it could be increased by 5 percent, in Japan by 9 percent, and in Egypt by 34 percent.

This same trend is true for Kazakhstan and the Central Asian countries: women represent a powerful economic resource and their involvement in the labor market could improve growth in the national economy.

Forbes: I would like to ask you directly: is there gender inequality in Kazakhstan? If so, where and how does it manifest itself?

Lilia Burunciuc: In the World Economic Forum’s global ranking for 2017, Kazakhstan was in 52nd place among 144 countries in terms of the gender gap index. Kazakhstan has high indicators in areas such as education, health, and longevity (specifically, the sex ratio at birth and life expectancy). The indicators are fairly low in other areas, however, such as economic participation by women, equal wages, and how well women are represented in management positions and in the political sphere.

Forbes: If there is inequality, how can it be prevented?

Lilia Burunciuc: The World Bank’s Gender Strategy (2015) identified four priorities for achieving gender equality.

First is the enhancement of human development – here we are talking about health and education. In the case of Kazakhstan, the priorities could include improved access for women to medical services, including reproductive health and a reduction in maternal mortality, as well as an increase in the number of young women in STEM professions.

Second is the creation of better conditions for the employment of women. This includes the creation of more flexible working conditions, offering childcare services for working mothers, and infrastructure improvements, among other things.

Third is the elimination of barriers hindering women’s access to resources, such as financing, insurance, and technology.

Fourth is the strengthening of the female “voice” and initiatives. The main efforts in this direction could include the setting of quotas for political representation, which many countries around the world have done, as well as steps to encourage and train future female leaders.

Forbes: Is there a connection between the success of companies and the number of women employees and managers?

Lilia Burunciuc: Many studies point to a number of advantages for companies that employ women. These include, for example, better financial indicators, a clearer understanding of the market, more effective organization of labor, and increased investor confidence.

For example, in 2007 Fortune 500 companies in which women accounted for up to 25 percent of managerial personnel increased the return on invested capital by 66 percent, sales profitability by 42 percent, and the return on assets by 53 percent.

Companies that have women directors handle risks more effectively and do a better job of managing relationships with customers, employees, shareholders, and local communities.

Companies with women in top management positions have a better chance of developing products that meet customers’ needs, since women make more than 70 percent of all consumer decisions in the European Union. I think that this is also true in Kazakhstan.

Forbes: In the fight for women’s rights, how can one avoid going too far and sliding into fanatical feminism?

Lilia Burunciuc: The word “feminism” evokes some negative associations among the public today. At the World Bank we use the term “gender equality” and we believe that it is intrinsically important, since living as one chooses, without being deprived of any freedoms – this is the most basic and fundamental human right, and it must be equal for both men and women.

In the second place, gender equality promotes economic effectiveness, and therefore it is important from an economic standpoint.

In this sense, I really like what Malala Yousafzai – the youngest Nobel Peace Prize laureate – said when speaking out for women’s right to education: “As mankind, we cannot all succeed if half of us are held back.”  


Originally published (in Russian) in Forbes Kazakhstan: