Social Enterprises in the Fight against Gender Inequality

The global economy can hardly be considered a fair place. This place, however, is particularly unfair to most women whose economic activities are confined to the margins by entrenched gender and social norms. Entrepreneurship can be a way to create fair conditions for women and other marginalized groups within the economy. Especially social entrepreneurship allows visibility, participation in the global economy and self-realization.

While 75 percent of the world’s men are employed, this figure is only 50 percent for the world’s women. When they are in paid employment, however, women earn on average 24 percent less than their male counterparts and are underrepresented in upper and middle management in all countries for which data is available. Additionally, they carry out two to ten times more unpaid care work. This work is estimated to be worth $10 trillion but squeezes the amount of time women have to participate in the global economy.

Beyond these economic indicators, global gender inequality is further revealed by the fact that women only hold 23 percent of the seats in the world’s parliaments. It is therefore less surprising that 49 countries of the world have no laws to protect women from domestic violence, which all too often results in violations of their human right to physical integrity.

The willingness of the world community to tackle these issues has grown in recent decades. SDG 5, for example, explicitly deals with gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls. Nevertheless, progress in promoting gender equality has been slow and recently been put under threat by the impacts of COVID-19. As women are more likely to be employed in hard-hit economic sectors, many of them are pushed into unemployment and poverty during the crisis. Moreover, stay-at-home orders have not only further increased the already disproportionate burden of unpaid care work but have also forced those women who suffer from domestic violence to share a shelter with their abusers.

Although these impacts paint a bleak picture for the realization of gender equality in the near future, the crisis may also represent a great opportunity by contouring precisely those injustices and by encouraging us to question the status quo of our current economic system.

Social Entrepreneurship is doing just that, by shifting the entrepreneurial focus to the creation of socially sustainable effects and thus putting the common good before the profit. The idea of social entrepreneurship initially emerged in the late 1980s as an alternative to traditional forms of entrepreneurship and has gained in popularity in recent decades. With the growth of numerous initiatives and organisations, like ASHOKA or the Schwab Foundation, the social enterprise sector has during that time established itself as an important partner in solving social problems and as a promoter of marginalized groups.

To this end, social entrepreneurship can be regarded as an important, yet underutilized, resource to strengthen women’s rights worldwide. A report by the British Council from 2017 highlights the various channels through which social enterprises may contribute to the universal empowerment of women and girls.

Among the most important are the following:

  • The social enterprise sector offers far greater training and employment opportunities for women than the overall economy.
  • In the social enterprise sector, the chances for women to take a leading role are greater than in the profit-oriented sector.
  • Social entrepreneurship can support the provision of affordable products and services for women.
  • The fact that women are often beneficiaries from and contributors to social enterprises, promotes their agency and helps to overcome prevailing gender roles.
  • Since the majority of women’s rights organizations are underfunded, social entrepreneurship can serve as a powerful source of funding which is also independent of the changing priorities of public or private donors.

To ensure that these potentials can also be exploited in the future, collective efforts are now needed to strengthen existing social enterprises during the crisis and to promote the setting up of further such companies. If we embrace this opportunity, social entrepreneurship can go a long way to make the global economy a fairer place for women.

Against this background, the ‘Stiftung Entrepreneurship’ will provide an insight into the work of social enterprises that focus on female empowerment in the upcoming weeks. Next week we will start with an inspiring interview with Chetna Sinha, co-chair of the World Economic Forum of 2018 and founder of the Mann Deshi Bank – India’s first rural financial institution run by and for women.