Trade Forum Features

Everyone counts in economic development

14 January 2013
ITC News
Women are the backbone of society. They provide for families and societies, and in doing so create shared core values. Women are also reliable vendors, which means sourcing from women vendors is good for business, good for families and good for societies, an excellent win-win-win equation. In practice, however, the equation is not that simple.

When selling to domestic markets, a developing country exporter has to look at issues such as market access, standards and rules of origin. The exporter needs to work in a solid business environment with sound trade facilitation, affordable financing and access to appropriately skilled labour. For women entrepreneurs and exporters, the situation is even more complex as they face additional hurdles and constraints in making their businesses thrive, both in the South and the North.

So what has been done in Finland to pave the way for women’s entrepreneurial success? And what can developing countries learn from Finland’s successes and failures? The World Economic Forum has rated Finland among the most competitive countries in the world. One of the factors contributing to this seems to be gender equality. In Finland there are just five million inhabitants. If only men took part in working life and the provision of common well-being, Finland would be a poor country; it needs the contribution of both women and men.

Everyone in Finland has the possibility to learn and study, receive quality health care and make decisions about their own lives. This makes it possible for both women and men to play a role in the economy and social development. Finland invested in equal education for all when it was still a poor country, but this investment has been paid back in many ways. As Finland’s experience shows, it is important to ensure that basic services in society are available to everyone. Girls and boys must have equal access to education and health care, and women must be allowed to take part in political decision-making. Furthermore, it is crucial that policies be targeted at providing equal opportunities and rewards for women as well as men in the economic sphere.

In line with the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, Finland adopted an act on equality between women and men in 1986. While the principal aim of the law is the elimination of discrimination in labour markets and employment, it clearly states that the public sector is responsible for enhancing and promoting gender equality. One outcome of the application of the law is the requirement of parity, interpreted as 40% to 60% representation of both sexes, in certain public sector advisory committees. This requirement has enhanced gender equality.

Women have a great interest in innovative entrepreneurship and opportunities related to the information society, which allow them to find employment and use their education and skills at home if they so wish. It is important that national innovation policies and systems highlight the equal opportunities for women and men in this area.

The free flow of information and equal access to it will probably be a determinant in the kind of economy and culture that will thrive in both developed and developing countries in the future. This is increasingly linked to access to digital information. Women suffer from a wider gap in the digital divide between developed and developing countries than men. This concerns women who have less access to technology, education, information and literacy. For example, when women in rural areas do not have information on climate change, they cannot take action that would help them mitigate it or adapt to it.

Finnish experiences in social development also highlight the crucial role of labour market organizations. In Finland, there are two organizations that support women’s entrepreneurship: the Women’s Enterprise Agency, which encourages women to start businesses and provides counselling in the early stages of business development; and the Women Entrepreneurs’ Organization, which seeks to ensure that the rights of women entrepreneurs in business are respected.

Finland’s achievements have come with a number of challenges, not all of which have been addressed today. For example, Finland has realized that if women had been more actively involved in developing information technology, companies could have devised more competitive products suitable for a wider group of people. Thus anyone innovating and creating new economic opportunities should be encouraged to invite both women and men to take part in the process. In the promotion of gender equality and women’s empowerment, the private sector can also play a critical role as a balance between women and men as leaders, managers, entrepreneurs and employees is needed to achieve business success. On the basis of its experience, Finland continues to strive for gender equality both at home and abroad. It is one of three cross-cutting themes in the country’s development policy and it is mainstreamed in all development work.