Today is International Women’s Day, and I’m just back from a trip to Blackpool, England to attend and speak at the 6th annual Prowess conference – a membership organization founded in 2002 to promote women’s enterprise support and share best practices among the enablers of women’s enterprise. While there, and while traveling there and back, I listened to the news, read local papers, and talked to women and men about the state of women’s enterprise and the state of the world economy. I would say that both would appear to be at a critical crossroads – and the verdict is still out as to how much fallout there will be as we move through our current challenges into the future.
We know that, despite increasing numbers of women entering into self-employment and business ownership, women-owned businesses still lag their male counterparts in terms of economic growth. And, while women-targeted business support has yielded some success, there is still a challenge with monitoring outcomes and measuring impact. And, as budgets tighten in the public, private and third sectors, womenablers everywhere are being pressed to show results, improve program performance, and do more with less.
We also all know the current economic statistics: housing values declining, joblessness rising, banks and large corporations seeking government bail-outs, and much hand-wringing all the way around. (See all of the collective gloom and doom from the recently-concluded World Economic Forum at Davos.) I’ve read that growth in Gross Domestic Product in nearly all developed nations will be at or under zero this year, meaning that – for the first time – developing nations will be powering whatever progress we make this year in the world economy. However, while these challenges are very real – and some would say are marking some fundamental restructuring – we’re also hearing talk about the power that perceptions and emotions play into our collective economic psyches. For example, about 10 days ago Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke said, during Congressional testimony, that the economy could start to turn around by the end of the year, and the next day the Dow Jones Industrial Average went up over 3%. So what we say and how we say it can make a real difference.
This was driven home to me very clearly by the remarks given at the Prowess conference by the keynote speaker, noted author and feminist Germaine Greer. I was looking forward to hearing her, as she’s known for being provocative. I thought she’d give all of us some “women can pull us out of the fire” exhortations. Instead, what we got was a lot of gloom and doom, capitalism is the enemy clap-trap. A real disappointment, and a missed opportunity. But, upon some reflection, it pointed out another element – and opportunity – of our current societal circumstances: that we are seeing not only some fundamental restructuring of our economy, but of our business and political leadership, and that the voices that are putting up the most fuss and that are in many ways holding back the changes that need to be made are those who have been in power and have benefited from the old ways of doing things. In politics, in business, and in civil society changes are happening and new voices are being heard. It’s up to all of us to ensure that women’s voices are a part of this debate and discussion.
So, while I certainly acknowledge the seriousness of the economic trough we are now in (especially since I live in Michigan, the state with the highest unemployment rate in the US), I, for one, am going to be looking toward the future with optimism, buoyed by the belief that entrepreneurial spirit, innovation and persistence will push through the defensiveness, fear and retrenching that yesterday’s leaders seem to be clinging to. Let’s tip the balance away from the Chicken Little ‘sky is falling in’ discussion and start paying some more attention to what makes us all strong. On this International Women’s Day let the persistence, perseverance and power of women shine though and move us all forward. I say the glass is at least half full – so let’s all raise one and say cheers, prost, salud, santé, and sláinte on this International Women’s Day!