Solving the Developing World’s Gender Gap

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Photo: Emily Metcalf

By Charity Wallace – Throughout September, Human Rights Watch lobbied the Yemen government to ensure that its new constitution includes robust protections for women.

That country has a long history of institutionalized gender discrimination, including tight controls on a woman’s right to marry and low access to educational resources for young girls. International rights groups are urging the national leadership to correct these historic injustices as they rewrite the country’s founding document.


The struggle in Yemen speaks to a truth about women’s progress in the developing world more broadly. Despite the lingering effects of the global recession, many low-income countries have instituted smart financial and social reforms enabling unprecedented wealth creation. But women are not sharing equally in this newfound prosperity.

On average, women make much less money than their male counterparts. They start new businesses at much lower rates. And, generally, they are much less active in building businesses or in civic life.

Fortunately, a broad body of research has emerged in recent years to help identify what’s causing the lag. Maria Minniti, Ph.D., who studies entrepreneurship and public policy, recently analyzed this research for the George W. Bush Institute’s Women’s Initiative.

She concluded that the answer boils down to one simple word: Networks.

Women everywhere do not use their networks effectively. This problem is particularly acute in low-income countries.

By expanding interpersonal ties, a person builds up a valuable base of information, skills, and contacts that can be leveraged for professional advancements. A sturdy network can generate a business partner, new customers, investors, and friends with good suggestions.

For an example of a network in action, take a look at Facebook. That company isn’t the product of Mark Zuckerberg alone. From the earliest stages, he had the smarts to heavily lean on his friends at Harvard. Such key people as Dustin Moskovitz and Eduardo Saverin complemented Zuckerberg’s programming skills. Without the network of smart friends, Facebook could have been just another social media flame-out.

Instructively, one of the most powerful voices for closing the gender gap is Zuckerberg’s colleague and Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg. She’s seen the power of networks firsthand. And part of her “lean in” strategy is for women to more vigorously pursue new professional ties.

A strong social network also generates manifold “soft” benefits, chiefly increased self-confidence and a sense of self-efficacy. Both are vital emotional resources for entrepreneurship. Indeed, work released last year by the Netherlands’ University of Rotterdam finds a strong correlation between self-reported confidence in skills and the likelihood of starting a business.

Yet that Rotterdam assessment also found that women have significantly lower self-reported confidence in business skills than men. That means women are less likely to start their own businesses, seek higher wages at their current job, or try to switch to a better position at a different company.

A lack of strong networks isn’t confined to women in the lower rungs of the economic order. Indeed, the George W. Bush Institute recently held an African First Ladies Summit in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. Among the attendees was Ugandan First Lady Janet Museveni. She explicitly mentioned that before the event, she had been largely unaware of all the great work being done by her counterparts across the continent. Even a woman of Museveni’s position recognizes the need to learn from her network.

The reasons for the size-of-network gender gap in the developing world are manifold. One powerful explanation comes from London School of Economics professor Satoshi Kanazawa. She has found that women spend less time socializing outside their immediate friends and family because they carry a disproportionate share of household responsibilities, leaving them less time for cultivating potential business partnerships.

We need to work to close this gap and empower low-income women to reach their full potential.

The Bush Institute is working on several initiatives to advance this goal. Our Afghan women’s project is rallying international support to help ensure that women in Afghanistan retain the rights they’ve fought so hard to achieve. The Institute also hosts a fellowship program for 14 to 20 women from a single developing country to help enhance their leadership and networking skills. With this program, we work to make sure fellows pass along their new expertise to their personal networks in order to create a multiplier effect.

The key to addressing the gender gap in the developing world is first to understand its root cause.  With smart, targeted policies, local governments and international aid organizations can help women build the networks they need – and ensure women are empowered. Only then can a nation be peaceful and prosperous.

Charity Wallace serves as the director of the Women’s Initiative at the Bush Institute.