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Role of Women and Girls in Climate Change

Closing the Gap – a series of Oxford University postgraduate student insights to the Skoll World Forum 2018

Gladys Ngetich, Rhodes Scholar and DPhil in Engineering Science at the Department of Engineering Science, reports on the Skoll World Forum session ‘Women and Girls: Catalysing Change in the Climate Crisis’.

 

The panel - Women and Girls: Catalysing change in the climate crisis

The panel – Women and Girls: Catalysing change in the climate crisis

Climate change is without a doubt one of this 21st century’s leading global challenges. Climate change-related disasters like serious floods, mudslides, droughts and severe heat waves continue to ripple across the world causing a staggering number of deaths and losses due to infrastructure damages. Organisations, governments and individuals have realised that there is an inevitable need to address climate change. Thus, they are working around the clock to mitigate climate change-related disasters.

Even as world leaders deliberate on how to counter climate change, it is essential for such discussions to recognise the strong link between gender equality and climate change. In fact, the recent UN Paris Agreement (1/CP.21) acknowledges the necessity for equal representation of both men and women in order to make further progress in the ongoing fight against the negative effects of climate change. Despite the clear link between gender equality and climate change, women in most parts of the world have been barely involved in addressing this grave issue.

The panel – Women and Girls: Catalysing change in the climate crisis

Why is women’s involvement essential in climate change deliberations?

There are obvious gendered impacts of climate change-related disasters, particularly where women, owing to their role as primary carers, are in charge of food, water and cooking fuel. This role and the disproportionately low socioeconomic power of women as compared to men globally, make women more vulnerable when disasters like floods, hurricanes and droughts strike. Indeed, it has been reported that women are more vulnerable than men in cases of climate change-related catastrophes.

Effects of disasters like droughts on women

Droughts affect women in many ways. Water scarcity forces women, especially those in rural areas, to walk long distances in search of water. The scarcity of vegetation and trees as a result of a drought causes women, most especially in developing countries, to spend a lot of time searching for firewood which is the primary source of cooking fuel. This particularly applies to rural women in most low-income countries. All these eat into the time women could be spending for education or starting and running a business. In addition, decreased crop production adversely affects women in rural areas who are largely depended upon for food production. According to recent statistics, women produce 60-80% of the food in most developing countries. Also, in pastoralist communities in Kenya, droughts have been reported as causing an increase in cases of early child marriages.

Women make up approximately half of the world’s population

According to research done by the Brookings Institution, women’s representation in climate change only amounts to ‘24 percent of the 173 focal points to the U.N. Forum on Forests; 12 percent of the heads of 881 national environmental sector ministries; and 4 percent of 92 national member committee chairs to the World Energy Council’. Yet, as highlighted above, women are disproportionately affected by climate change-disasters. Moreover, women constitute over 50% of the world’s population. So far, there has been good progress in terms of efforts to tackle climate change. However, this progress cannot be truly effective and cover all blind spots in addressing climate change, if women are only minimally involved in such deliberations. Efforts to address climate change will only double if women from different backgrounds are brought on board. This will largely be as a result of the value of including their lived experience and the diversity of thought they bring to the table.

Women can take control of family planning—a population-based climate change mitigation strategy

The world’s population continues to soar. The United Nation predicts that the current world’s population of 7.6 billion will shoot to 9.8 by the year 2050 with the largest growth coming from developing countries. Investing in women and girls’ empowerment and quality education will enable them to make informed choices about their sexual and reproductive health. Consequently, this will reduce the unsustainable population growth which accelerates climate change and its effects.

Importance of women’s participation in climate change deliberations

Owing to women’s unique lived experiences and the fact that they are disproportionately affected by climate change-related disasters, they have rich and diverse ground-based experiences, perspectives and knowledge that are essential for identifying and implementing potential sustainable solutions to address climate change. In addition, studies have shown that women play a crucial role in environmental conservation efforts.

In conclusion, climate change is no doubt the world’s greatest challenge which calls for an urgent and sustainable solution. There is a clear gender imbalance where women and girls are barely involved in efforts to address climate change. Going forward there is a dire need to bring them on board as they can be the much-needed agents who can contribute to sustainable climate change mitigation and adaptation efforts.

The generation that destroys the environment is not the generation that pays the price. That is the problem.

Prof. Wangari Maathai – 2004 Nobel Peace Prize Winner and Founder of the Green Belt Movement that has planted over 51 million trees in Kenya.

Dismantling Invisible Barriers to Capital

Closing the Gap – a series of Oxford University postgraduate student insights to the Skoll World Forum 2018

Emily Durfee, 2017-18 MBA at Saïd Business School, reports on the Skoll World Forum session ‘Dismantling Invisible Barriers to Capital’.

The evidence is clear and condemning: investments of resources and support flow unevenly towards entrepreneurs who are white, male, and from wealthy countries.  These entrepreneurs have the “invisible capital,” the right skin color, gender, and nationality, to garner attention and resources from investors.  This inequity to capital perpetuates limits  to the financed perspectives and innovations within social impact, and perpetuates current inequalities and stereotypes.  The panelists in the Skoll World Forum session, “Dismantling Invisible Barriers to Capital,” posited that these disparities in investment are caused by a toxic “sameness,” and suggested three action steps to increase fairness in access to capital.

The detrimental effect of “sameness” permeated the stories of the diverse panel.  Chaired by Kathleen Kelly Janus, author of Social Startup Success, the panel included Cheryl Dorsey from Echoing Green, Marco A. Davis from New Profit, Vedika Bhandarkar from Water.org, and Halla Tomasdottir from Sisters Capital.  These speakers each focused on different issues, from incubating talented global entrepreneurs, entrepreneurs of color, or promoting female leaders.  Despite these different geographical and issue focuses, every panelist highlighted that the current system passes capital and support between people who are the “same,” either through the visible characteristics of race and gender, or through family privilege, education, or nationality.

The panel suggested that “sameness” manifests in the incubation, sourcing, and funding of entrepreneurs.  First, many entrepreneurs cannot pilot new innovations, because their families and communities lack the saved capital necessary to fund pre-investment experimentation.  Second, investors often use networks to source new investees.  However, these networks are usually homogenous, and investments based on existing networks perpetuate the power and resources of those already connected to funders and investors.  Finally, the processes for selecting entrepreneurs surface existing biases, whether for certain native language speakers, or names on resumes and pitches.  This is exacerbated by the “sameness” of internal funding structures.  For example, 94% of foundation presidents are white, 85% of their trustees are white, and 74% of their staff are white.

This “sameness” maintains and increases inequity across entrepreneurial systems, and blocks innovative solutions. To overcome it, and open investments and resources to a diverse entrepreneurship panel, the Skoll World Forum panel advocated for a multi-pronged approach of awareness, assimilation, and transformation.

First, funders must acknowledge and measure the types of inequality in their current systems.  Marco suggested that funders collect and publish data on the currently invisible biases in their systems, such as the diversity of their investment pipelines, the barriers faced by “un-same” applicants, and their own internal diversity metrics of the board, leadership, and staff.

Second, we must assimilate underrepresented groups into the current systems of funding and investment, breaking the cycle of “sameness”. Funders, incubators, and other ecosystem players must diversify the players in the room.  To do this, Hella suggested government bills to enforce diversity standards in board and leadership composition.  Hella and Marco also advocated for investor actions, such as simplifying language and requirements, providing unrestricted funding, and extending funding timelines, to improve accessibility of investments to diverse applicants.  Finally, Marco and Vedika promoted intermediary roles and events, such as “serendipity meetings” or pitch coaching, to introduce diverse entrepreneurs to existing funders.

Finally, we must transform the current systems by removing biases of “sameness”. This is a very challenging task, and there are no final or proven solutions.  However, Cheryl recommended some emerging opportunities, such as blind screening of initial applications, mindfulness training for investing staff, and leveraging AI and machine-learning algorithms to further decrease human biases.

The current invisible barriers to capital for entrepreneurs, driven by a pernicious bias towards “sameness,” prevent talented entrepreneurs from accessing critical capital and support, and limit the generation of creative and effective solutions.  The panel highlighted that the solutions to these underlying biases are multi-faceted, and evolving, and called each of us to act on the above steps, and to innovate new opportunities to overcome “sameness” and promote investment equality.

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Journeys of Adversity Diversity, University Necessity!

Oxford’s Fierce Compassion – Series of Student Insights to the Skoll World Forum 2016.

MBA student and Skoll Scholar, Deborah Owhin gives her perspective on the Skoll World Forum seminar session ‘Leading Through Adversity’.

Adversity is defined as a difficult situation or condition: associated with misfortune or tragedy!

In this all-female panel, the discussion moved from the journeys of personal leadership challenges to family upbringing to what is ahead. The panellist spoke openly and candidly on their hopes and beliefs on women’s leadership roles in public life. In the imminent future panellist such as Mary Robinson is involved in the campaign to seeing the next Secretary-General of the United Nations while Halla Tomasdottir is currently in the Presidential race to be the next President of Iceland!

After the session I had the opportunity to spend a few minutes with each of the panel and asked them all 2 questions

Being a student I’m often intrigued by a range of academic studies and so I asked the panel if they had the chance to go back to school today, what subject would they study and why?

The second question was I posed was; in hindsight of the journey that you have experienced thus far in life, if you had the opportunity to meet and speak to your 12-year-old self what would you tell her to keep her going and achieve the potential….

Their responses are as followed….

Mary Robinson

  1. “I would find it necessary to focus on human rights development and climate justice. These are existential threat to all of us and I am truly focused on these issues. I would have liked to have become involved in work on this at an earlier age. So a degree would give me a broader perspective”
  1. “My 12-year-old self was VERY shy, I would say get a hold of yourself….I used to block…I would force myself 12 year old self to debate, to help me get over the shyness. I overcame my shyness at University where I still attempted to block but found ways to get out of the shell.”

Halla Tomasdottir

  1. “I would go back to study social entrepreneurship. The only way we can solve the many pressing issues we have in the world today is through building mission driven businesses. I believe in the power of that model. The idea of triple bottom line sits well with my values and I did not learn that during my time as an MBA student which was international.”
  1. “I have a 12-year-old daughter, and when I was 12 years old we had our first female President in Iceland. So talking to my 12-year-old self is very meaningful. I would say to her… be you… never let anyone ever tell you that you are not enough… that you are not okay exactly as you are… that you have been created in that perfect way to be you. Halla, lots of people will tell you that you should be that or this but always have the courage to listen to what is inside of you and trust that intuition. You may cheat on your intuition but your intuition will never cheat on you not even when you are 12.”

Reverend Mpho Tutu

  1. “When I was in school I really went through as scenic route through my academic career. So I started off studying fine arts then engineering and then theology. I have explored a number of fields. So if I go back to school now I would go for something that I have not studied yet like dance. To be able to integrate my creativity with my academics. It would be a modern type of dance or ballet.”
  1. “I would tell my 12-year-old self that she is going to be a phenomenal woman. That’s all.”

Pat Mitchell

  1. “I would love to study international relations because I have spent the majority of the last 20 year of my life travelling the world and promoting global sisterhood. I would have love to have started that earlier in my life and reflecting on it going deeper into the subject area would have been beneficial.”
  1. “To my 12-year-old self I would say; stay curious. Keep knocking on doors and asking questions. It is important to foster a spirit of curiosity as a child as so one is not limited in their view of the world.”

Alaa Murabit

  1. “My first thought is that I would NOT go back to school at 25 I feel like I am ALL schooled out! I have studied medicine and then got an Executive Masters in International Strategy and Diplomacy at LSE. But if I really had to go back to school I would study Life Ethics, and develop my life skills in this course where you get exposed to your civil rights, how to balance your books etcetera, but I am good at Karaoke!”
  1. “My 12-year-old self wanted so much better for me. I had the opportunity to open a time capsule that I did in grade 8 when I was 12 when I was 22 which was 3 years ago. My time capsule said that I would have a yellow VW Beetle, I would be married with a child and 3 cats and I would be the President of the Hospital. I watched the TV show E.R. a lot and always wanted the role of the chief of surgery but just didn’t know what it was called back then.

I would tell my 12-year-old self to listen to listen to my parents, not to listen to kids in school if they were mean and to stick to what she believes in and to take risk. There were so many things that I wanted to do at 12 but was told I could which I regret.

“I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.” – Nelson Mandela

The panellist all share a similar sentiment in that their family upbringing played a vital role in shaping them into the leaders they had each become as adult women working across the world to bring about positive change in the lives of women and girls. When she could not access the ready-made platforms that political leaders used to make decisions that affected her, Alaa saw the need to create her own for Libyan Women. Reverend Mpho Tutu’s environment shaped her and gave her the courage to stand for what she believes which lead other religious leaders to support her.

If you could speak to your 12-year-old self today what would you tell her or him?

I would say to you all take the time your relationships deserve because all you have is today do not waste time, be passion filled and willing to take risk.

There are millions of 12-year-olds out there waiting to hear your story have the courage and boldness to share the journey of who you are and how you have not only faced but overcome adversity.

Remember there are no leaders who have not faced times of adversity, what has shaped them is how they chose to overcome adversity.

Follow Deborah: @DeborahOwhin

Afro-diasporic linkages & Entrepreneurship Education

Tracker & Alpha Phi Alpha’s ‘Men in the Making’ Program

Sabre Collier is a Skoll Scholar and a Shell Foundation Fellow. This is the third in her series of posts from Johannesburg, where she is working with GroFin. GroFin finances small and medium enterprises (SMEs) in Africa.

Tara Sabre Collier

Tara Sabre Collier

Africa is championed as the globe’s next economic frontier, with capital flows reaching all-time highs.  Yet this glorious FDI boom has a major pitfall.  Poverty at the grassroots level has barely budged in the past decade, largely because Africa’s economic expansion has created insufficient jobs.   Today, the region has some of the world’s worst unemployment rates, which has dangerous implications for the next generation.

Reportedly, over 600 million jobs need to be created by 2020 just to keep employment levels the same in the developing world.   With half its population below 25, sub-Saharan faces a demographic dividend like no other.  The risks that youth unemployment portend for delinquency, crime, violence and even terrorism have already been flagged in academic and multilateral research.  We know we can’t depend on manufacturing or services sectors to employ all these youth and much must be done to transform the agricultural sector for adequate income generation.

In urban Africa, many of these youth have already decided to take life by the horns and become self-employed.  But it’s been proven that entrepreneurs of necessity rarely make major economic leaps forward.  It’s a problem that governments, NGOs and international development agencies all recognize and have been rushing to solve, in a flurry of advisory services, innovations, policy recommendations, incubators, etc.

South Africa has one of Africa’s most developed entrepreneurial ecosystems, as far as enterprise training, incubation and start-up capital, which is why it’s so frustrating that SA’s youth unemployment rate is actually still the 3rd highest in the world.  Better harmonization and new solutions must be developed to grow entrepreneurship and the private sector inclusively, in order to avert a crisis here.

The African diaspora is a huge untapped resource in this push for sustainable entrepreneurial and business development in Africa.

Why are Afro-diasporic linkages so compelling to promoting entrepreneurship and private sector growth in countries like South Africa?

Well, firstly, the African diaspora is huge! In the Americas alone, the Black population is nearly 200 million, with 40 million US African-Americans and nearly 100 million Afrodescendant Brazilians.  Also, the global African migrant population is 140 million, mostly in Europe and the Americas. In addition, Afrodescendants and the rest of the global African diaspora bring immense financial and human capital that can accelerate Africa’s trajectory.  For example, the value of remittances from African Diaspora migrants far exceeds all development aid from the entire Western world .  And this is just pure transfers, it does not even consider the regenerative potential from business linkages between Africa and the African diaspora. Moreover, the African diaspora brings high levels of tertiary education, technical skills and new commercial networks that can benefit Africa.  US African-Americans alone so economically powerful that, as a nation, their GDP would be the 16th highest in the world– imagine the potential for trade with Africa!

This is why I get so excited about organizations like Africare, Homestrings.com as well as DAIN Network that leverage Diaspora linkages to economically empower Africa.

And this is why I was enthused to discover this diasporic partnership in the form of Project Alpha, a new youth entrepreneurial training program, launched by Tracker and Alpha Phi Alpha!

african-diaspora-group

Instructors and participants of Project Alpha after a training session

Tracker’s Men in the Making partnership with Alpha Phi Alpha has leveraged African-American technical and business expertise to enrich the lives of young South African entrepreneurs, many of them entrepreneurs of necessity.  One of South Africa’s largest vehicle tracking device companies, Tracker started Men in the Making as a way to provide career guidance to high potential adolescent boys from disadvantaged backgrounds. Today, Tracker has close to 6,000 Men in the Making beneficiaries throughout the country.  As part of its Project Alpha initiative, Tracker partnered with Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity to establish a youth entrepreneurship program for at-risk South African males this year.

A bit of background about Alpha Phi Alpha: Founded in 1906, Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc. is a historically African-American collegiate association that unites African-Americans, the African Diaspora, and people of color around the world. It is embedded with the African-American community’s fight for civil rights through eminent leaders such as: W.E.B. DuBois, Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., Edward Brooke, Martin Luther King, Jr., Thurgood Marshall, Andrew Young, William Gray, Paul Robeson.  And it recently launched its South African Chapter Rho Phi Lambda.

The Men in the Making entrepreneurship program was designed by Dr. Richard Hayes, a Professor of Entrepreneurship & Management at Hofstra University and also a member of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity.  He designed the program to help youth analyse the business model canvas and then tailored for youth as well as local context.  Project Alpha’s seminars meet at the University of Johannesburg, where Professor Hayes is also coordinating an international entrepreneurship exchange program.  At the end of the course, students compete and are judged on their business plans, which this year included solar cars, organic disinfectant, smartphone app for exercise and insulated school shoes!  For the next intake, Project Alpha will integrate a social enterprise component in which participants design business models around the needs of their own communities.

In comparing the legacies of segregation and the path for inclusive development in USA and South Africa, Dr. Hayes references “middle men minorities” as being driven to entrepreneurship.  He explains,

“For groups that were excluded from mainstream economy, the only solution was to build your own.  This gave rise to “protected enclaves”- kind of like markets with limited competition because they were cloistered due to segregation.  This may have been healthy at the time but it also contradicted cooperative economics in the broader scheme of the country.  Even now, if we are not allowed to be part of the mainstream economy, through having access to jobs, one of the best solutions is to build our own economy through entrepreneurship.”

Given the size of the Base of the Pyramid market in South Africa (an estimated 50% of the population is below the poverty line), there is a huge untapped market that Dr. Hayes students are uniquely prepared to understand and to serve as entrepreneurs.  The onus is simply adequately preparing their skills and business models, and facilitating the capital and linkages to make these models a reality.

On this Dr. Hayes emphasizes

”The intellectual potential is there- now it’s just what can we put in place to cultivate it. Young African minds are not given enough credit- these are kids from the township, out in the West Rand yet with support and role models and access to the right resource, they rise to the occasion.  If placed in the right positions and given the right opportunity, there’s no limit to what they can do.”

 

Pro Mujer: Making Development Work for Women

This post was written by Nereyda Esparza, a second year MPhil student in Latin American Studies at the University of Oxford, St. Cross College.

“There’s a growing recognition…that focusing on women and girls is the most effective way to fight global poverty and extremism…The world is awakening to a powerful truth: Women and girls aren’t the problem, they are the solution.”
–    Nicolas Kristoph & Sheryl WuDunn, The New York Times

Last week, I attended a Skoll Centre Speaker Series talk hosted Lynne Patterson of Pro Mujer.

Pro Mujer is an international women’s development organization that uses microfinance to give Latin America’s poor women tools to create livelihoods for themselves and their families through business training and healthcare support.    Started in 1990 in Bolivia by Lynne  Patterson, an American schoolteacher, and Carmen Velasco, a Bolivian professor, Pro Mujer today has fully operating programmes in Bolivia, Peru, Nicaragua, Argentina and Mexico. Over the past 20 years, the organization has disbursed over US$950 million in small loans averaging US$309.

Over the course of the talk, it became clear the power Pro Mujer has to transform women’s lives. The company gives small loans to women to start up profitable business and turn the most impoverished and marginalized of women in these communities into small-scale entrepreneurs.

Not only do these loans help women become financially independent, they remind women of their value and intelligence, they raise self-esteem and create confidence.  Pro Mujer shares stories about women being too shy to speak before their business training and by the end had taken up leadership positions and became advocates of the company.

Pro Mujer in Peru Client Ana Alicia Cruz de Flores. Courtesy of Pro Mujer

Pro Mujer also saw the link between healthcare and women’s vulnerablity towards poverty.  To address this, Pro Mujer also offers women access to health care and has saved the lives of thousands of women by providing essential care like pap smears for cervical cancer testing.

Yet, with so much focus on women in microfinance, and the presence of the widely popular conditional cash transfer (CCTs) programmes in Latin America whose claim to innovation is rooted in an integrated approach to poverty alleviation combining education, health and nutrition in a single intervention – what sets Pro Mujer apart?

I would argue that Pro Mujer is different in two ways.

1. Pro Mujer is truly an organization for women by women.

It not only gives women the tools necessary to become financially sustainable, it also encourages women to believe in their strengths and their abilities.  In other words, it helps “empower” women, as defined by Maxine Molyneux: empowerment is “the acquisition of capabilities which have the potential to assist women in achieving autonomy (legal and material), equality (social and personal) and voice and influence (over decisions that affect their lives).”  The women of Proj Mujer gains agency over decisions that affect their lives and even promote greater gender equality through generational changes (i.e. girls growing up in better homes and with positive role models).

CCTs, on the other hand, use women as “vehicles” for development using a traditional view of the household, where women are homemakers whose sole purpose is to provide for the family and children at home.  Women in CCT programmes have to meet “co-responsibilities” that take time away from their ability to find a job or focusing on other income generating opportunities.  In other words,  women end up working for development instead of development working for them.

2. Pro Mujer acknowledges that education is the greatest enabler in life, an essential tool for women to bring dignity and success to their lives. 

Lynne Paterson said it best in her talk: “Education is in everything that we do.  We are teachers and we wanted Pro Mujer to have education in mind in all its initiatives.” Not only does Pro Mujer teach women about financial literacy, it teaches women about the values of being a leader and the expertise that woman can bring to the table on all walks of life.

By focusing on women’s gains, health and education, Pro Mujer is setting a great example of how business has the ability to truly empower women in the developing world.
[youtube=http://youtu.be/lhpqqMz_7Qo]

Holding up Half the Sky in South Korea: but how Equitable is this “Asian Miracle”?

This post was written by Skoll Centre Director, viagra Pamela Hartigan, physician en route from Korea.

Last week I was in Colombia, this week I am in Korea.  Quite a cultural leap – but the underlying theme for my continental hops is the same:  the quest for more equitable, sustainable development for people and the planet.

I was invited to South Korea by Dr. Kim Sun-Uk, President of EWHA University, the world’s largest women’s university founded by an American missionary in 1886.  When it opened, it had one student. Today, EWHA has 11 colleges, 15 graduate schools and 25,000 enrolled students.  Talk about a social venture achieving scale! EWHA is now responsible for many female firsts in Korean history, including the first female prime minister, first PhD, first medical doctor, and first attorney, plus has produced half of Korea’s female ministers.

I was invited to deliver the keynote at the 125th celebration of the University’s lecture series which this year focuses on social entrepreneurship.  It is early days still in this country for this field of practice, and the Korean government, in its haste to support what seems to be a good thing in the wake of the 1997 Asian financial crisis, passed the Social Enterprise Promotion Act in 2007 that defines social entrepreneurship as the practice of providing employment and services particularly to the disabled or otherwise marginalised. When I was in Korea last June, the organizers of my visit were enormously proud of this law.

However, on this trip, I listened to several of the more widely tapped-in Koreans talk about the unfortunate result of this well-intentioned law for the evolution of social entrepreneurship in the country.  As part of the law, the government offers to subsidize the salaries of the disadvantaged a venture employs for two years.

So you can imagine, anyone who wants to set up or who already has set up a business, will run out and employ such people just to qualify as a “social enterprise”.  But when the two-year subsidy is up, the business collapses.  Pressure is being brought to bear on the government to reconsider this law, given the rate of failure of these enterprises and the distortions it produces.

In this scenario, the concept of innovation and systems change has been stripped out of the South Korean definition of social entrepreneurship completely. As such,  it was a welcome surprise to learn that EWHA’s mission is to support its graduates to be “change makers” (and that was before Ashoka).

In preparing for my keynote, I spent time reading about the country, its history and society and about EWHA.

The data doesn't look promising for South Korean women. Image from the WEF 2010 Gender Gap Report

First of all, I was quite surprised to read that despite the fact that this country’s women are well-educated and blessed with optimal maternal health services, the Gender Gap Report of the World Economic Forum and the United Nations both rank South Korean gender empowerment among the lowest in the world, with the WEF report in 2010 ranking South Korea in 104th place among 134 countries.

All the more perplexing is the fact that the United Nations Fund for Population Activities (UNFPA) reports that in 2009, South Korea had the world’s second lowest birthrate, yet only about half of adult women were participating in economic activity.  So if Korean women are having fewer babies, and they are not working, my conclusion from afar was that either they are bored to death sitting at home, or they are elderly.

To add to this puzzle, the 2009 Global Innovation Index  ranks South Korea as the most innovative country in the world, with the USA coming in second.

What is going on here, I wondered? 

If, according to the WEF report, women are not participating fully in the labor force and are excluded from career development opportunities, does this mean that almost all innovation in South Korea is spearheaded by men?  I cannot imagine that to be true.  But if it is, then currently Korea is unwittingly denying itself a great deal of its potential for sustainable development.  And EWHA has assigned itself an ambitious goal in seeking to have all its women graduates be innovators.

A conversation during this visit with Professor Hae-Joang Cho, a well-regarded anthropologist at Yonsei University, was quite sobering (and I am in incurable optimist, so that is saying something).  No, she objected.  Korean women are not sitting at home bored to death.  They are working very hard – managing the lives of their children.  She described how many Korean women, upon university graduation, go into the workforce, foregoing marriage, but by the time they are 35 years of age, with little prospects for career advancement through the male-dominated bureaucratic ladder, they find themselves wondering why they pursued the career track when they might have been more fulfilled, and certainly less lonely, with a husband and children.

Those who do marry, she said, seek their own personal fulfilment through their children.  Every waking hour is spent orchestrating their children’s lives, tutoring them after school and over vacations to ensure they excel in their studies.

Professor Cho noted that a recent study of Korean children had found that few had friends.  Their best friend was their mother because she was omnipresent in every aspect of their lives.  Thus, even those children who have the potential to be “changemakers” – which entails bucking the status quo and embarking on seemingly unreasonable pursuits – are deterred from doing so because of the unbearable thought of having betrayed the one person who sacrificed her life so that they would excel in traditional, accepted roles.

So indeed, EWHA’s work to fulfil its mission is certainly daunting.  I also wondered whether in a male dominated society, an all-women’s university had to be rethought.  If gender barriers are going to be lifted, doesn’t it make more sense to integrate men and women on equal terms in the classroom, in the hopes that as they move into the workplace, they will appreciate the strength of diversity?

When I left Seoul today for the long trek back to London, I could not help wondering where the levers for gender-focused systems change lie in South Korea.