This is a historic week for the Bay Area and for women around the world.
The U.S. State Department hosts ministers and high-level private-sector participants of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in San Francisco this week for the largest diplomatic gathering in The City since the signing of the U.N. charter in 1945. Much of the attention of those gathered will be focused on the global status of women during the first APEC Women and the Economy Summit, with a keynote address from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
The simple fact is that no country can get ahead if it is leaving half of its people behind. A U.N. study demonstrates that, collectively, the 21 economies of the Asia-Pacific region lose between $42 billion to $47 billion in GDP annually by not tapping into women’s economic potential.
The problem is even starker globally, as nearly a billion women between the ages of 20 and 65 are considered unprepared to participate in the mainstream economy, according to the International Labor Organization.
The World Economic Forum releases an annual Global Gender Gap Report, which details the consequences of failing to invest in women. It has produced a mountain of data demonstrating that countries can choose to integrate gender equality and other social inclusion goals into their growth agendas — and have the potential to grow faster — or they undermine their competitive potential by not capitalizing fully on one-half of their human resources. The same consequences are equally true closer to home — a Wall Street Journal report concluded that women have been critical to sustaining the U.S. historic national GDP growth rate of 3 percent.
Unfortunately, women here and abroad continue to face too many barriers to fuller integration into their economies. These range from basic infrastructure shortfalls to legal, cultural and social conventions that make it difficult for a woman to get an education, get a job or start a business. For far too many aspiring entrepreneurs, access to training, markets, mentors and networks remain out of reach.
But there is good news. Many viable solutions are being employed to address the challenges. These will be highlighted at this week’s summit, including: access to capital, access to markets, capacity and skills building, and leadership. The summit led by Clinton will also address innovation, green growth, technology, entrepreneurship and public-private partnerships.
The Bay Area is a fitting location for this discussion. This region has long been an epicenter for social movements that empower women, from the World War II days of the Richmond Shipyards and Rosie the Riveter, up through the progressive movements of the ’60s and ’70s. The region is a hub of innovative small businesses, multinational corporations and world-renowned institutions of higher learning. That said, the region still has its own challenges to overcome, which is why the Bay Area Council, as the voice of the region’s business community, is working with the State Department on this historic event. The U.S. government is firmly committed to promoting economic growth and gender equality — as demonstrated by President Barack Obama’s decision to create the unprecedented position of Ambassador-at-large for global women’s issues.
Representing 53 percent of the world’s economy, it is crucial that the APEC economies lead by example and focus on women’s economic empowerment.
State Department data show that women invest as much as 80 percent of their incomes in their families and communities — leading to reduced poverty, increased education, better access to health care and stronger overall economies. Our countries and our economies, whether at home or across the Pacific, have everything to gain and can no longer afford to overlook the benefits of investing in women and removing barriers to their success.
Melanne Verveer is Ambassador-at-large for the Office of Global Women’s Issues at the State Department. Jim Wunderman is president and CEO of the Bay Area Council, which is hosting the APEC and WES gathering.