GREAT Women in ASEAN Initiative Launch

Dato’ Hafsah,

Thank you for all your hard work in uplifting women.

Ladies and Gentlemen, it is my true pleasure to be with you today to launch the GREAT Women in ASEAN initiative.  When I first heard that there was a brand called “Great Women,”

I didn’t realize it was an acronym.  But now I know, of course, that “GREAT” stands for “Gender Responsive Economic Actions for the Transformation of Women.”

That’s a bit long of a name, but GREAT is indeed the best way to describe this program.  This initiative supports majority women-owned enterprises, women entrepreneurs and women artisans in Southeast Asia who develop products and services under fair-employment and fair-trade conditions.

The GREAT Women in ASEAN initiative will help companies to grow to reach new markets, and to take advantage of the ASEAN Economic Community’s regional platform.  GREAT Women will be a brand name that will help entrepreneurs and companies.

But initiatives like this to provide inclusive market access are also good for the economy.  As small and medium-sized enterprises are 96% of all enterprises in the region, SMEs, like those participating in the GREAT Women in ASEAN initiative—will be a critical part of ASEAN’s ongoing economic integration.

Now, I want to I admit up front that I am not a big shopper.  I generally try to avoid shopping, in fact.  But this brand is going to change my ways.  As long as I can buy things labeled “GREAT Women” I promise from now on to be an enthusiastic shopper!

So why do we need an initiative like this?

Women make up a little over half the population.  But their contribution to economic growth is far, far below its potential.  The Global Gender Gap Report of the World Economic Forum assessed 142 countries, including 9 out of 10 ASEAN Member States.  It looked at women’s economic participation, educational opportunity, heath and political empowerment compared to men.  The Report makes clear that no country in the world has fully closed the gender gap.

The average Gender Participation Gap in Southeast Asia is around 27%, which isn’t as bad as some regions, but it’s not great either. The good news, though, is that we have achieved significant progress in recent decades.  For example, 25 countries in the world have fully closed the gender gap in education and in 35 countries, men’s and women’s health is comparable.  The Philippines is among the champions in both of these categories.

Actually, the Philippines ranked 9th out of 142 countries in their efforts to close the gender gap.  The Philippines is setting a good example for other nations to follow.  Including mine, which is ranked 20th.

Although differences between female and male labor force participation have narrowed, labor markets across the world still remain divided along gender lines. Global average female labor force participation is around 50% while it is around 70% for men.  When women are employed, they earn much less for the same work than their male colleagues, about 30% less globally, with a higher differential in many countries.

Distortions and discrimination in the labor market restrict women’s options for paid work, and female representation in senior and leadership positions and in entrepreneurship remains low.

One of the conclusions of the World Economic Forum Report is that no countries have closed either the economic participation or political empowerment gender gap.

For example, the average percentage of women in parliament is around 22% globally, and for female ministers – less than 18%.

While someof the ASEAN Member States are slightly above the low global average when it comes to the number of women in parliament, all ten countries are below this average when it comes to the number of female ministers in their governments unfortunately.

In Vietnam, 33% of managers are women.

In Thailand’s listed companies, less than 10% of board directors are women.

Women are rarely found in the board rooms or management offices of major companies either in ASEAN or in countries, like mine, where there are few legal barriers to women, this gap persists.

I was on a panel of women ambassadors recently and one of them raised the phenomenon of “cloning.”  That is, that bosses tend to hire people who look like them.  And many studies have shown that even when there isn’t overt discrimination against women, or laws that discriminate, that many people, including women, have an unconscious bias that favors male job candidates.

The IMF Managing Director Christine Lagarde tells the story of being interviewed for her current job by the IMF executive board, which includes 24 members representing 188 countries, she was the only woman in the room.  But old attitudes didn’t prevail in that case because now she runs the place.

These inequalities are major issues.  But they are issues worth tackling, because volumes of research show that the more women are educated and join the work force, the more societies improve.

Investing in women has a well-documented multiplier effect.  Women reinvest a large portion of their income in their families and communities.  It’s not that men don’t care for their families–they do– but research has found that women reinvest about 90% of their incomes in their children rather than themselves whereas men put 30-40% into their household.

That means healthier kids with better educations, and that, in turn means a stronger community. So the T in GREAT doesn’t stand for the transformation of women alone, but the transformation of entire societies.

As U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said “No country can get ahead if it leaves half of its people behind.  The world’s most pressing economic, social and political problems simply cannot be solved without the full participation of women.”

There is another important reason for initiatives like GREAT.  And that is because when women are educated and enter the workforce, economies grow.  Women’s economic participation promotes agricultural productivity, enterprise development and enhanced returns on investment.

A recent UN Women report concluded that, in the Asia-Pacific region alone, removing barriers to full participation of women in the workforce could boost GDP by $89 billion U.S. dollars every year.  Think about that – $89 billion dollars – EVERY YEAR.  One of the major barriers for women’s participation in the workforce, including as entrepreneurs, is education.

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, OECD, reports that the fact more women became educated accounts for about 50 percent of the economic growth in developed countries over the past 50 years.  That is really astounding, when you think about it.

Women getting educated accounted for half the growth in developed economies.

The bad news is that globally, 62 million girls are not in school,and therefore their countries’ economies are not growing as they could. That is why President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama are leading the U.S. government’s efforts to help adolescent girls around the world attend and complete school through the Let Girls Learn initiative.  Let Girls Learn will expand support for basic education for girls.

And another key part of Let Girls Learn is to encourage and support community-led solutions to reduce barriers preventing adolescent girls from completing their education.  Once educated women do get into the workforce, research shows that increasing leadership opportunities for women is very good for business.

A McKinsey study estimated that companies with three or more women in senior management positions score higher in all dimensions of organizational effectiveness—such as motivation and accountability.  Christine Lagardhas said that companies with several female directors on their boards and women in their top management are more profitable, and offer a better return to their shareholders.

A different McKinsey survey backs her up.  It found that companies whose leadership roles were more gender-balanced were more likely to report financial returns above their national industry median.  These companies also did a better job recruiting and retaining talented workers.

These studies are very clear.  Adding women to the workforce, and to leadership positions, makes basic bottom line economic sense for companies and for societies.  We no longer have to work very hard to make this case for women’s inclusionit is proven and it is real.

So how do we unlock this enormous potential?

First, governments must lead.  The US government is working to break down obstacles and provide opportunity for women and girls use their energy, their passions, and their talents to be the best that they can be.  That’s what we mean by “empowerment.”  It means that there is a level playing field so that women have equal opportunities to thrive.

One of the specific things the United States is supporting with partner governments is the removal of legal barriers that prevent women from participating in the economy, such as tax structures that fail to treat women equally. Legal barriers are a very real and persistent challenge. For example, 79 countries have laws that restrict the types of jobs that women can do.  Governments need to act but we also need commitments from the private sector.

I was disheartened to learn something from a study USAID did as it begins to implement a workforce development program for youth in the Mekong region.

A survey of companies in Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam showed that over 40% of employers report that the gender of an employee affects their selection for skilled labor positions.

In other words, they would prefer to hire men for more skilled work and women for unskilled or secretarial functions.  As a result, women participate in the skilled labor force at rates much lower than men in the Mekong region. These economies would improve if these mindsets changed.

Third, we need to improve access to credit for women. Often legal barriers and cultural norms inhibit women from accessing capital compared to men. This is not only a missed market opportunity for financial institutions, but also an enormous constraint on women’s ability to achieve the financial stability they need to grow a business, raise crops, or protect against shocks.

USAID has just entered a partnership with some of ASEAN’s largest banks to fund research grants to study how to improve access to capital for SMEs.

We will target part of this program to explore the particular issues women may face in Southeast Asia in accessing capital.

Beyond all the facts and figures, each and every one of you in this room knows the difference economic opportunity can make in a very personal way.  You are all trying to do what we all try to do in life – make a living, care for our families, and explore and develop our talents and capabilities.

By being an entrepreneur yourself or promoting other women entrepreneurs, each of you is helping to tear down the barriers that deny women and, in turn, families, communities and societies, a better chance at economic stability and prosperity.

You are replacing those barriers with opportunities for women to start their businesses, to obtain credit, take advantage of modern technology, and find new customers at home and abroad.

Thank you for what you are doing for yourselves, your kids, your communities, your countries and for ASEAN.

One of my top priorities as U.S. Ambassador to ASEAN is to promote opportunities for women in ASEAN.  This GREAT initiative is just one of the ways that we are doing that.  There are other very important issues in this region that we are working with ASEAN to address.

We are supporting the implementation the ASEAN Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women and the Elimination of Violence Against Children. We are supporting ASEAN to establish a common approach to supporting the victims of trafficking in persons.  We are promoting women in science through an ASEAN-U.S. Science and Technology Fellows program and the ASEAN-U.S. Women’s Science Prize.

And we will continue to look for ways to work with governments and the private sector on all aspects of women’s empowerment – economic, political and social.

We have been blessed with many partners that have made this GREAT Women initiative real.

I am so pleased that we are working directly with those of you who founded the GREAT Women brand in the Philippines.  I am excited by our cooperation with the ASEAN Women Entrepreneurs Network and with U.S. businesses through the U.S.-ASEAN Business Alliance for Competitive SMEs.  I am grateful for the collaboration with ASEAN governments through the ASEAN SME Working Group.

It is through all of these partnerships that we will now be able to work with so many women-owned businesses and women artisans to make the GREAT Women brand an ASEAN-wide platform.

There are three ways in which GREAT Women will a have major impact on women’s opportunity in ASEAN.

First and foremost, GREAT Women is about business growth.  But in particular, it is about smart business growth.  A core goal of the initiative is to protect the intellectual property of the unique products inspired by culture and traditional manufacturing.

Second, GREAT Women is promoting the traditions and cultures that are so rich and vibrant here in Southeast Asia.  The brand is marketing hand-made artisanal products, which are very often those that provide direct support to local communities.  Participants are championing the use of natural and organic ingredients, and eco-friendly production processes and packaging.

While we all know this makes sense for a better world, we also know many of today’s consumers value these attributes in the products they purchase.  So it makes sense for the bottom line, too.

Third, there is tremendous value in opportunities for partnership and learning.  Participants in GREAT women will gain an immediate network of other business-women for mutual exchanges and potential business partnerships.  They will also have access to technical resources through alliances with universities, trade and industry associations and multi-national companies.  We know that businesses which continue to learn and explore new products and services, as well as new partnerships, are the ones that grow.

I’d like to recognize the amazing women that got all of this all started.  Jeannie Javelosa, Regina Francisco and Pacita Juan are pioneers who saw the opportunity to advance women’s opportunity in very practical ways.  GREAT women, please stand.

These ladies realized that a single brand would help capture the spirit of women entrepreneurs who were keeping traditions alive. They realized that commerce with a purpose would not only make women’s lives better, but would contribute to the stability of households and communities.

And I’d also like to recognize the vision of the team from USAID, who saw the regional potential of the GREAT Women brand.  I thank you all for your dedication in promoting SME development in ASEAN.

And finally, I’d like to thank the ASEAN SME Working Group and the US-ASEAN Business Council and its members for the continued shared commitment, including the collaboration to create the GREAT Women in ASEAN initiative.

“Great” is a loaded term and comes with a sense of responsibility for achieving something important.  I know that I have great expectations for your products, your businesses and your communities.  I want GREAT to do great.  To flourish and to be a brand our daughters can use and buy, all round the region and the world.

So let’s achieve something great together.  I know when I go shopping that I will look for the GREAT brand.

One ASEAN, one brand:  GREAT Women.

Thank you.