Women in the workforce transform economies
Published on October 27
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More women have jobs today than ever before. Not only is their share of the workforce expanding in many countries, but their economic clout is transforming communities. In Western countries, roughly 80 percent of women work outside the home, a rate that has held steady for nearly 25 years. Female labor participation is also trending higher in a number of emerging markets, including Mexico, parts of Africa and some Arab nations.

The implications are personal for women and their families, and economic on a macro level. Female contribution to global economic activity is expected to reach $18 trillion by 2018, according to the Boston Consulting Group.

“Statistically speaking, the relationship between economic opportunity for women and national competitiveness is direct and positive,” said Linda Scott, professor emeritus of marketing at the University of Oxford. “Countries that score higher in national competitiveness measures are making fuller use of their resources, and those happen to be countries where women are more fully integrated into the workplace.”

In places where women are prevented from working and running their own businesses, everybody loses out. “If religious tradition or social convention suppress the productivity of half its labor force—preventing women from freely socializing, for example, or restricting their mobility—their skills and intellects are not being fully utilized,” Scott said. “It follows then, that the country they live in will not be maximizing its economic potential.”


Women helping women

Of course even in places where women are allowed to work, they still have to face workplace gender barriers. This may be especially true for female entrepreneurs. “The opportunities are there, but I think that women have to work harder to build a startup and raise capital,” said entrepreneur Cyndi Tetro, a retail executive and chief product officer at WhiteClouds, a 3D printing company in Utah.

Thankfully because now many women have been working in long-term careers for decades, they are recently developing entrepreneurial professional networks, venture capital pools and apprenticeship programs that men have long taken for granted.

“The path becomes easier when you have mentors, guides and friends that will provide introductions, give you feedback, and help you navigate your way forward. But first you have to get out there,” Tetro said.


A virtuous cycle

As women increasingly enter and mature in the workforce, the effect on society goes well beyond added income and extends to female empowerment. Working women have a greater say in how a family’s resources are used and spent, said Noorjahan Akbar, an award-winning human rights advocate who set up the first women’s cyber cafe in Kabul, Afghanistan and founded Free Women Writers, a group of activists working on gender equality issues in Afghanistan.

“I have seen in my work in rural areas in Afghanistan that in families where a woman brings money home, she has a bigger bargaining chip and is able to negotiate more rights for herself and her daughters,” Akbar said. “Mothers who work are also more likely to support the education of their daughters because they have seen firsthand the impact economic self-sufficiency has made in their lives and the lives of those around them.”

OppenheimerFunds portfolio manager Heidi Heikenfeld said that in general, women are much more inclined to forego their own aspirational purchases to invest in their children’s education and health.

And attending school is key to unlocking women’s potential. A 2012 study from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development linked female access to education with higher rates of economic growth.

“It turns out that keeping girls between the ages of 12 and 18 in school and out of marriage is the most powerful thing you can do when it comes to impacting her health and that of her family’s,” Scott said. “Young girls suffer health consequences from early pregnancy; their children are weaker and infant mortality rates much higher. Allowing girls to get an education and keeping them out of the fertility pool not only makes them better mothers, it has a positive impact on the overall health of the nation.”


Investing in the next generation

It follows that the education market is becoming increasingly innovative, and Oppenheimer’s Emerging Markets Innovators Fund has made investments in several trailblazers. One example is Beijing-based New Oriental Education, the largest provider of private education courses in China, offering K-12 tutoring services to more than 23 million students. Another is TAL Education Group, which specializes in math and science programs, and similarly provides tutoring courses at 301 learning centers in 25 cities throughout China, where female labor participation is 64 percent.

Health care is another burgeoning area of innovation. “A lot of people simply haven’t been investing in health care,” Heikenfeld said, choosing instead telecom companies and utilities. Yet health care spending, she said, “is going to be one of the biggest growth engines in emerging markets.” Such investments demonstrate that education and health are seen as important factors that enhance the workforce and overall growth, while improving lives, one by one.

Entrepreneurs and startups that capitalize on these social changes are investing in the future. “The range of opportunity is broader than it’s ever been,” Heikenfeld said. “Emerging market companies are copying less and innovating more. They are not playing catch-up. They are changing the way that business is done in their country, in their region and around the world.”

“In the end, everyone faces a unique set of challenges,” said Kerry Schofield of Good&Co, a self-discovery platform geared toward finding the ideal workplace. “If you’re fighting unequal access and structural inequality, it’s just another hill among many to scramble over on the path to success.”

With future prosperity in mind, OppenheimerFunds leveraged its innovative perspective to launch a biometric study during the two major presidential conventions, measuring people’s levels of optimism for long-term investing. Participants rated their feelings on topics like aging, education, and technology opportunities in the developing world. Use of biometric technology helped gauge how respondents truly feel, versus what they reported they felt.

When thinking about future prosperity, female respondents were significantly more likely to be optimistic, and were aligned with men on the importance of progress in emerging markets. These results bolster the idea that education and female participation in the workforce intersect to rejuvenate communities and markets, fostering a sense of optimism about the future.

As of 11/30/16, New Oriental Education constituted 2.55 percent and TAL Education Group constituted  2.99 percent of the Emerging Markets Innovators Fund’s assets.

Foreign investments may be volatile and involve additional expenses and special risks, including currency fluctuations, foreign taxes and geopolitical risks. Emerging and developing market investments may be especially volatile.

The mention of specific companies does not constitute a recommendation by any particular fund or by OppenheimerFunds, Inc.

Carefully consider fund investment objectives, risks, charges and expenses. Visit oppenheimerfunds.com or call your advisor for a prospectus with this and other fund information. Read it carefully before investing.

OppenheimerFunds is not affiliated with The Washington Post.