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    Strong Women, Strong World


    International Trade Forum - Issue 3-4/2008 

    Illustration by Giles Kershaw 

    By involving women in national economic policy, Canada is forging a model for empowering women and building the strength of domestic and global marketplaces.

    Women are stepping forward as never before. They are becoming leaders, financial managers, business strategists, risk-takers and entrepreneurs.

    Canadian business and government are embracing this involvement, with an understanding that women and women-led businesses are an increasingly potent global economic force. 

    Canadian women and micro-enterprise 

    Canada is a world leader in the area of women's entrepreneurship. A recent study showed that Canadian women are among the most entrepreneurial of all Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries. Over the past two decades, Canada has witnessed an increase in women's entrepreneurship of over 200%.  Since 1997, women in Canada have started small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) at about twice the rate of men. Industry Canada reports that in 2004, 47% of all Canadian SMEs were owned to some degree by women.

    A recent Royal Bank of Canada study showed that if women experienced the same opportunities and labour market circumstances as men, personal incomes would be $168 billion higher, an additional 1.6 million women would be employed in Canada and the gross domestic product would increase by 21%. Numbers like these should make government leaders, economists and business people sit up and listen. But do they?

    Another recent study, Gender Challenges for Women in the Canadian Advanced Technology Sector, showed that dramatically fewer women than men break into senior corporate management. The study, published by the University of Ottawa's Telfer School of Management in association with the Canadian Advanced Technology Alliance's Women in Technology Forum, examined gender differences in enterprise creation, management practices and business performance.

    Address work-life balance

    The study shows that work-life balance is one of the main challenges to women's success in the advanced technology sector, for both employees and entrepreneurs. In fact, 60% of businesswomen surveyed cited work-life balance among their top three challenges, along with inadequate leadership skills and a shortage of women mentors.   While more women are becoming owners of SMEs, women-owned firms are generally smaller, newer, more concentrated in service industries and, on average, less profitable than SMEs owned by men. Canadian women exporters generate almost 40% of their sales in foreign markets. Women-owned firms do business with Canada's most important trading partners: the United States, Asia and Europe. Not surprisingly, the United States is the dominant market, where 74% of Canadian exporters are making sales. Following close behind, 60% of exporters report activity in Asia and 58% sell in Europe. While the number of women exporters continues to grow, more than half (57%) of women exporters in Canada indicate that they encounter gender-specific export challenges. The two most commonly cited examples are cultural differences and not being taken seriously as business owners.

    Creating conditions for women's success

    Since its creation in 1976 to "coordinate policy with respect to the status of women and administer related programmes", Status of Women Canada (SWC) has worked alongside its governmental, non-governmental and private sector partners to influence policies and major initiatives that have significantly benefited women and girls in Canada.  

    At the helm is newly appointed Minister of State (Status of Women), Helena Guergis. With a proven interest in women's issues, and as a former small business owner herself, Ms Guergis becomes the minister responsible for this small but vibrant organization as it emerges from a period of dramatic change and redevelopment. Recognizing that a considerable gender gap remained in many aspects of Canadian life, SWC began modernizing and streamlining to make itself more accountable to the Canadian public, to be more responsive to changing needs of Canadian women and men and specifically to address barriers to women's full participation in all aspects of Canadian life. SWC's strategic direction is now three-pronged: to improve women's economic security and prosperity; to enhance women's personal safety and security; and to encourage women's participation in leadership and decision-making roles.

    SWC promotes women's ownership in the workforce, encourages their participation in non-traditional careers and helps to ensure equal access to employment and parental benefits. This means supporting women's entrepreneurship effectively and in very concrete ways, domestically as well as globally. In this respect, SWC collaborates with its partners to assist women in improving their financial and economic literacy, developing business and leadership skills, gaining access to mentors and achieving success in the economy and in society.

    SWC enhances women's personal safety and security by influencing government policies and programmes, and funding commercial and non-profit organizations to carry out projects that meet the needs of girls and women, particularly in the areas of violence, economic prosperity and leadership development. Notable among SWC's partners is the Native Women's Association of Canada and its bold, grass-roots Sisters in Spirit initiative, which confronts violence against aboriginal women head on.

    SWC encourages women's participation in leadership and decision-making roles by intensifying partnerships with governments, the private sector and the broader Canadian public to ensure women are fully represented at corporate and government decision-making tables. An active proponent of leadership training for women, SWC promotes opportunities for girls and women to acquire the skills they need to wield influence in the corridors of power and the global marketplace.

    There are new partnerships with key government departments, particularly those with a clear role in the day-to-day lives of Canadian girls and women. Not surprisingly, some of SWC's strongest working relationships are with federal economic and social affairs agencies. One of the most fruitful and mutually beneficial relationships is with the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade (DFAIT). In January 2008, DFAIT sponsored a Canadian businesswomen's trade mission to Jamaica and Barbados. Ms Guergis, who was then Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs and International Trade, led the very successful mission.

    Partners in women's prosperity

    In Canada, one challenge for SMEs is to sort through the many resources and programmes available for those who meet particular needs. This can be daunting for non-traditional women entrepreneurs.  

    Ten years ago, in response to global marketing trends, changing demographics, growing interest among women in flexible self-employment and rapid advances in technology, the Government of Canada created export promotion programmes to educate women about international trade opportunities and give them a leg up in international markets. Since then, DFAIT has sponsored a series of all-women trade missions to a number of cities in the United States (Washington DC, Los Angeles, Chicago), as well as to Australia, the United Kingdom and, as noted previously, Jamaica and Barbados. The missions have given participants a chance to familiarize themselves with local markets, experience different business cultures, network with business contacts and develop their international business know-how.

    By the time Ms Guergis led the women's trade mission to Jamaica and Barbados in January 2008, she had a long list of political achievements, both as a member of Cabinet and, before that, as an opposition party critic on world issues and international trade. After serving as Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of International Trade from January 2006 to January 2007, she was promoted to Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs and International Trade (with additional responsibilities for amateur sport). One of her priority files was women in trade. In June 2008, as part of the Government of Canada's efforts to heighten awareness of supplier diversification, she led another businesswomen's trade mission, this time with a group of women from eastern Canada active in the food industry, to Philadelphia and New York.

    Among its various efforts to create the conditions for women's prosperity, SWC is currently working with partners to explore the potential for women business owners to be certified by WEConnect Canada (see related article, page 28), a newly formed women's business enterprise. (A women's business enterprise is a company that is at least 51% owned, managed and controlled by one or more women. The concept was developed by the US Women's Business Enterprise National Council.) Supplier diversity enhances trading opportunities for under-represented groups including women, minorities and aboriginal people. For Canadian businesswomen seeking to expand, certification would open the door to supply chains in the United Kingdom and the United States.

    Women and global entrepreneurship - trading in equality

    Many examples exist of initiatives to expand the ranks of businesswomen, women managers and women entrepreneurs throughout the developed and developing worlds.

    For example, in March 2008, Goldman Sachs announced it will invest $100 million over five years in a global initiative it calls "10,000 Women". The project will form partnerships between universities in the United States and Europe and business schools in countries with struggling economies, such as Afghanistan, Egypt, India, Kenya, Nigeria, Rwanda and Tanzania, to provide 10,000 women with high-quality business and management training. Goldman Sachs is currently developing similar partnerships in the United States to serve disadvantaged women within its own borders.

    Meanwhile, voices of organizations like The International Alliance for Women (TIAW) are increasingly difficult to ignore. With more than 50,000 members worldwide, TIAW "unites, supports and promotes professional women and their networks to work together, share resources and leverage ideas" to foster economic empowerment for women. The winner of this year's TIAW World of Difference Lifetime Achievement Award is Haifa Al Kaylani, the founder of the Arab International Women's Forum. "This award recognizes each year the extraordinary achievements of one powerful woman and affirms the power within every individual to make all the difference in the world in the betterment of women," said Ms Al Kaylani. (see article on page 41).

    Women entrepreneurs and the future

    By creating the conditions for women's prosperity, both domestically and internationally, SWC and its partners are helping to ensure continued prosperity for the whole nation. The more opportunities we provide and the easier we make it for women to start businesses, maintain them and expand into global markets, the stronger we make our economy. In these uncertain times - indeed in what some are calling a global economic crisis - the growing ranks of well-trained and highly motivated Canadian women entrepreneurs are poised to affect - significantly and positively - the outcome. 

    The will is there. Our work lies now in positioning women front and centre in the global marketplace.


    Clare Beckton is a lawyer, author, academic and career civil servant. Since joining the Human Rights Section of Canada's Department of Justice in 1984, Ms Beckton's career with the Government of Canada has been on a sharp incline. She took time out in 2005 to complete an MPA (Master of Public Administration) with a focus on leadership at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government as a Fulbright Scholar, and has now been appointed to the Kennedy School's Women's Leadership Board. In 2008 she received the Woman of the Year Award from the Federated Press for "exceptional achievement and outstanding leadership by a Canadian woman", and she was also recently named one of Canada's "Top 100 Women" by the Women's Executive Network.

    As coordinator and deputy head of Status of Women Canada, Ms Beckton brings her skills and experience to a wide range of domestic and international forums, such as the Women Leaders Network, a pivotal body that advises Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation leaders on gender issues and ensures women are considered in the development of regional economic and trade policies and perspectives.

    The expert team at SWC also includes deputy coordinator Dawn Nicholson-O'Brien, an innovator with many years of experience in the development of public-private partnerships; senior policy adviser Judith Gelbman, a London School of Economics-trained economist with a background in international business and recent government experience in international energy relations and global trade; and the newest member, special adviser Jill Thomson, a project proposal specialist in the areas of supplier diversity, retaining and advancing women in high-tech companies and women's democratic participation.