The Energy Within


 Reconfiguring the Collective Action of Women

A global shift is underway: women are reconfiguring strategies, expanding networks, and devising cohesive agendas and collective action to bolster their access and impact in securing social, cultural, economic, and political rights on a global scale. Indeed, statistical indicators allude to the place and positions that women occupy in the contemporary terrain of poverty and policy, representing 50% of the world’s population, accounting for an estimated 70% of global poverty, but holding a mere one-fifth of political seats in national governments worldwide.1 Yet these same numbers have a tendency to obscure the character and context of potential expressed in the lives of women, of the attributes and agility women have in making vital contributions to their respective communities, and in shaping the features of participatory democracy.

Centered on the perceived status of women, and in recognition of the barriers and challenges that constrain women from maximizing their full potential, the Center for Private Enterprise (CIPE)2 recently spearheaded a two-day international conference (June 20-21) to cultivate dialogues that move beyond conventional modes used to assess and understand the lives the of women and their ability to impact policy and strengthen economies. The conference, entitled “Democracy that Delivers for Women,” drew an array of women and men from economic arenas, political landscapes, and organizational sectors to identify and share challenges, explore the attributes and trends in women’s leadership, and to gather insights for action in fueling a radical shift in the economic and political empowerment of women throughout the world.

The overall premise of the conference was that the economic empowerment of women can drive broader social and political empowerment. As CIPE Deputy DirectorJean Rogers declared, “It is the ability to create one’s own step on the economic ladder that is absolutely essential to achieving social and political rights.” As a development and communications practitioner with a wildly critical edge and much experience working with women in business for over a decade, I arrived at the conference equally curious and skeptical. I have witnessed many gender-centered trends surface in development organizations and institutions evoking buzzwords like “empowerment” and “social change,” usually with good intentions. Yet, too frequently these groups fail to integrate the insights and voices of women being assisted and/or served, especially when it comes to optimizing the opportunity for women to take active roles in the decision-making process of the very initiatives meant to positively impact their lives.

Refreshingly, what I observed over two days of sessions at CIPE’s conference was a definite push to crack open this paradigm by moving women to the forefront of discussions in assessing their realities, defining their terms of empowerment, and by widening the space for women to collectively shape viable steps toward substantiating necessary and vital social change. The outcomes of the conference remain to be seen, though without a doubt a new discussion is underway.

In her opening remarks, Melanne Verveer, U.S. State Department Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women’s Issues, claimed a “spirit of cautious optimism” in describing essential principles for the empowerment of women, namely access to economic advancement and political participation. Her position presupposes that empowerment, democracy, and free-enterprise are inextricably linked to overcoming some of the most daunting obstacles women face in moving out of poverty and ascending into positions of political prominence. Without a doubt, such claims impart a particular notion of democracy associated with a U.S.-centric approach, a philosophy that promulgates the revolutionary power of free enterprise (and individualism) as an essential ingredient to achieving social and political rights.3

Assuming (or acquiescing to) a U.S.-centric model, however, risks impeding or overlooking the emergence of a non-Western conceptualization of democracy, such as the move by many non-Western governments to reserve parliamentary seats for women, minorities, and religious sects. As documented by Idea International, Uganda reserves a parliamentary seat from each of the nation’s 39 districts, while 33% of India’s local municipal positions are reserved to promote women’s presence in government. In the U.S., there are no such concessions  to empower women in politics.4

In regards to women, however, such concerns and skepticism are often irrelevant. The voices of women in both economic and political arenas—regardless of the model—remain selectively audible, at best, but for the most part their voices are entirely missing from the negotiating table. If for anything, this context provides a starting point for advancing (pragmatic) strategies that strengthen women’s inclusiveness and promotes greater gender equality in economic and political decision-making roles.

Worldwide governmental participation of women, 2010 (Woman Stats Project).


As acknowledge by New York Times best-selling author and conference panelist Gayle Tzemach Lemmon, the development of women in entrepreneurship often evolves “as a necessity for getting through impossible times,” and can serve to level the power gap between the sexes. More importantly, as revealed in her research and work in Afghanistan, she suggests that women in enterprise account for one of the most under-reported and untold stories among media and development organizations, claiming that women and enterprise is “as much as an economic story as a political story.”5 Charlotte Ponticelli, Former Senior Coordinator for International Women’s Issues at the U.S. Department of State echoes this statement: “Too many times in discussions of women, there is a separation of women’s economic and political issues,” as if the functions operate in demarcated spheres. This is particularly absurd when we consider that women’s enterprise and labor disproportionately makes up much of the informal sector, largely due to discriminatory policies and practices that complicate their move into formal markets. Whether as a result of cultural or social barriers, beliefs, stereotypes, ideologies, and/or orthodoxies, each practice prevents women from advancing (and securing) their political and economic rights.

For these reasons alone, it is imperative that any moves toward sincere and effective cultural and social change for women is not splintered into competing issues: economics and politics. As Stephanie Foster, a professor at American University and a board member of Women Thrive Worldwide, asserts, there is quantitative data showing that inserting women into politics is important in terms of steering democratic transparency and reducing corruption. Foster reminds us that we need not only consider the moves women make into elected position, but also to decipher “how are people studying women’s political participation around the globe” to show how women positively impact democratic processes.

Damn it – We Are Business Women!6

It would be unimaginable to leave aside the many other important factors that prepare and train women for successful leadership roles and effective political participation, such as education and civic engagement, mentoring and idea networks, associations, and the reach of communications. And it would also be a mistake to not remark on the “multiplier effect” of women entrepreneurs taking the lead in establishing networks of support that test our assumptions and optimize their opportunities. Mary Schnack, entrepreneur and founder of Mary Schnack and Associates and also a National Partner of Women Impacting Public Policy, has taken a pro-active stance in advocating for the rights of women-owned small business in the U.S. and internationally, understanding that in so many instances women do not realize they are leaders, or let alone that they are entrepreneurs. In witnessing the level of successes women are having in business—seeing that their lives are changing for the better—Schnack has embarked on a mission to amplify the voices of women and to propel leadership opportunities globally.

Schnack’s advocacy work presents challenges to the international development and non-profit community. She asks, “Why do we have to be a non-profit to do good? Why can’t we do business that also does good?” This question alone suggests that development agendas miss the point and fail to understand the needs of the populations they serve. In particular, local populations need real markets in which to interact, women need policy change and the grounds to express their leadership skills, and both men and women need employment. It may be, Schnack suggests, the business sector that can provide the grounds for more accountable and beneficial practices, resources, political influence, equal access, responsive outcomes, stability, and active political institutions. The business sector could be the arena where women develop their skills and provides a space where political leadership and decision-making skills are honed.

As an example, Assilah Al Harthy attests to the challenges of women doing business in Oman, where social and cultural orthodoxies, coupled with religious and political practices, fuel gender inequality and make it difficult for women to actively participate in public and private sectors. For Al Harthy, her concerns do not rest solely in providing an example for other women to follow. Rather, the goal should be “to prove yourself and push yourself, to improve, to achieve.” Indeed, Al Harthy is proving herself; in 2006, with persistence and courage, she founded Oman’s first private equity firm, Group 6, and has fulfilled an active role as board representative of the Oman Chamber of Commerce and Industry, receiving attention from both Forbes and the Oman Economic Review for the vitality of her contributions as one of the most powerful businesswomen in the Arab World. As brought forth by Alexandra Wrage, President of the anti-bribery compliance organization TRACE, women have an opportunity to “be the change they want to see,” and this requires women to take value in recognizing their attributes as agents of change.

A rally in Dhaka, Bangladesh organized by Jatiyo Nari Shramik Trade Union Kendra (National Women Workers Trade Union Centre) (Wikicommons).


The historical effects of gender disparity, however, also need to be addressed, for it remains a sensitive issue for most women. Maja Piscevic, Executive Director and Board President of the Serbian Association of Managers, notes that when it comes to gender equality, “Women do not want to talk about it; we want to be in the doing. If we talk about it, we admit we are inferior. If we do not talk about it, we can avoid accepting the disparities of power.” According to Piscevic, this is not only a result of the discriminatory challenges women face in economic and political spheres, or solely within gender relations, she also believes that one of the biggest problems women contend with “is in our heads,” and just as important for women to prioritize “the work within, the work on ourselves” to strengthen our commitments (as much as realizing our visions), to engage in being ourselves, and to accept ourselves, independently of polarizing forces.

In essence, women are no longer waiting for change. Instead, women are taking leadership in becoming the change that they envisage. As demonstrated across diverse sectors at CIPE’s conference, women (and men) came together to explore and identify cutting edge strategies for collective action that can effectively widen the channels of access for women in attaining economic and political empowerment. Through business associations and entrepreneurial networks, women are engaging in learning experiences, facilitating strategies for dialogue and interaction, asserting best practices, and honing organizational skills that will enact democratic practices that deliver. Women are reconfiguring opportunity, activating the power of associations, discovering the tactical usefulness of knowledge and idea sharing, identifying and fostering leadership from within, steering the policy community to rethink the roles of women in the public and private sectors, and stressing the necessity to align policy with actual changes.

This is a high-stakes agenda that can put optimism to the test.

Whether policy or visible change comes first is relative: women are no longer a special interest group or categorically 50% of the world’s marginalized population—women are social agents transforming the landscape, dedicated women in leadership passing the baton, technical geniuses, creative forces, diverse, and intense.

Out of necessity, women are innovating opportunity. Free enterprise is an essential resource for enabling women to ascend to positions of leadership and mobilize broader social change.

July 14, 2011

frontispiece: photo of a trade union protest in Bangladesh, via Wikicommons

1. See UNDP’s Women, Poverty, & Economics:

2. For information about the forum, see:

3. David Chavern. Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer, U.S. Chamber of Commerce: Remarks on “Democracy that Works for Women,” Washington, D.C. (June 20, 2011).

4. Women in Parliament: Beyond Numbers: (Retrieved June 30, 2011).

5. Unfortunately, this is neither a new nor a news story.

6. Mary Schnack. National Partner, Women Impacting Public Policy: Washington, D.C. (June 20, 2011).

Development, Women's Rights