As the world continues to grapple with the widespread and long-lasting global economic crisis, recent research has found that, on the whole, women have been harder hit than men. As a global company with a mission to be the company for women, this situation makes Avon’s commitment – and the economic opportunity we offer – all the more vital.
At the end of 2012, the International Labour Organization, a specialized agency of the United Nations, issued the “Global Employment Trends for Women” report, which concluded a reversal in recent gains in women’s employment since the start of the global financial crisis in 2008. In developed countries, more men lost their jobs than women, since sectors impacted in those countries were largely male dominated. And these, of course, are the countries and sectors most often reported in the news. But the worldwide impact is actually greater on women.
Earlier progress in women’s employment has “slowed, stopped or even reversed,” according to the ILO report, and the gap between women’s and men’s unemployment rate has widened since 2007 (now 6.4% for women, 5.8% for men). ILO estimates this means a loss of some 13 million jobs for women, and there are no improvements expected in the near future for women in the workplace. In developed countries, such as the U.S., there is continuing concern with the “glass ceiling” and the very real lack of women in leadership (only 4.2% of the Fortune 500 CEOs are women), but in much of the world, women are losing workplace opportunity at a much more fundamental level.
An African proverb says “women hold up half the sky.” Impacts on women’s employment opportunity and labor force participation are not “women’s issues” – they are global economic issues. Commenting on the ILO report, Michelle Bachelet, Executive Director of UN Women, stated, “While women worldwide contribute to the economy and its productivity, they continue to face many barriers that prevent them from realising their full economic potential. This is not only holding back women; it is holding back economic performance and growth.”
There are no easy answers, but there are many ways to help overcome barriers and drive more opportunity for women. Microfinance by organizations such as the Grameen Bank has helped many women launch small businesses. Direct selling, which is Avon’s business model, is estimated by the World Federation of Direct Selling Associations to provide economic opportunity to nearly 92 million individuals worldwide, and 75% are women. Six million of these direct sellers in more than 100 countries are independent Avon Sales Representatives, and the vast majority of these are women. Among them are the “Avon Ladies” of South Africa, who were studied by Oxford University and covered by CNN for their success in achieving empowerment and economic independence. On a broader cultural level, there is also the need to overcome pervasive attitudes that hold women back, such as the belief that men are better at science and math.
Here in the U.S., there is a children’s board game in which situations advance players’ pieces up ladders or send them tumbling down chutes. Women’s global employment is something like that game: in good times, women climb the ladder; in hard times, they are sent back down the chute. Let’s find ways to build more ladders.