Opinion piece by: Sola David-Borha, Chief Executive of Africa Regions at Standard Bank Group
Africa’s economic recovery can be meaningfully accelerated if policymakers and the private sector step up their efforts to empower women – a group that accounts for more than half of the continent’s population.
While the pursuit of gender equality is primarily a moral obligation, it also makes economic sense. By denying women their full rights and opportunities, we are simply holding back growth and human development.
Interventions aimed at eliminating the economic barriers that women contend with – such as financial exclusion and unequal access to quality education – contribute positively towards poverty alleviation and social upliftment.
This means it is critical that women are better represented in policy-making positions and in executive roles in the private sector.
Although we have made decent progress in this regard over the past few decades, there is a risk that the COVID-19 pandemic will halt or even reverse some of these gains.
Far too many girls have been forced to drop out of school amid the pandemic, and this could have severe long-term consequences. Further, women are likely to bear the brunt of the economic downturn as they are more exposed to informal employment than men, and they remain overly responsible for unpaid household work.
And, at a time when access to funding is critical for the survival of many small businesses, history shows us that women entrepreneurs face significantly greater obstacles than men when it comes to accessing financial services.
To remain on track, and to ensure a rapid yet sustainable economic recovery from the global crisis, it is essential that all stakeholders play their part.
For instance, we are working to improve the representation of women in senior positions across the group. At the end of 2019, women held 37% of board positions and 40.3% of senior management positions. This represents solid progress against our multi-year targets, which include having women hold 40% of the group’s executive positions by 2023.
Internally, we have launched a range of initiatives to support the HeForShe movement. These include information sessions, debates about various aspects of gender equity, sessions to deliberately engage men in the conversation, and the ongoing focus on leadership development programmes for women.
Women are in the majority in our graduate programme, and we are using bespoke development interventions to progress women into senior roles, with a particular focus on our Africa Regions business.
We are also focusing our efforts externally, often in collaboration with other organisations. In partnership with the United Nations Economic Commission of Africa, we recently launched the African Women Impact Fund, which aims to empower women fund managers with access to capital and technical assistance.
These women asset managers will in turn invest in primarily female-owned businesses across the continent. The fund aims to raise a total of $100m.
Another initiative focuses specifically on the agricultural sector in Malawi, Nigeria, South Africa and Uganda. Working with UN Women, we are addressing gender gaps in the sector while also improving the industry’s resilience to climate change.
This programme aims to reach more than 50,000 women in three years, providing them with entrepreneurial skills and access to affordable technology to increase access to markets and finance. Our projects are supporting women in aquaculture, and in the cultivation of nuts, rice, beans and vegetables.
Importantly, these initiatives also aim to strengthen corporate governance within women-led businesses. This is crucial to the long-term success of any organisation, and will make it easier for women to access funding and grow their businesses. Investors and funding partners are increasingly concerned about environmental, social and corporate governance (ESG) issues.
As we respond to Africa’s developmental needs, Standard Bank is taking guidance from the UN Principles for Responsible Banking, which aim to align the strategies of the banking industry with society’s aspirations, as expressed by the Sustainable Development Goals and other international frameworks.
As a founding signatory of the Principles, we are focused on supporting inclusive and sustainable growth. We believe that this is only possible if Africa’s women are truly empowered.
If we succeed in our collective efforts towards gender equality, Africa’s recovery will be fast-tracked.