With 1 billion women entering the workforce by 2023, it is critical for organizations to focus their development efforts on this growing demographic.
In short, the return-on-investment in women's economic advancement is exponential. Beyond gender equality, benefits include significant gross domestic product (GDP) growth (Egypt, in particular, would see its GDP grow by 34 percent), increased literacy rates, and lower infant mortality rates.
Working women also tend to invest more in the education of their children (creating a ripple effect from the positive social and economic impact these children would have), and bring diverse perspectives to the workplace. Booz & Company business strategist Penny Frohling, in an interview with CNBC, warns that countries that disregard the growing evidence in favor of women in the workplace will quickly get left behind. "Countries cannot afford to ignore over 50 percent of their talent pool," she says.
The obstacles women are facing, while varying in size across countries, are universal. Caregiving is perhaps the most significant barrier to female employment. Women around the world are primary caregivers for children, the sick, and the elderly. And quality, affordable childcare is not always an option: Even in the United States, childcare costs can consume more than 40 percent of a woman's salary.
Education is another barrier. Although countries need an infrastructure that supports women in the workplace through many channels—including education, finance, cultural perceptions, government policies around discrimination, the ability to own property, and political rights—"It really starts with access to education," Frohling says. She acknowledges that such access is not always indicative of economically empowered women, however. "Japan is a very good example of that—very educated women—but it isn't translating to women in the workforce, let alone in senior management positions."
Lack of financial support is another common obstacle. While microfinancing has helped women (particularly in developing countries) to gain entrepreneurial footing and other financial services, this approach limits small business operations to the service sector instead of helping to grow larger operations.
The report, in identifying specific "levers" countries can pull to economically empower women, calls for gender-disaggregated data that show discrepancies in men's and women's experiences as economic agents. With such quantitative data, countries can more effectively design solutions to close the gender gap and allow women to better support their national economies.