> Posted by Bobbi Gray, Research Director, Grameen Foundation

We need to ensure products and services help family units, not just individuals, thrive.

Writing in 1982, about Fred Astaire, Robert Thaves wrote “Sure he was great, but don’t forget that Ginger Rogers did everything he did, backwards…and in high heels.” Since then, this quote about two legendary dancers has been used to celebrate the skills and talents of women and to demonstrate their ability to juggle complexity and pull it off gracefully.

At Grameen Foundation, we celebrate women for the potential they carry for ending poverty and hunger. In fact, some statistics suggest that if women farmers had the same resources as their male counterparts, the number of hungry people in the world could be reduced by 150 million. Beyond access to quality farm inputs, credit, and land, we also know that when women have equal access to education, health services, and business services they can thrive economically. Helping mothers be healthy before and during pregnancy also results in healthier children and more productive societies. Women are a key driving force against poverty.

But women carry a heavy burden. When both paid and unpaid work, such as household chores and caring for children, are taken into account, the United Nations estimates that women work longer hours than men—an average of 30 minutes a day longer in developed countries and 50 minutes in developing countries. A World Bank study indicates that even if women farmers had improved access to agricultural resources, their farms may still face lower productivity than men’s, because of their more limited time for farm work and management. Likewise, Anne-Marie Slaughter, author of the book Unfinished Business, highlights one of the greatest challenges for women as they strive to close the pay gap with men: the trade-offs they face balancing the care of their children with economic productivity.

With these challenges in mind, we have examined the facilitators of and challenges for success in business for micro-entrepreneurial women. In Mexico, we found that the women who were the most successful at their small business had older children or had a workable arrangement that allowed them to care for their children and their business. In Guatemala, this reality was similar. (In 2016, Grameen Foundation and Freedom from Hunger integrated under the Grameen banner. The work described here originated with Freedom from Hunger, and continues now with Grameen Foundation.)

While a woman’s desire to be an entrepreneur and her vision for her business—whether it is a small farm or a kiosk—are key drivers for her success, so too is her ability to balance work and family responsibilities. The number and age of her children help determine the amount of time she can spend on building a business.

Christy Stickney, a Center for Financial Inclusion Fellow, equally found work-life balance to be an issue in the research she conducted in Peru, Ecuador, and the Dominican Republic among micro and small business entrepreneurs. She found women were less likely to be high-growth entrepreneurs and often chose lower-growth enterprises, or played a supporting role or were joint owners of high growth businesses in order to balance priorities held at home.

Being a mother of three young children, this “truth” about the world hits home for me fairly often. The bandwidth needed to be successful at work and successful at home is tremendous. While I think we would all agree that we’re working hard to provide equal footing for women, we also have to be careful that: 1) we don’t create expectations that women can and should alone carry this burden of lifting their families and communities out of poverty; and 2) we set realistic expectations for what women with complex family lives and responsibilities can achieve.

Some globally common barriers to productivity for women are not going to fundamentally change until there are shifts in thinking and action among women and men, and society in general when it comes to “unpaid” family and household work. As Slaughter writes, this requires conversations and policy changes at many levels to create an environment where a woman can be a successful income earner and mother/caregiver at the same time.

In Burkina Faso, we’re currently testing out gender dialogues that encourage men and women to discuss how to share household responsibilities so that women can be more productive economically, on the farm and off.  So far, we’ve seen hundreds of men and women, including community leaders, show up for these community conversations and actively participate. Over the next couple of years, we’ll assess how these gender dialogues affect the women clients and their families.

While many women—myself included—would like to be Supermoms, and in crazy moments even attempt it backwards and in high heels, this also leads to exhaustion and disappointment when we confront the limitations of our own circumstances.  It is time to shift this conversation from what women can do to lift their families from poverty to how the family unit can work together to build a better future for itself, its community, and future generations. This requires shifts in the way we design our products and services to not just focus on individual women within the family, but on families themselves—as a team that works stronger, together.

Image credit: Jim Cline for Freedom from Hunger

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