Co-author: Ellie Horrocks
4 min read
This week, we mark both International Women’s Day and the one-year anniversary of the COVID-19 pandemic. One year on, we need to reflect on how the crisis has disproportionately impacted women, and how we can seize the opportunity of the recovery journey to create a more gender-equal future.
At Youth Co:Lab, an initiative co-led by UNDP and Citi Foundation, we are particularly focused on the vital contributions that young female entrepreneurs make to their communities and societies in Asia-Pacific, and how we can step up efforts to make entrepreneurship ecosystems gender-equal.
Entrepreneurship is a powerful catalyst. It provides women the opportunity to achieve economic independence and improve their wellbeing, as well as that of their families and communities. When women control productive assets and lead economic activities, productivity increases, poverty and inequality reduce, investments into health and education grow, and solutions to development challenges are unlocked. As leaders, female entrepreneurs not only shift gender norms, but also drive systemic social change.
Young women in Asia-Pacific, however, face particularly significant barriers that constrain their access to entrepreneurship. These barriers include discriminatory gender norms, a high unpaid care burden, limited access to assets, markets, and opportunities, and gender-blind policies and laws. The challenges that young female entrepreneurs face have been exacerbated by COVID-19.
The goal of recovery presents a herculean task ahead. Nonetheless, if recovery strategies can disrupt – rather than exacerbate – gender inequalities, the process presents an opportunity to push for a more gender-equal future. This is not just a question of righting wrongs and upholding women’s human rights. It is projected that acting now to advance gender equality in the recovery would add $13 trillion to global GDP in 2030.
There are no silver bullets. Interventions are needed simultaneously at different levels – from providing capacity building support and resources directly to young women, to tackling systemic barriers such as discriminatory social norms, asset poverty, and gender-blind policies and laws.
On Women’s Entrepreneurship Day, Youth Co:Lab and UNDP’s Gender team heard from young female founders in Asia-Pacific on barriers they have faced and support they have benefited from, and from partners on solutions to make entrepreneurship ecosystems gender-inclusive.
Based on the insights shared at the event and lessons from Youth Co:Lab programming, we have found that when it comes to direct support, young female entrepreneurs can benefit particularly from:
- Access to relatable role models and mentors. Esmeralda Lo Tam, founder of EI8HT SPORTS in Samoa, expressed the challenge that young female entrepreneurs face when charting new territory without examples to follow, “If you are driving on a dark road and following a car with its headlights on, it’s easier. But if no one has been down the road before, it’s very difficult. (…) Mentorship is so key.”
- Affirmative access to investment, knowledge, and networks. Based on experience from the Youth Co:Lab Springboard incubation programme and partners, proactive measures are needed to level the playing field in women’s access to resources, networks and knowledge. For example, Springboard partner Accelerating Asia, which has 40 percent female-led ventures in its portfolio, has a Gender Advisory Committee to expand female founders’ access to investors, deal flow, and subject matter experts. On the other hand, Youth Co:Lab’s online Learning Management System aims to reduce the barriers for female founders by building their skills.
- Peer networks providing support and learning. Based on lessons learnt from the Youth Co:Lab Springboard and Movers Programme, young women especially value participating in cohorts with female peers going through similar experiences. Particularly since COVID-19, we have seen high demand for regular online workshops where peers provide each other with practical advice and emotional support.
Beyond direct support, speakers at the event shared priority recommendations to transform the ecosystems around young female entrepreneurs, including:
- Leveraging communities to shift harmful gender norms. Laraib Abid, founder of Mashal in Pakistan, shared examples of how societal expectations on gender roles reduce the opportunities given to young female entrepreneurs: “Priority is given to men. People say, ‘Oh, the woman will get married, she’ll be busy with kids. If you give funds to a young woman, it won’t amplify’.”
- Representation of women in leadership and integration of a gender lens into decision-making. Ecosystem partners shared examples of how gender equality is advanced through female leadership in public and private sectors, and through integration of a gender lens in decision-making processes. For example, Sagar Tandon of the Indonesia Women Empowerment Fund explained how both the presence of female investors as well as the application of gender lens investing as an approach unlock investment in women-led firms and firms addressing barriers to women’s empowerment.
These lessons are not new. In the wake of COVID-19, however, we have a unique opportunity to incorporate these measures into recovery strategies and disrupt drivers of gender inequality. This International Women’s Day, we must reaffirm our commitment to creating an enabling environment in which young female leaders can lead the way in developing solutions that transform our societies for the better.
 ILO, ADB (2020) Tackling the COVID-19 Youth Employment Crisis