Calling the Commission on the Status of Women to tackle gender stereotypes blocking women’s entrepreneurship

An overview of our high-profile CSW66 side-event with the Permanent Mission of Rwanda to the UN

The 66th annual Commission on the Status of Women (CSW)—the largest intergovernmental gathering dedicated to promoting women’s rights and gender equality—took place between 14 and 25 March 2022 with the review theme ‘Women’s Economic Empowerment in the Changing World of Work’.

As part of this year’s CSW, the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women and the Permanent Mission of Rwanda to the UN convened a high-level side-event to explore gender stereotypes and their impact on women’s entrepreneurship and women’s economic empowerment. The event was cosponsored by the Permanent Mission of Sweden to the UN and the Permanent Mission of the Philippines to the UN.

Why do gender stereotypes matter for women’s entrepreneurship and economic empowerment?

Our recent report, ‘Gender Stereotypes and Their Impact on Women Entrepreneurs’,  explores the ways gender stereotypes undermine women’s rights and reinforce barriers preventing women from reaching their full potential across multiple aspects of their lives. This includes economic participation and entrepreneurship. Our report, based on feedback from over 200 women entrepreneurs in 42 low and middle income countries, found that gender stereotypes significantly shape women’s journeys in entrepreneurship by hindering their aspirations, support systems, opportunities, access to resources, perceptions, and the wider entrepreneurial ecosystem in many ways. For instance, over half the women who responded felt that institutions relevant for entrepreneurs in their countries are biased in favour of men (55%) and nearly a quarter feel gender stereotypes affect their access to finance.

Because of this, it’s crucial to challenge gender stereotypes. That’s why we decided to use the 66th CSW to push for recognition of how gender stereotypes undermine women’s rights, including economic rights, and urged the UN member states to embed strong calls for action in the Agreed Conclusions – the set of recommendations that form CSW’s main outcome.

Multiple voices drawing attention to gender stereotypes at our parallel event

Our CSW side-event provided a platform for a panel of impressive speakers. We brought together Sarah Kitakule, Private Sector Development Specialist and Cherie Blair Foundation for Women Trustee; Rose Rwabuhihi, Chief Gender Monitor of the Rwanda Permanent Mission to the United Nations in New York; Ulrika Grandin, Deputy Director of the Coordination Team for Feminist Foreign Policy, Ministry for Foreign Affairs of Sweden; Mylene Abiva, President of the Women’s Business Council Philippines; Fadé Ogunro, Founder and CEO of Bookings Africa and Cherie Blair Foundation for Women Global Campaign Board Chair (Africa); and Sofía Sprechmann Sineiro, Secretary General of CARE International. The panel was moderated by Wendy Teleki, Head of the We-Fi Secretariat at the World Bank – you can watch it here:

“The pandemic has set gender equality generations back”

Kicking off the event, Rose Rwabuhihi reflected on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic in Rwanda and internationally, emphasising the toll on women’s economic participation – especially those in fragile sectors including informal cross-border trade, hospitality and tourism. Rose explained, however, that “Africa has put in place policies and mechanisms to address the impact of gender stereotypes, including the Affirmative Finance Action for Women in Africa (AFAWA), which widens opportunities for women in entrepreneurship. In Rwanda specifically, women’s access to formal financial services has increased from 63% in 2016 to 74% in 2020.” She highlighted the need for strong partnership between public institutions, private sector and development partners to jointly challenge the gender stereotypes at all levels and importance of raise awareness at community levels where are the root causes of gender stereotypes.

The impact of gender stereotypes on women’s entrepreneurship

Sarah Kitakule stressed that tackling gender stereotypes is a critical issue of women’s rights and a vital prerequisite to achieving women’s economic empowerment. On behalf of the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women, Sarah made three important calls for action to CSW participants:

  1. The work must start in our personal lives. We must increase self-awareness of our own biases and the intersecting nature of gender stereotypes.
  2. In our varied roles, we should seek to better understand and raise awareness of how social norms and gender stereotypes shape girls’ and women’s lives and undermine women’s economic empowerment, and women entrepreneurs’ opportunities specifically. The global theme of International Women’s Day this year was #BreakThe Bias – but we need ongoing campaigns across the years.
  3. We must use this CSW to recognise how gender stereotypes undermine women’s rights, including economic rights, and embed strong calls for action in the Agreed Conclusions of the 66th Session.

I struggled to be taken seriously by male peers, who chalked up my accomplishments to sheer luck or another factor, instead of merit.

Fadé Ogunro, Founder and CEO of Bookings Africa and Cherie Blair Foundation for Women Global Campaign Board Chair (Africa)

The importance of role models in overcoming gender stereotypes

On the subject of societal change, Ulrika Grandin stated how economic and social reforms and the effort to overcome gender stereotypes go hand in hand. She explained that “the visibility of women entering the labour market in Sweden is essential as they become role models for girls, and the position of women as breadwinners within households’ changes attitudes in the domestic sphere and beyond, which has been essential for the country’s economic growth and success”. Moreover, progressive policy with regards to paternity leave has also led to a transformation in the unequal division of labour in parenting and perceptions of the role of the father. Ulrika pointed to the critical need for detailed, publicly accessible gender disaggregated data across all sectors of the economy, and particularly in the sphere of entrepreneurship.

Best practices to tackle gender stereotypes from the Philippines

Reflecting her own personal journey, Mylene Abiva noted how she had been raised to believe stereotypical ideas about women and girls’ potential within society, but how these beliefs have challenged over the years in part due to the increasing number of women entrepreneurs in the Philippines. Mylene shared some of the country’s best practices in tackling gender stereotypes, including from the National Council for Children’s Television, which held gender sensitivity training for viewers in 2021 to begin the work to dispel harmful gender stereotypes from a young age. She went on to highlight the importance of networks for women entrepreneurs. These networks were particularly critical when MSMEs were hard-hit during the pandemic as they provided platforms for women to support one another, share information, and lobby policy to collectively create lasting change in the realm of women’s economic empowerment.

Personal journeys to entrepreneurship through structural challenges like gender stereotypes

We then heard from Fadé Ogunro, who, as a women entrepreneur herself, has faced gender bias throughout her career. Fadé disclosed: “as I defied social expectations of my gender, I struggled to be taken seriously by male peers, who chalked up my accomplishments to sheer luck or another factor, instead of merit.” Despite facing structural challenges, such as the difficulty in accessing funds for her business ideas, Fadé shared how she overcame some of the stereotypes she faced by building her self-confidence, making data-driven decisions and honing a supportive network. Echoing Mylene’s sentiments, Fadé emphasised how eradicating gender stereotypes from educational and learning environments early on is crucial for allowing young people to develop to their fullest potential.

Call out and tear down gender stereotypes to break the bias for women and girls everywhere.

Wendy Teleki, Head of the We-Fi Secretariat at the World Bank

Intersecting gender stereotypes

Sofía Sprechmann Sineiro began her remarks by drawing attention to the plight of women and girls who experience intersecting forms of stereotyping and discrimination – such as those living in poverty, those who are disabled, and those from ethnic minority backgrounds. Sofía went on to state that “gender equality lies at the nexus of economic justice, humanitarian action and sustainable development”, and that a core issue preventing all these objectives is unpaid care work, which women bear the brunt of due to pervasive gender stereotypes. “This prevents girls from pursuing education, prevents women from taking on political or workplace leadership, limits time for relaxation and poses stress on their physical and mental health”. To mitigate this, Sofía called for increased and robust social and legal protection mechanisms for women entrepreneurs and informal workers, and emphasised the need for gender stereotypes to be recognised and dismantled, particularly through engaging men and boys, to build a caring economy for all.

Final words

Wendy Teleki, who moderated this important event, concluded the panellists’ speeches by highlighting the crucial need for men and boys to be a part of the journey to achieving women’s economic empowerment. She also reiterated the significance of data in formulating targets to hold all stakeholders accountable to gender equality targets. Finally, she urged the participants to “call out and tear down gender stereotypes to break the bias for women and girls everywhere”.