Imagine with me the benefit of harnessing -- on a global scale -- the energy of wind power. Imagine the benefit if we fully exploit the energy of the sun. Wind and sunlight surround us in all but inexhaustible supply. Yet for millennia, we have ignored their promise and potential.
Today, as we confront diminishing reserves of fossil fuel and soaring energy demands, we are taking the first serious steps to tap alternative energy sources.
Alternative energy will certainly figure into the future of Asia, but I’m here to talk about another vast and underutilized resource. Whatever path development takes, challenge and opportunity demand that we no longer ignore the promise and potential of half our human capital. The women of Asia – and the world -- are one of the most underutilized resources on the planet.
I appreciate the opportunity to address this disparity today and to share the stage with some of the most influential women of our time.
My thanks to the Asian University for Women for bringing us together to exchange ideas about the future of Asia. This university and other institutions dedicated to empowering women are critical to that future.
I became president of Bryn Mawr College on July 1, 2008. At 9:00 that morning, I took my first official action as a new president. I picked up the phone and called the Cambridge office of the Asian University for Women because I wanted to learn more about this wonderful educational initiative in Bangladesh.
Bangladesh is a Muslim-majority country and I am a scholar of Islam and the Qur’an.
I spent more than 10 years of my professional life creating the first multi-volume Encyclopaedia of the Qur’an in Western languages. This long study taught me the importance that the Qur’an places on knowledge, on learning, on education. Forms of the Arabic root for knowledge (`-l-m) occur more than 750 times in the Qur’an. Many beautiful verses depict God as teaching his prophets and all humankind. To educate our young people, especially our young women, is to do God’s work.
How appropriate that we convene under the patronage of the Prime Minister, Sheikh Hasina, who has called women’s equality “vital to a nation’s development.” The Prime Minister has already demonstrated what she can accomplish – notably, Bangladesh’s exemplary progress in reducing infant mortality. She has set a worthy goal for her country: to eradicate gender discrimination by 2021, the year of Bangladesh’s Golden Jubilee.
If any nation can achieve that goal, it is Bangladesh. Melanne Verveer, our nation’s first Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women’s Issues, has called Bangladesh a model for other nations in its progress toward gender equity.
In my time with you today, I’ll share some recent research on the impact of gender equality on economic development, what we in the U.S. have learned about education – especially tertiary education -- as a tool to address gender disparity, and how colleges like AUW can help women not only realize their individual potential but also contribute fully to society.
Let’s begin by looking at the well-documented relationship between gender equity and economic development.
The World Bank has published a number of studies that underscore gender equality as a critical foundation for development. Countries are able to grow, reduce poverty and enhance government effectiveness by investing in women and girls. As with many other studies, including a recent UNICEF report, the World Bank findings indicate that women invest an average of 90 percent of their income in their families, as much as three times the investment rate for men.
Another leading source of data is the World Economic Forum, whose annual Global Gender Gap Report quantifies participation and opportunity in critical sectors where disparities between men and women continue to exist. Until recently, I served on the Global Agenda Council that advises on publication of that report.
As the 2010 Gender Gap Report concludes, countries that have narrowed the gap between the sexes are more economically competitive and prosperous. To quote the report: “Over time…a nation’s competitiveness depends significantly on whether and how it educates and utilizes its female talent.”
Among Asian nations, the Philippines has demonstrated strength in all four areas tracked by the WEF: health and survival, educational attainment, economic participation, and political empowerment. It ranks 9th among nations in closing the gender gap. Singapore and Japan have also moved up in the ranking. Both have demonstrated noteworthy improvement in women’s earned income.
Over the five years that the WEF has tracked gender inequities, 86 of the world’s nations have made progress toward equality while 16 have lost ground. The Gender Gap Report reminds us, “No country in the world has achieved [full] gender equality,” although Nordic countries lead the way in eliminating inequality.
This year, the United States rose 12 places in the ranking to enter the top 20 for the first time. This reflects the greater number of women in leading political roles and improvements in closing the wage gap.
Women are now the majority of the U.S. workforce for the first time in our history. Women also occupy the majority of managerial jobs. While this demographic shift has been underway for decades, the recent recession has had a profound impact. Of 8 million U.S. jobs lost in the economic downturn, three-quarters were held by men. The worst-hit industries, such as construction, manufacturing and high finance, have been traditional male strongholds.
As economic recovery gains strength, some of those jobs may return, but the employment trajectory is clear. The post-industrial economy, in the U.S. as elsewhere, now values a new paradigm of skills, including social intelligence, open communication, and the ability to apply focused concentration, all areas in which women have demonstrated particular competence. The post-recession economy may, in fact, capitalize on women’s strengths. 1
But despite other gains, American women are still rare in American boardrooms. Women lead only 3 percent of Fortune 500 companies. 2 Women are paid less -- typically just 80 percent of a male colleague’s salary. With no statutory paid leave for mothers and no comprehensive system of after-school child care, many American women face a daunting task in balancing work and child-rearing. And we lag behind Bangladesh and many other nations in the percentage of women serving in our parliamentary body, the U.S. Congress.
Where U.S. achievements shine, however, is in educational attainment, thanks to our high literacy rate and enrollment at all levels of education. It is through education, I believe, that women across the globe will find the greatest opportunity for advancement.
Primary education and secondary education are urgently imperative because they have the broadest societal impact. The progress being made toward the Millennium Development Goal of universal primary education is enormously important. But let’s keep that educational momentum moving. Tertiary education, according to the World Bank, has “a direct influence on national productivity.” 3
By making access to university a priority for women in Asia and emerging nations throughout the world, we prepare girls and women for careers and leadership roles in their communities and their nations. In colleges and universities, scholars and students develop new knowledge and conduct research that can have far-reaching impact on society.
Of course, it takes time and a significant commitment of resources to make college and university more widely available. There are successful models for this kind of investment, including China’s ambitious expansion of tertiary education that has resulted in a seven-fold increase in the number of college students since 1990. 4
Achieving equal access to a top tier college education didn’t come easily in the U.S. When Bryn Mawr was founded in 1885, women couldn’t vote, practice law or serve on juries in most states. Prominent educators debated whether education was wasted on women. Some doubted that women had the intellectual and physical capacity for academic rigor. Members of the medical establishment argued that higher education posed “serious and inescapable danger to women’s health.”
Charles W. Eliot, president of Harvard College (1869-1909) and progressive in many areas, referred to women’s colleges as “luxuries or superfluities which some rather peculiar well-to-do girls desire to avail themselves of.” It’s a delightful irony that the current president of Harvard, Drew Faust, is a graduate of Bryn Mawr.
Fortunately, such attitudes served only to inspire and motivate Bryn Mawr’s founder, Joseph Taylor, and its legendary president, Martha Carey Thomas. Bryn Mawr became the first women’s college in the U.S. to offer both undergraduate and graduate studies that were on par with those available to men.
Thomas herself had felt the sting of discrimination when she was unable to pursue a doctoral degree at an American university. She set sail for Europe, where she became the first woman to earn a PhD summa cum laude at the University of Zurich.
Just as Bryn Mawr opened the doors to first-rate education for women in the U.S., it inspired others to do the same. In 1889, a young woman named Umeko Tsuda left Japan to attend Bryn Mawr, and then returned home to establish Tsuda College, the first private college for women in Japan. Tsuda and Bryn Mawr still maintain close ties.
Last September, we celebrated 125th anniversary of Bryn Mawr’s founding by hosting a conference entitled “Heritage and Hope, Women’s Education in a Global Context.” Our purpose in creating this conference was twofold. We wanted to bring the leadership of women’s and girls’ schools and the scholars who study women’s education together. But we wanted to do more than this. We wanted to connect those leaders and scholars to the heads of major human rights and social justice organizations that work for women’s empowerment and advancement across the globe.
We welcomed women leaders, scholars, students and activists from many nations, including Bangladesh, Great Britain, India, Japan, South Korea, and a delegation from Effat University, a relatively new women’s college in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Our speakers included Ambassador Verveer, the presidents of a number of women’s colleges, a professor from Kiriri Women’s University in Kenya, and many others deeply engaged in this issue.
One of our keynote speakers, the New York Times’ columnist, Nicholas Kristof, painted a devastating portrait of the plight of many women and girls in Africa and
Asia. 5 Yet he told story after story of women whose lives were transformed by access to education. That education gave them a measure of control over their destiny and enabled them to contribute economically to their families and communities.
Kristof’s writings, and those of many others, make the moral case for educating women—it’s the right thing to do—but they also make a powerful economic case for emancipating and empowering women.
According to a recent study of global workforce data by the consulting firm Booz & Co., women who are expected to enter the economic mainstream over the next decade as producers, consumers, employees and entrepreneurs, could have an impact on the global economy equal to that of the billion-plus populations of China and India.
This “third billion” includes women in both developing and industrialized nations but most – about 822 million—are from nations where they have previously been unable to participate economically.
To appreciate the full economic potential of this enormous emerging market, the constraints faced by women must be addressed – whether they involve access to education, challenges to engagement and advancement, and most certainly, access to jobs. 6
Sandra Lawson is senior global economist at Goldman Sachs and author of Goldman’s influential 2008 report, Women Hold Up Half the Sky. In that report, she called on both governments and the private sector to make jobs more accessible and supportive for women and thereby reap the return on women’s education. Governments can make it easier to start up new businesses, enforce antidiscrimination laws, and provide benefits that help women balance work and family obligations. The private sector can offer job training and implement antidiscrimination policies and family-friendly benefits. 7
Finally, let’s consider what some wise leaders have done to advance the cause of education.
The Indian economist and Nobel laureate Amartya Sen credits Japan’s rapid rise in literacy in the late 19th century to its Fundamental Code of Education, issued in 1872. The Code set out the nation’s commitment that there must be “no community with an illiterate family, nor a family with an illiterate person.” By 1920, the nation was almost fully literate. 8
A similar top-down approach has had notable results in Tunisia. After the nation achieved independence in 1956, President Habib Bourguiba made women’s rights central to a broad modernization initiative. Today, Tunisia’s economic growth reflects its investment in human capital. 9 With an overall adult literacy rate of nearly 78 percent, the nation has attracted significant foreign investment. 10
King Abdullah of Jordan has worked to assure access to education for women, as well as their political participation. Queen Rania is an outspoken and influential advocate for women's advancement and, as a graduate of the American University of Cairo, a role model in her own right. Jordanian girls now outnumber boys in primary, secondary and tertiary education.11
In Qatar, Sheik Hamad Bin Khalifa al-Thani and his wife Sheika Mozah Bint Nasser al-Missned have encouraged educational opportunity. As part of that effort, they have made it possible for eight world-renowned universities to offer programs in Doha’s Education City. Not only are the classroom doors open to women in Education City, women even have their own basketball league! 12
In Education City or Chittagong or Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, the path to empowerment lies through the college classroom. Let me make a special pitch for single-sex colleges, which are notably effective in providing women with a setting where they can fully develop their leadership qualities. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton is an alumna of a distinguished women’s college, as was one of her predecessors, Madeleine Albright. In fact, women’s colleges outperform our co-ed peers in preparing women to be successful leaders in just about any area.
Recent research shows that the alumnae of women’s colleges are much more likely to attend graduate school than women who attend co-ed universities and colleges. In the most recent National Science Foundation survey, Bryn Mawr stood 7th among all American universities and colleges in the percentage of its graduates who earned a PhD.
Women who attend single-sex colleges are at least twice as likely to major in science, technology, engineering or mathematics, than those women who attend co-ed schools. Bryn Mawr graduates four times the proportion of math and science majors as US universities in general.
And women’s colleges receive higher ratings than co-ed institutions in equipping our graduates with the skills that employers look for – leadership and problem-solving, the ability to work as part of a diverse team, effective writing and speaking skills, self confidence, and initiative.
At women’s colleges and universities, our students find their own, strong voices. Almost 100 years ago, a visionary educator, Rabindranath Tagore, cautioned that “our mind does not gain true freedom by acquiring materials for knowledge and possessing other people’s ideas but by forming its own standards of judgment and
producing its own thoughts.13
I am also reminded of a wonderful verse from the sixteenth sūra of the Qur’an, Sūra al-Naḥl, a verse about which I once published a scholarly article. 14 “Debate with them in the better way (wa-jādilhum bi-llātī hiya ahsanu)” says Q 16:125, following upon its initial injunction to “summon to the way of your Lord with wisdom and fine exhortation (ud`u ila sabīli rabbika bi-l-ḥikmati wa-l-maw`iẓati l-ḥasanati).” Perhaps we may be permitted to hear in this verse an encouragement to let the voices and minds of our young women be strengthened through education.
With that hope in our hearts, Bryn Mawr supports and encourages the Asian University for Women and sister institutions around the world as you broaden your reach, deepen your impact and unleash the full measure of women’s potential. We stand in solidarity -- as women always do -- as your institutions prepare a generation of women to play a vital role in the future of Asia.
1 Hanna Rosin, “The End of Men,” The Atlantic, July/August 2010.
3 Sandra Lawson, “Women Hold Up Half the Sky,” Goldman Sachs, 3/4/08, http://www2.goldmansachs.com/ideas/demographic-change/women-hold-up-half-of-the-sky.pdf
5 Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide, (New York: Knopf, 2009).
6 Isobel Colman, “Women are the New Global Growth Engine,” Forbes, 9/15/2010, citing “The Third Billion,” Booz & Co., 6/27/2010.
7 Sandra Lawson, “Women Hold Up Half the Sky.”
8 Amarty Sen, “The Importance of Basic Education,” speech to the Commonwealth Education Conference, Edinburgh, 2003 (http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/2003/oct/28/schools.uk4).
9 Isobel Coleman, “The Payoff from Women’s Rights,” Foreign Affairs, May-June 2004.
10 UNDP Report 2009
11 World Economic Forum, Global Gender Gap Report 2010, http://www3.weforum.org/docs/WEF_GenderGap_Report_2010.pdf
13 Quoted in Martha Nussbaum, Note for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010), p. 47.
14 Jane Dammen McAuliffe, ”Debate with them in the better way": The Construction of a Qur’anic Commonplace," in Aspects of Literary Hermeneutics in Arabic Culture: Myths, Historical Archetypes and Symbolic Figures in Arabic Literature, Beiruter Texte und Studien, edited by A. Neuwirth, S. Gunther, M. Jarrar (Wiesbaden: Franz Steiner, 1999, pp. 163-188.