It's time to maximize the value that one half of the population can contribute to the global economy – it's fundamentally the right thing to do as well as an under-utilized economic opportunity of unprecedented proportion. The condition of the human race will be uplifted everywhere if we succeed.
But obstacles stand in our way. They range from discrimination to widespread violence against women; from design flaws in the work world incompatible with care giving to the basic denial of human rights. The World Bank's Women Business and the Law 2016 report, just released, finds that legal impediments to women's economic opportunity remain on the books in 155 economies around the world. We can't unlock this potential unless we fully address such injustices.
But the potential is enormous. Consider this: One study found that increasing women's workforce participation so that it is equal to that of men's could potentially raise GDP by 34 percent in Egypt, 9 percent in Japan, and 5 percent in the U.S. Already women own or lead more than a quarter of private businesses worldwide. In the U.S. alone, if women entrepreneurs were a country, its GDP would rank 5th in the world, close to that of economic powerhouse Germany. Women also wield enormous purchasing power, controlling some $20 trillion in annual consumer spending globally.
It's not just about how much money women have to spend, but how they spend it. Wealth in the hands of women has a multiplier effect: Women tend to reinvest their earnings into their communities and families, raising GDP and lowering illiteracy and mortality rates. As a result, investing in women and girls creates a "double dividend."
Women are also driving growth for companies. A 2011 analysis by Catalyst, a nonprofit devoted to expanding opportunities for women in business, found that Fortune 500 companies that consistently had three or more female board directors over a five-year period had nearly a 50 percent higher return on equity than companies with no women on their boards. According to one analysis, Fortune 1000 companies with women CEOs performed three times better than the benchmark S&P 500 between 2002 and 2014. In the words of the former president of the World Bank, Robert Zoellick, "Gender equality is smart economics."