Where are the girls now?

Business Page
Christopher Ram
Stabroek News
March 12, 2000

BUSINESS PAGE is dedicated to providing objective information an opinion on issued of interests to the business community and the public at large. The articles in Business page are prepared and contributed by CHRISTOPHER RAM. Christopher Ram is the Managing Partner of Ram & McRae, Chartered Accountants, Professional Services Firm.

In an article in 1994 captioned 'Where are the Girls?' Business Page lamented the inadequate representation of women in national life in Guyana. Business Page today returns to the women's issue and analyses the progress made by them. Business Page acknowledges the contribution of the women staff of Ram & McRae to today's article.

International Women's Day was observed during this past week for the twenty-fifth time since the United Nations launched it in 1975. The Decade of Women observed from 1975 to 1985 was also a fitting tribute to the maternal gender and the vital contribution of women to society and humankind. That type of formal international recognition of women perhaps at the time ignited worldwide the fire that propelled women to make inroads in the professional and business world hitherto mostly dominated by men.

Especially in the Asian and North American continents women became more educated and business-minded, pioneered new roles in politics, demanded full partnership with men and played leading parts in entrepreneurship that have caused a new outlook of the women of the twenty-first century. Despite these developments, however, the suppression of women and lack of recognition of their contribution are still commonplace because of the perpetuation of policies aimed at protecting male dominance.

Progress report
The progress report at the major United Nations Conference on Women held in Beijing in September 1995 noted that women's work and contribution particularly in the home goes unnoticed, uncounted and unrewarded and applies at the level of national and international statistics as well.

In Guyana we have made some significant progress: important pieces of legislation designed to protect women have been enacted; Mrs Janet Jagan won the position of President after her husband's death in her own right, and a significant few women have emerged as top executives and professionals. Despite the progress, however, the major problems facing women have persisted. In the lower socio-economic groups poverty and domestic violence, and at the professional and business level - the glass ceiling and sexual harassment - prove to be the major barriers to social and economic progress.

Legislative progress
The critical pieces of legislation passed recently - the Medical Termination of Pregnancy Act, the Prevention of Discrimination Act and the Domestic Violence Act - seek to protect women and offer them options in the male-dominated society. The Prevention of Discrimination Act introduced the very important concept that equal remuneration be paid to men and women performing work of equal value. Legislation however is of no more than cosmetic and platitudinous value if there is not sufficient enforcement capacity including training, resources and will. It is still widely argued that promotion or enforcement of the laws by those entrusted with the moral or legal responsibility has not kept pace with the legislation. There is little evidence available to the public that trade unions have attempted to define equal work or that the police and welfare officers have been trained to address delicate issues such as domestic violence. The negligible social services budget, inadequate training and a society that is still essentially male-chauvinistic reduce the full impact of the legislation.

Women in the workforce - the gender scorecard
Available statistics indicate a 50/50-gender composition of the country's population. Women are equally if not better educated than their male counterparts, are from all appearances more hardworking, are more committed and loyal to their organisations and employers, make excellent administrators and unquestionably are less corrupt. It seems absurd therefore that as we seek to develop Guyana we have no policies to give due recognition to women and allow them the space to make their full contribution. We seem totally unaware that women have played leading roles in most areas of the miracle economies of Asia, part of the world that is generally seen as most conservative, but now noted for economic performance and resilience.

The extent of this policy of absurdity or ignorance in Guyana is most manifest as we examine the composition of the Boards of Directors of our leading companies in the public and private sectors across all areas of activities. Sugar, rice, bauxite, gold, banking, insurance and commerce have from zero to less than twenty-five per cent representation. Of close to one dozen bodies making up the Private Sector Commission (PSC) only the relatively minor one, the Guyana Association of Travel Agents, is headed by a woman. The practices of the companies and private sector organisations are carried over into the PSC. Yet, if we examine the same organisations we note that women who have to contend with politicking, indecisiveness and chauvinism of men do the real work at the executive level.

Poor representation of women at the higher levels exists not only in the business sector but in many of the professions as well. Women lawyers are outstanding for their contribution to legal aid and public service generally but the Bar Association continues to be dominated by men. The accounting and legal representative bodies are no different.

At both local and national levels of government women are woefully under-represented. We have no female mayor or regional chairman (was this position created for men?), and in what is a very large Cabinet only two are women neither of whom heads a "major" ministry.

For International Women's Day this year there was a call for women to place a value on the work they do in the home so that at the very least their contribution could for the first time carry a price tag. Perhaps because the country would have come to a standstill there was not a call for a strike although this would have dramatically demonstrated the extent and value of women's work!

The Asian miracle
John Naisbitt, American writer and leading trend forecaster who has witnessed the Asian 'miracle' firsthand has identified the transformation from male dominance to the emergence of women as pivotal to the economic explosion which has taken place in that region in which significantly the feminist movement is all but non-existent.

It has taken no more than two decades for women in Asia to make such remarkable inroads into business, academia and politics that despite the stereotype, women's participation in the workforce across Asia almost mirrors that of Europe. As Naisbitt points out in his book Megatrends Asia:

* Five out of six businesses in Japan are created by women.

* In Singapore, 38 per cent of women managers own their own firms and about 20 per cent of business owners are women.

* In China women make up one-third of the self-employed.

* In the Malaya State of Kelantan women generally are the breadwinners.

Asia still has its disparities between women and men and between rural and the more educated urban women with greater opportunities. Yet the changes are obvious. Women now play significant roles in finance, the media - both ownership and journalism - dominate fashion, science and technology, politics, administration, health care and education. This trend will only increase as more educated and assertive women move into positions of employers, administrators and decision makers without the chauvinistic baggage which karmic retribution seems to impose on men.

Tapping into the female resource base
As Guyana seeks to develop it has to adopt and pursue policies that harness the energies of women. There is a clear need for women-driven economics that respond to the unwitting but inherent prejudices of the Financial Institutions Act which discourages lending to persons without security (read women), that encourage women to join the workforce and that recognise the limitations which the current structures and systems impose on women.

It is heartening to see our constitutional re-framers thinking in terms of gender democracy which hopefully will apply to all sectors of the society. Resources have to be made available to the social sectors to meet the needs of women and the family for which they bear principal responsibility. Those civic-minded Guyanese who are crafting the revised National Development Strategy (NDS) must come up with creative recommendations if the NDS is to make a real impact. The male-dominated private sector must come out of the caves and into the twenty-first century.

In the final analysis however the development of women and the country will depend on the initiatives and entrepreneurial drive of women themselves. They are educated, have the ability and skills and can access the technology to propel themselves and the country forward. They need to organise themselves, lobby and set up infrastructure and support groups to help each other. They should not expect too much encouragement or assistance from the men.