5Gender equality, anchored at the very heart of human rights, has been gaining considerable momentum over the course of the past few years. Still, women entrepreneurs in the Mediterranean region are the often overlooked key to bring about regional stability and sustainable economic development in the area. What would be a better moment than the time of ‘generation equality’ to invest in a more inclusive entrepreneurial environment?

The year 2020 marked the 25th anniversary of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action,  which brought together representatives of 189 governments and over 30,000 non-governmental activists from around the globe. This fourth World Conference on Women resulted in the most progressive framework for achieving gender equality and women empowerment of its time. Encouraging progress has been achieved since, however, there is still a long way to go, as not a single country is on track to reach full gender equality in the near future.

As a result of this milestone, but also from the awareness of the limits of the laws, policies, or public budget decisions adopted, UN Women launched the campaign ‘Generation Equality’. Going beyond the traditional generational cut-off points, this campaign brings together generations of women and men alike towards a common goal: to “finish the unfinished business” of achieving a truly inclusive world. Indeed, in both the Northern and Southern shore of the Mediterranean, gender equality is lagging behind in every field. One of the UN gender targets advocates for women’s full and effective participation and equal opportunities in economic life as instrumental to all dimensions of sustainable development. As such, unlocking the great potential of the Mediterranean countries by boosting female entrepreneurship would not only be to women’s advantage, but it would also prove beneficial for all.

It is difficult to generalize about this region, as we are talking about an exceptionally diversified area, with different economies, governance types, historical development, and social makeup. However, there is one factor that brings them together: most of the Mediterranean countries keep facing severe economic problems, but also have a desire to enhance cooperation and develop the unfulfilled potential of the Mediterranean. Here, the economic effects of enabling women to thrive are worth a closer look.

In 2015, a McKinsey Global Institute (MGI) study found that by fostering gender equality in the marketplace, the global economy could see an increase of at least $28 trillion by 2025. According to the most recent data by the World Bank, this is almost double the size of the EU’s nominal GDP. Specifically, in the MENA region and Eastern Europe, the MGI’s study reported that if all countries match the rate of improvement of bringing the gender gap of the best-performing country in the region, their economies could grow by 11% and 9% respectively. The study also found that if those countries manage to close the gender gap completely, this increase would represent a 47% and 23% addition to the total size of their economies, respectively. In 2020, the MGI followed up with its study reiterating its economic case for diversity and inclusion.

But it is not only the opportunity to enhance economic growth which makes gender equality paramount. It raises the possibility to address the pressing need for sustainable growth and job creation in the region that would set off a domino effect on other imperatives, such as poverty and hunger reduction, regional stability, relationship-building, healthier institutions, and overall well-being and development. Yet, the high price to pay for neglecting to include women as equal economic actors pass largely unnoticed.

‘It is critical to recognize that investing in women and creating a gender-equal business ecosystem is the greatest opportunity for our countries and for our social peace’, as Nasser Kamel, Secretary-General of the Union for the Mediterranean, put it at a high-level conference last year. Indeed, women entrepreneurship is an untapped source of public wealth not only for the economy but also for mitigating the causes of conflict and for sustaining peace.

Tunisia is a good example for this, where recent events showed that entrepreneurs can be peace actors. In 2013, the Tunisian Confederation of Industry, Trade and Handicrafts became one of the four key organizations funding the Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet aimed at promoting inclusive dialogue and democratic development in the aftermath of the Arab Spring. Two years later, it was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for this effort.

Another point of convergence between sustainable peace and women entrepreneurship is the ability of the latter to create relationships across ethnic, socioeconomic, or political lines, promoting dialogue and fostering local and international cooperation. This is a strong point for a remarkably diverse region as the Mediterranean, in where society is often polarized along those lines. Therefore, increasing access to markets for women is not aimed only at maximizing profit, but also at achieving social goals through innovative solutions.

Although the connection between gender equality, economic development and peace may not seem obvious or direct, several studies conducted in recent years are showing that the price of inequality is a very high one to pay. Creating an inclusive entrepreneurial landscape in the Mediterranean is not such a mad idea after all, as it would narrow the gap between men and women and at the same time, stimulate economic growth and bring shared prosperity. Last but not least, it would establish healthy and steadier relationships on an intra- and inter-state level, producing positive effects on the stability of the region in the long run. Taking advantage of the strong momentum behind gender equality that we are currently experiencing, this is the right moment to investigate how to introduce the long-needed changes in the entrepreneurial system that would give rise to a new generation, a real ‘generation equality’.

Edited by Caspar Friedrich Kleine; Photo credit: Ilenia Pappalardo