Main Body

Women and the Environment

This work (Global Women’s Issues: Women in the World Today, extended version by Bureau of International Information Programs, United States Department of State) is free of known copyright restrictions. Funding for the original works, in part, by an Ancillary Development Grant provided by the B.C. Open Textbook Project

Women and the Environment

By: Cate Owren

Figure 1. Women in Africa

Because of women’s relationship with the environment, they can be critical agents of environmental conservation, sustainable development and adaptation to climate change. In Darfur, Sudan, women carry firewood to the Abbu Shouk refugee camp.


The world’s women are the key to sustainable development, peace and security,” U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told participants at the Earth Institute’s State of the Planet meeting at Columbia University, in New York City, in March 2010. Because women are the chief resource managers for their families in many parts of the world, their engagement in remedies for and adaptation to climate change is essential.

Across the regions and cultures of the world, women play critical roles in relation to their natural environment. Often deeply dependent on available natural resources for food, fuel and shelter, women can be vulnerable to environmental changes or threats. Because women’s workload is often centred on managing natural resources, biodiversity and ecosystems, their experiences and perspectives are essential to sustainable development policymaking and actions at every level, for a healthy planet for generations to come.

Resource Managers

Women in the developing world are predominantly responsible for management and conservation of resources for their families. Women spend vast amounts of time collecting and storing water, securing sources of fuel, food and fodder, and managing land — be it forest, wetlands or agricultural terrain. As women are primary caregivers to children, the elderly and the sick, entire communities rely on them. Their traditional and generational knowledge of biodiversity, for example, supplies communities with medicines, nutritional balance and crop rotation methods. When drought, erratic rainfall or severe storms affect access to these basic resources, women’s lives — and their families’ lives — can be intensely affected. In fact, studies have shown that natural disasters disproportionately hit women, lowering female life expectancy rates and killing more women than men, especially where levels of gender equality are low.

Figure 2. Energy Efficient Cookstoves

Locally built energy-efficient cookstoves help women manage resources sustainably and preserve Virunga Park forests in the Democratic Republic of Congo. USAID partners with WWF to support such ventures.

Women make up just over half the world’s population, but women feed much of it — especially in rural regions of developing countries. Women produce between 60 and 80% of food in developing countries — and yet they officially own only 2% of land worldwide, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization. Historical inheritance laws and customs often prohibit or limit women’s direct control over land; even when women can own and lease land, they may not secure loans or insurance to keep their resources safe. The lack of fair land rights remains a major obstacle to women’s empowerment and poverty alleviation.

International Agreements

International agreements have made crucial links between women and the environment; the challenge is to take action. The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (1979), an international “bill of rights” for women, addresses a host of environmental issues. Likewise, the Beijing Platform for Action, an outcome of the Fourth World Conference on Women (1995), includes an entire chapter on women and the environment. It foreshadowed the different impacts global warming would have on women and men, which are now clear across the globe.

Major sustainable development treaties, also, have acknowledged the specific need for women’s participation and for a mainstreamed gender perspective. The 1992 United Nations Earth Summit (UNCED) produced two key conventions — on biological diversity and on combating desertification — that have served as guides for implementation of environmental actions from a gender perspective. The overall UNCED document, Agenda 21, included a specific chapter on gender, which highlighted the important role women play in industrialized countries as sustainable consumers. Indeed, the links between women and environment are not solely concentrated in the global South (i.e., developing countries). Studies have shown that women in the North (i.e., developed countries) have a smaller carbon footprint than men, making most “green” decisions at the household level and for travel according to a 2007 Swedish government report.

Figure 3. Craftswoman

A woman in Tsetan, Tibetan Autonomous Region, China, uses a home-made solar cooker to boil water.

These international agreements show that, worldwide, women must be equal participants in all decisions related to their environment. Showing great capacity as leaders, experts, educators, innovators, women and women’s movements have made great strides in preserving and protecting the resources around them. Women took the lead in the grass-roots Chipko Movement of India in the 1970s, where activists stopped the felling of trees by physically surrounding — literally hugging — the trees. They also protected water sources from corporate control. Similarly, the Green Belt Movement, the conservation and forestry movement which originated in Kenya on Earth Day in 1977, is another famous effort started by women. Women around the world continue the fight against climate change, making sustainable consumption choices, and improving access to, control over and conservation of resources. Their voices must continue to be comprehensively integrated into policy and implementation efforts at every stage for the well-being of future generations.

Cate Owren is executive director of the Women’s Environment and Development Organization (WEDO), a women’s global advocacy organization working to empower women as decision makers to achieve economic and social justice. Founded specifically to influence the 1992 Earth Summit (UNCED), WEDO strives to integrate gender perspectives and women’s direct participation internationally. Most recently, WEDO’s advocacy efforts contributed to securing the first-ever gender text in the U.N. negotiations on climate change.

PROFILE: Aleksandra Koroleva – A Passion for Environmental Protection

By: Alexey Milovanov

Russian environmental activist Aleksandra Koroleva’s efforts to preserve the environment and protect people from environmental pollution are tireless, and her unorthodox approach is often successful.

Environmental activist Aleksandra Koroleva has devoted much of her life to protecting the pristine environment in the Kaliningrad region in the Russian Federation, on the Baltic Sea. The unique and complex habitats there include wetlands, forests, rivers and marshes. It is home to diverse ecosystems and migratory birds. She has worked within and outside of the government not only to preserve precious natural resources but to protect citizens from dangerous environmental pollution.

Koroleva was a member of a newly formed state environmental protection committee after the Soviet Union fell apart. She says that at the time it seemed the committee could significantly help to responsibly conserve the environment. Prior to this, Koroleva worked at a university, a school and a regional history museum where she dealt with environmental issues. In her new position her task was to raise public awareness, primarily through the mass media. The work was not going badly; she had even created the first radio program in the Kaliningrad region devoted wholly to environmental problems. The program aired for several years. But soon the legacy of the Soviet years, the bureaucracy, stalled her efforts.

Because of her upbringing she couldn’t bring herself to accept defeat. She is like her mother, renowned botanist and dendrologist Galina Kucheneva. “She had some kind of tremendous inner drive, she didn’t just study trees as a botanist but sought to preserve them for the future,” Koroleva recalls. “I, of course, inherited only a tiny bit of her confidence, but I have that drive, too, and it won’t let me take things lying down.”

Russian society was in a very turbulent state in the early 1990s. The disappearance of the authoritarian Communist regime and the sudden ability to freely express opinions gave rise to many new movements and organizations. One of them was the group Ecodefense! [Ekozashchita! in Russian]. It was founded by young people determined to effectively address environmental issues by following the Western environmental activist model. They chose as their slogan the high-flown but honest “No compromise in defence of Mother Earth!” A meeting with Ecodefense! activist Vladimir Slivyak led Koroleva to make a 180-degree turn, leave government service and begin a new stage in life. Koroleva recalls, “He said, ‘Let’s do something and not wait until the government permits us to write an article and conduct an environmental study.’ He showed you can simply do what you think is necessary and important.”

The list of “necessary and important” items is so long that it could occupy a dozen full-scale organizations. Yet Ecodefense! functioned admirably during its first 15 years, with no legal status. Among other endeavours, it agitated against pollution of the region’s water resources by harmful substances such as dioxins. It also opposed importation of foreign nuclear waste materials into the country. It protected the nature reserves of the Curonian Spit, a long, narrow sandbar that stretches across the Curonian Lagoon between the Kaliningrad region and Lithuania, from dangerous oil-extraction projects on the Baltic shelf. Ecodefense! fought to preserve trees in downtown Kaliningrad. And, of course, it promoted environmental education with all available means. The top priority was always to make people aware of environmental issues and how to solve the problems. Ecodefense! held press conferences and issued reports and press releases in years when this was a novelty in Russia, even for businesses. Ecodefense! successfully used the media to convey an independent environmental message. “Even now, when our work is not as intensive, journalists call me almost every day,” says Koroleva.

Ecodefense! used dramatic methods to attract media attention, so journalists would write about “those ecofreaks” and the public would read about them. When trees were cut down in the city of Kaliningrad, activists under Koroleva’s leadership carried a log in a coffin to the doors of the city hall and stood around it with votive candles. When analyzes carried out at the initiative of the environmentalists revealed dioxins in the waste water of the local paper factory, young people strolled downtown wearing the masks of mutants in order to draw attention to consequences. Koroleva describes another effort she led: “We brought to the district government building a huge mock-up of a nuclear power plant, with a pipe emitting acrid orange smoke. And we handcuffed ourselves to the entrance of that building, dressed in the costumes of oil-spattered pigs, in order to show the danger of the Lukoil Company’s plans to extract petroleum 22 kilometres from the reserves on the Curonian Spit. Oh, those were good times, and I sometimes regret that Ecodefense! and I have gone our separate ways.”

Figure 4. Aleksandra Koroleva 

Aleksandra Koroleva works with other activists at the Curonian Spit, Kaliningrad Region, Russian Federation.

Such outré behaviour was shocking and aroused suspicions which persist among Koroleva’s many detractors. Many times Aleksandra Koroleva and her colleagues were accused of being in the pay of business competitors of the people they fought against or foreign intelligence services, from the CIA to Mossad. Koroleva routinely had to counter false media reports.

Teaching is as necessary as breathing to Koroleva, but her dynamism often frightens people unprepared for her zeal. For 10 years, Ecodefense! conducted a project to observe nature in the Baltic region in which children took part. Thousands of schoolchildren learned about the Baltic ecosystem in theory and in practice through this program. They cleared refuse from the coast, took eco-tours and networked with their peers from other countries in international nature camps.

Under Aleksandra Koroleva’s leadership, the first environmental referendum in Kaliningrad was held on the construction of an oil terminal in the port of Svetly. Her books helped stop dangerous projects and prevent tree clearing, and gave people confidence in their power to defend their right to clean air and water. She encouraged them to change what they do not agree with and control the often harmful activity of officials — new ideas to citizens of the former Soviet Union. Koroleva also educated officials by participating in many public councils, drafting new laws and criticizing officials who closed their eyes to environmental crimes. “In the end, the authorities acknowledged the existence and importance of the third sector [nongovernmental organizations], whether it was us or someone else,” says Koroleva. “We were striving precisely for that acknowledgment, and it was a victory. The doors we opened are now accessible for many other activists.”

Koroleva urges everyone — children, teachers, officials, activists — not only to think but to do something concrete. For several years she organized the “Environmental Landing Force on the Curonian Spit” to strengthen dunes and clear away refuse in the national park, recruiting not only students and activists, but high-ranking officials, politicians and diplomats. She transformed conservation of the national park into a genuine mass movement.

History has a way of repeating itself. Twenty years later, Koroleva joined a government agency again, as deputy director of the Curonian Spit National Park. Although she recently resigned to protest new policies — the same inner drive causing her to reject the bureaucratic approach — Koroleva plans to continue her environmental work with Ecodefense! “I’m ready again to go back to my roots,” she says.

Alexey Milovanov worked with Aleksandra Koroleva as a press officer and campaigner for the Ecodefense! environmental group for five years. He has been a freelance journalist and photographer since 2005 and is currently chief editor at the local online news agency www.NewKaliningrad.Ru.

PROJECT: Barefoot Solar Engineers

By: Anu Saxena

A revolution is happening in Barefoot College in rural Rajasthan, India. It is a quiet revolution that brings solar energy and clean technology to the poorest rural communities, changing the face of rural development. At the forefront of this revolution are semiliterate or illiterate rural women from Asia, Africa and Latin America, many of them grandmothers, who are trained to work as skilled solar engineers.

Barefoot College was founded in 1972 in Tilonia, Rajasthan, India, by social activist and educator Bunker Roy. Its purpose is to find simple, sustainable solutions to basic quality of life problems in rural communities: clean water, renewable energy, education and health care. Stable livelihoods and women’s empowerment are also among Barefoot College’s goals. Solar energy is an important “barefoot solution,” and women — especially grandmothers — are preferred candidates for solar engineer training. As Bunker Roy puts it, “We have trained men, and found that they took their training and knowledge to go work in the cities. [Women] feel responsible for their village.” Rural grandmothers have a longer history in the community and have less incentive to migrate. This keeps the knowledge and technology in the community. Their expertise is shared with others, ensuring project sustainability.

Treating the community members as partners and letting them manage and own their resources and technology are unique features of the Barefoot program. The trainees all hail from remote communities that have never known conventional electricity and where literacy rates are low, especially for women and girls. They are selected by community consensus and, upon their return, are paid by the community to install, maintain and repair the solar units at a percentage of the monthly energy costs that would otherwise have been spent on the alternatives — fuels, candles and batteries.

Since 2005, 250 of these village women from 29 countries have brought solar electrification to around 10,000 houses, in regions as diverse as the scorching desert plains of Rajasthan and rural hamlets tucked in the cold, mountainous, windswept plateaus of Ladakh, in India; Timbuktu, Mali, in Africa; and Soloja, Bolivia, high in the Andes. Most poor rural households that Barefoot College has helped in Africa and Latin America use approximately 1.5-2 gallons of kerosene per month for their lighting and cooking needs, according to the Barefoot College experience with rural households. It is estimated that this consumption emits about 14.74-19.65 kilograms of CO2 (Richard J. Komp, 2002). Switching to solar power has reduced environmental pollution and forest degradation in these communities by decreasing their use of firewood, diesel and kerosene. Using solar power has lowered rural families’ lighting costs and reduced the levels of indoor pollutants and the fire hazards of kerosene use. The study conditions for schoolchildren are improved and women can engage in income-generating activities, such as handicrafts, after sundown.

Figure 5. Rural Solar Engineers

Rural grandmothers are being trained as solar engineers at a Barefoot College workshop session.

The extraordinary results achieved by Barefoot College began with its six-month, hands-on solar engineering training program. The guiding principle of the college, that solutions to rural problems lie within the community, is nowhere more clear than at a solar engineering training classroom, where 30 participants, from various countries, sit side by side on benches, working with concentration to connect wires on a circuit board, assemble a solar lantern or draw what they have just created in a small notebook. Since there is no one common language among the trainees or instructors, the women learn to identify parts by colour and use hand gestures liberally. Waves, smiles and greetings in a variety of languages welcome the visitor to this Barefoot united nations of women, collaborating to bring light and hope to their communities.

Figure 6. A Solar Cooker Machine

Sita Bai, a solar cooker mechanic, stands beside one of the devices she is trained to assemble and repair.

The same enthusiasm and entrepreneurial activities pervade the Barefoot College campus. A short distance from the classroom, two impressive-looking 2.5-square-meter parabolic solar cookers glisten in the sunlight. The cookers are attended by Shahnaz and Sita, two Barefoot solar engineers (BSEs). They went through the basic solar program before specializing in the fabrication of cookers — a task traditionally associated with men, as it involves metal work and welding. As they explain some intricacies of constructing and calibrating the cooker, their pride in their work is clear. They now train other women to make the cookers. Sita has even reached a broader audience by composing a song with her colleagues on the benefits of using solar cookers, which they sing for community education programs. The story of their personal journey from conservative families, where they were limited to socially prescribed tasks, to their roles as educators, skilful mechanics and wage-earners, is a powerful narrative of change.

As women’s participation in environmental management has increased, they have become more visible. Women now have a voice in local politics. Examples are the Solar Warriors of Bhutan and the BSEs of Ethiopia, who petitioned their governments to start local BSE women’s associations. Women enjoy an improved status in their communities because of their valuable contribution. Referring to their local BSE, a male village elder in Bolivia says admiringly, “She is better at this than I am… and I am a car mechanic!”

By enrolling women and their communities as partners, Barefoot College has increased community awareness of sustainable practices while supporting traditional knowledge. Workshops on how to dispose of plastic responsibly, use solar cookers, improve management of water resources, including rainwater harvesting, and other good practices that are kinder to the environment enhance the quality of rural life.

Anu Saxena has been involved with international development programs in marginalized communities, with a focus on gender issues, for over 20 years. She earned her doctorate in social anthropology from Boston University and did her fieldwork in Colombia. She is currently the Latin America adviser to the Barefoot College (India) Solar Engineering program.

Discussion Questions

  1. What is the value of women taking part fully and equally in addressing climate change?
  2. Why should climate change be addressed through a gender lens?
  3. What are the gender-specific barriers to the participation of women in environmental movements?
  4. Using the additional resources provided, discuss the connections between violence against women and the environment.
  5. In what ways are Indigenous peoples vulnerable to climate change? Describe the role of Indigenous women in addressing the impacts of climate change.
  6. How does access to water affect girls and women differently than boys and men? (Outside research)

Essay Questions

  1. To push for environmental policy change, is it more effective to work within government or outside of the system through civil disobedience? Drawing on the Aleksandra Koroleva profile and any relevant additional resources, discuss the advantages and drawbacks of advocating for the environment through acts of protest.
  2. Through the additional perspectives provided, discuss the role of Indigenous perspectives in preserving the environment. Is it possible to substantively address climate change through Western methods, or should be it addressed through traditional protocols? Are these perspectives mutually exclusive?
  3. What is the relationship between policymaking, patriarchy, and climate change?
  4. Select a jurisdiction, whether at the national, provincial, or municipal level. How has gender been integrated into the environmental policy of the jurisdiction that you have chosen? Could gender be integrated into this policy more effectively? If so, how?

Women and the Economy

Figure 7. Selling Spices

A small loan allowed this woman to go into business selling spices in a Tbilisi neighbourhood market.


By: Susanne E. Jalbert

In 1995, activists from 189 countries pondered gender equity at the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing and the parallel nongovernmental organization conference in Huairou. They developed a plan to ensure a more fair future for women with passion, foresight and intensive focus. Today we scrutinize how far we have progressed toward gender parity since the 12-point Platform for Action was introduced in Beijing. And we ask what can be done now to more efficiently promote women’s economic potential and equalize their opportunities with those of men. There has been progress, but not enough.

More fair economic engagement for women remains elusive. Women perform two-thirds of the world’s work, especially in agriculture, for 10% of the income (InterAction, 2009); own only 1% of the assets (; and make up 70% of the world’s poor (International Labor Organization). “Whether women are working in industrialized nations or developing countries, in rural or urban settings, most women still carry the triple burden of raising children, performing household chores and earning an income for their family,” was the finding of the 2010 Soroptimist International white paper “Women at Work.”

Figure 8. Leather and Shoe Research Institute

A designer at the Leather and Shoe Research Institute in Hanoi, Vietnam, works to improve Vietnamese shoemakers’ product lines and competitive edge.

Women’s Earnings Still Lag Behind Men’s

Women’s earnings linger below men’s worldwide. In Middle Eastern and North African countries, women’s wages are around 30% of men’s; 40% in Latin America and South Asia; 50% in sub-Saharan Africa; and 60-70% in East Asia and developed countries. In 2009, 134 countries were evaluated on five economic performance indicators which show that the Middle East has the widest gender gap in economic opportunity (The Global Gender Gap Report 2009).

Evidence from developed countries substantiates the possibility for fair economic expectations. According to Building Gender Balanced Business, in the United States, women make 80% of consumer goods purchasing decisions; in Canada, women start 70% of new small businesses; in the UK, women will own 60% of all personal wealth by 2025; worldwide today there are more female millionaires between the age of 18 and 44 than male. But current data gathered by the United Nations from developing, transitioning and conflict-torn economies show women are still marginalized. They are absent or poorly represented in economic decisions and policymaking.

Formulation of gender-neutral policy acts as a framework to support balanced, effective, and good governance. It functions as a catalyst for healthy economic growth and cogent interaction of societies’ three sectors: public, private and business. Most women have no fair access to assets, credit, capital or property rights (International Center for Research on Women). Therefore, effective gender-neutral policies are needed.

In Chisinau, Moldova, founder and director of the International Center for Advancement of Women in Business Tatiana Batushkina has many policy concerns. They include creating an environment where women can interact with one another, know their full rights in society, share ecological concerns, solve economic obstacles and eliminate public resistance to women in business. In Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, founder and director of the Women’s Committee for Legal Change Bayan Mahmoud Zahran’s Number 1 policy concern is to answer the question, “How can one enhance economic literacy and legal awareness to reach an apex of justice?” As a business owner in Ukraine, Elena Baryshnikova focuses on loosening the reign of restrictive commercial regulations. She is founder and director of Lex-Service Audit in Sevastopol, Ukraine, and Business Education Alliance ( in Kyiv, Ukraine.

Progress in Closing Gender Gap

There are hopeful signs. Out of the 115 countries covered in the 2009 World Economic Forum’s report, since 2006 over two-thirds have posted gains in overall gender gap index scores, showing that the world has made progress toward lessening inequities (The Global Gender Gap Report 2009).

Female participation in the private sector in large and small, formal and informal enterprises is a crucial economic driver for societies — anywhere in the world. “What should economic self-sufficiency look like?” pondered Nino Elizbarashvili, president of the Georgian Association of Women in Business in Tbilisi, Georgia, during an interview. Economic security can beneficially touch every facet of a woman’s life and can manifest in a myriad of ways, including positive impact on the health, education and vitality of families, freedom to consume and produce and the ability to more fully contribute to civic and political transformation.

In Kurdistan Suzan Aref, director of the Women’s Empowerment Organization (, wondered, “Could we, as women, break more barriers? How can we better promote security, women’s rights as human rights, gender equity, political participation and economic engagement?” One specific step is to bridge the gender gap with women’s economic empowerment and education by promoting the inclusion of women in economic activities in elementary school. Other solutions are these: laws must be reformed, land allocation practices changed, access to justice enhanced and market entry obstructions eradicated. The economic benefits of scaling back barriers to women’s engagement in the workforce are substantial; as observed in the Global Gender Gap Report, between 2006 and 2009, of 115 countries surveyed, 98 (85%) improved performance. When women gain access to and control over economic resources, they increase productivity and their incomes. Their ability to feed, clothe and educate their families increases.

Women’s economic questions are wide ranging, and the list of policy hurdles to be resolved is long. If we truly desire to live in fair societies, we must act in this moment. At this moment, policy is top priority. Whether policy is decided publicly or in some secluded government chamber, policy is essential to determining the direction of our world. Women’s voices must be heard to transform and improve current economic conditions. To promote progress, public, private and business sectors worldwide must unite in actionable policy agendas to ensure a fair future.

Susanne E. Jalbert is a leading economic activist and the architect of the Iraqi Small Business Development Centers program. She champions women’s business association capacity building worldwide. She publishes and speaks frequently on the role and impact of business associations, women entrepreneurs, anti-trafficking campaigns and entrepreneurial expansion programs.

PROFILE: Lubna Olayan – Saudi Businesswoman Strengthens Communities

By: Scott Bortot

Figure 9. Lubna Olayan

As head of the Olayan Financing Company, Lubna Olayan oversees the operations of dozens of international firms. But what many people don’t know is that the Cornell University graduate is dedicated to building her society by working with grassroots organizations throughout the Arab world.

Lubna Olayan is known in Saudi Arabia and around the world for her business acumen. The chief executive of the Olayan Financing Company, Olayan, oversees the workings of over three dozen companies with operations both inside and outside the kingdom. But Olayan, selected by Time magazine in 2005 as one of its top 100 most influential people, has a side to her that goes beyond business. When she is not running companies, she empowers communities by working with and supporting nongovernmental organizations.

“Grass-roots organizations can touch on social issues, taboo issues, in ways that are impossible for businesses to do,” Olayan said. “That’s their role and they don’t have the same stakes as businesses have. They also have time and energy to focus on key issues which businesses can only address marginally.”

Since 2002, Olayan has been a member of the board of trustees of the Arab Thought Foundation, which honours “[Arab] pioneers, supporting the innovators and sponsoring the talented from among the Arab nations.” But her community work doesn’t stop there. In 2006, she joined the board of directors for Alfanar, an organization that supports grass-roots organizations in the Arab world.

Lubna Olayan was born in Saudi Arabia in 1955. Her father, Suliman Olayan, was a powerful business leader who founded the Olayan Group in 1947. Early in her career at the Olayan Group, she worked closely with her father. Even though they had a warm relationship, at work it was all business. Olayan and her father made a deal that at the office they were no longer father and daughter but boss and employee.

Education a Key to Success

Olayan, who holds a bachelor’s degree in agriculture from Cornell University and a master’s degree in business administration from Indiana University, understands the value of education. Educational institutions have honoured her. Cornell named the 1977 graduate as its 2010 “Entrepreneur of the Year.” David Skorton, president of Cornell University, said Olayan has “aspired to leadership roles in the business world, and she has received enormous recognition for her business skills.”

Delivering a speech at Cornell to accept the honour, Olayan recalled the role played by the university in forming her character. “It is important to encourage our people to come up with ideas, and to allow people to make mistakes,” she said, adding that she learned this lesson at Cornell. “I very much enjoyed the diversity of the student body.”

Olayan is active in developing Saudi education. As an advisory member of the board of Effat University, an educational institution for women in Saudi Arabia, she especially understands the meaning of education to women in her country. “Education is the single most important driver in improving society, in Saudi Arabia but also anywhere in the world,” Olayan said.

Bringing More Women to the Workplace

A member of the board of directors of INSEAD, an international, multi-campus graduate business school, Olayan has a lot to say about the advancement of Saudi women in business. For starters, men and women working together is a recipe for success. “You need two hands to clap,” Olayan said. “It is a natural progression and a natural fit of the building of a society.”

At a certain level, the segregation of some business practices empowered Saudi women. “Initially, yes, female-only services opened the door to women for greater participation in the economic life of the country,” Olayan said. “Going forward though, one can hope that segregation will not continue.”

To raise the number of female professionals who currently make up only 6% of the Saudi workforce, she established the Olayan National Women’s Action for Recruitment and Development (ONWARD) in 2004. The program accepts recruits and trains them in skills that can be used in a range of professions. While most of the recruits are fresh university graduates, the goal is to prepare them for executive leadership positions in the future.

The end of workplace segregation may not be too far off, judging from recent moves by the Saudi government. Olayan said a government decree greatly improved the situation for Saudi women seeking access to employment opportunities. The move opened up most of the job market to women beyond the traditional sectors of health care and education. “One of the major keys to a woman’s business success in Saudi Arabia is ensuring that she gets the equal opportunity to contribute and participate in the country’s economic development,” Olayan said.

When women began working in the offices of Olayan’s companies, she remembers a change took place. “I think it did make it a little different. We were all men until women came over and for one, in my opinion, it made a lot of the younger Saudis be alert that there is competition,” Olayan said. “There is an alternative if you don’t come in on time.”

Despite the government decree, workplace challenges still remain for Saudi women. “The implementation has been quite slow as there are still large organizations that have not opened their doors to Saudi women yet,” Olayan said.

Keep the Goal in Sight

Olayan, a member of the International Business Council of the World Economic Forum, said Saudi men and women interested in opening a business in Saudi Arabia — or anywhere else — should first do their homework. “You have to have a goal and you measure your progression. You better have all the ingredients required and know all of the ingredients to achieve your plan,” she said. “You should measure it regularly in case you get sidetracked. Bring yourself back… and get focused.”

Keeping on her career course, from the time she joined Morgan Guaranty in New York in 1983 until today, is a hallmark of Olayan’s success. “When you are passionate about something, you have to make it a success and be proud of the success that you have achieved with it,” she said.

Through it all, what makes Olayan most happy is much closer to her heart. “The bottom line, although I’m proud of many things, I am most proud of my three daughters above anything.”

Scott Bortot is a staff writer for the International Information Programs bureau of the State Department.

PROJECT: Women’s Work: Paying It Forward

By: Joanna L. Krotz

A one-to-one mentoring program set up by Fortune’s Most Powerful Women Summit and the U.S. State Department connects America’s top businesswomen with young women leaders around the world to strengthen careers and communities.

It’s easy to get things done with women,” says Ilham Zhiri, sipping a latte and nibbling a muffin early one morning at a bustling Starbucks café in New York City. “Women connect right away and they seem to have this instinct to help each other. You feel that everywhere you go,” she says, waving a hand to embrace the world. “In the States, you feel it. Back home, you feel it. You even feel it on a diplomatic level.”

Zhiri knows a thing or two about how women accomplish things. For the past 15 years, she’s been running a family printing and publishing company in her hometown of Rabat, Morocco, while devoting time to support younger women in business across the Middle East. “In the beginning, as a freshly graduated MBA, it was very hard for me,” says Zhiri, explaining why she reaches out to other women. “At home, because of the cultural context, a woman has to put in double effort and energy to prove herself — to other women and to men. But once you do, that’s it. Recognition is there.”

That clear-eyed passion for spearheading social and economic change and the desire to expand her own skills motivated Zhiri to apply to the unique program that returned her to the United States. Years before, she had studied at American University in Washington. Now, Zhiri was in New York for the finale of the Fortune/U.S. State Department Global Women’s Mentoring Partnership. Each year, this public/private program selects 30 to 35 up-and-coming women professionals from around the world, pairing them with 50 senior American women from business, academia and government.

Public-Private Partnership Networks Empower New Leaders

The month-long program creatively leverages the resources and expertise of an unusual three-part alliance: an elite roster of American women from companies such as Avon, Wal-Mart, American Express and ExxonMobil who take part in Fortune magazine’s annual Most Powerful Women Summit, chaired by Editor-at-Large Pattie Sellers; the international nongovernmental organization Vital Voices, whose mission is to empower emerging women leaders worldwide; and the U.S. State Department Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (ECA).

Figure 10. Josephine Kairaba

Josephine Kairaba (Rwanda), Anna Grishchenkova (Russia) and Hussan-Bano Burki (Pakistan) interact with Ambassador Melanne Verveer at the Global Mentoring Partnership meeting.

The idea was born in 2006 during a meeting between Sellers and then-Assistant Secretary of State for Educational and Cultural Affairs Dina Powell in Washington. The Fortune/U.S. State Department Global Women’s Mentoring Partnership was soon launched. It debuted as a three-phase program for 17 women. They received orientation in Washington, individual mentorship around the United States, and evaluation in New York. It was an immediate success. Today the program boasts nearly 150 graduates from about 50 countries. Powell, now head of a corporate engagement at Goldman Sachs and director of its sister initiative, 10,000 Women, remains a key sponsor.

“The Mentoring Partnership offers women a transformative model of leadership,” explains Alyse Nelson, president and CEO of Vital Voices, which is awarded ECA grants — about $190,000 in 2010 — to manage on-the-ground logistics. Typically, the women are first-generation professionals who lack role models at home. So the firsthand coaching is an enormous boost, emotionally and practically. Just as importantly, says Nelson, “participants know that top women in Fortune 500 companies don’t need to take time and effort for mentoring, but they do. The younger women see the ripple effect of doing well and also doing good. They understand the investment being made in them and their responsibility to give back.”

Now in its fifth year, the program is well established. “We cable our embassies and regional bureaus, which identify and nominate local women for the program,” says ECA managing director of cultural programs Chris Miner, who oversees thousands of State Department exchange programs. “Obviously, they must have a good command of English,” says Miner. “But the women must also be emerging leaders who participate to take their skills, career or business to the next level. These women are destined for success.” Pattie Sellers invites high-level American businesswomen to volunteer. Their companies cover one participant’s travel and expenses, about $8,000 each. Working with a Fortune team, Sellers then customize each match.

“We learn from each other,” says Susan Whiting, a four-time mentor and vice chair of the Nielsen Company, the global marketing and media information firm. “For me, it’s especially valuable to see the U.S. through their eyes.” Paired with Ilham Zhiri this year, Whiting has noticed a pattern among the mentees. “Younger women on their way to success often feel they have to put some parts of themselves aside, and I don’t think that’s necessarily a good thing in the long term,” she says. “To succeed, you need to be true to yourself.”

Destined for Success

Reviewing her experience at Nielsen, Zhiri says she’s returning to Morocco with two objectives. “First, I’ve learned… that I can leverage business opportunities in the North Africa region.” The second goal, managing a clear work/life balance, surprised her. “There’s a wonderful phrase I learned here — about ‘repotting’ yourself,” says Zhiri. “You need to grow your personal life in order to grow your business. I learned that I don’t have to be so tough on myself.”

The final, fast-paced week in New York was a high-octane mix of media training sessions, entrepreneurship workshops, panel discussions and networking events, hosted by industry leaders.

“I applied to the program because I wanted to see how I measure up compared to leaders in the U.S.,” says Hussan-Bano Burki, a senior manager for USAID in Islamabad.

She works to facilitate trade and develop online marketing tools. “In Pakistan, I’m already known as a good leader and my skills are pretty much there.”

Teamed with Ernst & Young’s Beth A. Brooke, Burki said, “Here, I saw mentors who went beyond professional duties to build networks and pay it forward.” The revelation, for Burki, was seeing how Brooke used her contacts to approach unfamiliar sources and facilitate policy. “Within the first few days at E&Y, I recognized that I’d been missing the idea of using networks as assets and how I need to be less bashful about asking for help. Beth connected to so many institutions and people relevant to things I’ve done. The practical power of that was a great lesson.” Burki adds, “I learned what’s important to rise up professionally.”

Joanna L. Krotz is a multimedia journalist and speaker whose work has appeared in the New York Times, Worth, Money, and Town & Country and on MSN and She is the author of The Guide to Intelligent Giving and founder of the Women’s Giving Institute, an organization that educates donors about strategic philanthropy.

Key Terms

  • Arab Thought Foundation
  • Barefoot College
  • Barefoot Solar Engineer (BSE)
  • Chipko Movement
  • Ecodefense!
  • Greenbelt Movement
  • Global Gender Gap Report
  • InterAction
  • International Business Council
  • International Centre for Advancement of Women in Business
  • International Centre for Research on Women (ICRW)
  • International Labour Organization
  • Lubna Olayan
  • Olayan Financing Company
  • Olayan National Women’s Action for Recruitment and Development (ONWARD)
  • Solar Warriors
  • United Nations Earth Summit (1992)
  • United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing
  • U.S. State Department of Educational and Cultural Affairs (ECA)
  • U.S. State Department Global Women’s Mentoring Partnership
  • Women’s Committee for Legal Change
  • World Economic Forum
  • 12-Point Platform for Action


Discussion Questions

  1. What are the specific steps to bridging the economic gender gap? How might these steps conflict with local cultures?
  2. What has been the impact of privatization and globalization on women in developing countries?
  3. Aside from advocating for a more equal gender balance in the workplace, what are other approaches that governments and employers can take to decrease the gender bias to support female workers?
  4. Draw on the chapter’s discussion of women’s entrepreneurship in the Middle East to compare the types of challenges women in the workplace face in Morocco and those they face in the United States. How different are the barriers to women’s full participation in business within each context? Explain.
  5. The chapter explains that the Middle East hosts the world’s widest gender gap, with women making 40% of men’s wages. Draw from the further resources section to suggest some reasons for this divide.
  6. How are Arab and Middle Eastern women commonly represented in Western news and media? How does this vary in the MENA media?

Essay Questions

  1. What challenges are specific to women who work in the informal sector or within the home? Why is formal work considered productive but informal work considered unproductive?
  2. What is the value of corporate social responsibility (CSR)? Do multi-national corporations’ CSR policies make a difference? Are there women-specific issues that private companies are unlikely to address?
  3. What economic barriers are specific to immigrant women? Consider factors such as credential regimes, restrictive work visas, and temporary and precarious employment. Further, what are some short-term policy changes that can be made to increase the economic empowerment of migrant women?

Additional Resources

Awo, M. A., & Anaman, K. A. “Political Economy Analysis of the Production and Marketing of Shea Nut Products by Women in the Northern Region of Ghana.” Research in World Economy 6(4), 1 – 17: (2015).
Research suggesting that farmer’s satisfaction for prices is linked to their membership in collective framer-based organizations.

Erin, K. & Leppert, A. “Selfhood, Citizenship… and all things Kardashian: Neoliberal and Postfeminist Ideals in Reality Television.” Media and Communication Studies Summer Fellows, Paper 2: (2015).
Discusses the influence of reality television in mainstreaming and reinforcing cultures of individualism, market logic and competition.

Deodda. M., Di Liberto, A., Foddi, M. & Sulis, G. “Employment Subsidies, Informal Economy and Women’s Transition into Work in a Depressed Area: Evidence from a Matching Approach.” IZA Journal of Labor Policy 4(7): (2015).
Italian study conducted on the positive effects of employment subsidies and labour outcomes for low-income and older women.

Harquail, CV. “’Add Women and Stir’ Won’t Keep Women in Tech.” Authentic Organizations: Aligning Identity, Action and Purpose. (2016).
Critiques the ‘add women and stir’ approach, and advocates for businesses to adopt participatory, explicitly pro-women and anti-gender bias approaches, rather than simply increasing the gender-balance of the workforce.

Madzwamuse, M. “Economic Justice as a Site for Women’s Empowerment.” Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa. (2015).
Challenges optimism on the impact of economic growth for women in Africa, arguing that neoliberal development models have failed to address structural inequality.

Momani, B. “Arab Dawn: Arab Youth and the Demographic Dividend They Will Bring.” Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI). (2016).
Video that challenges negative assumptions in the Middle East and surrounding region, focusing on the positive economic and political changes that will come from youth.

Momani, B. “Saudi Suffragists: Women’s Rights Come to the Most Unlikely Place.” Globe and Mail. (2016).
Discusses the recent women’s rights movement in Saudi Arabia, as a bottom-up movement in a kingdom that remains conservative.

Neumayer, E. & De Soysa, I. “Globalization, Women’s Economic Rights and Forced Labour.” The World Economy 30(10), 1510 – 1535: (2007).
Article suggesting that increased trade cam help promote and realize two core International Labour Organization (ILO) standards.

Schwartz, A. “Orientalism and the Representation of Middle Eastern Women.” Sociological Images. (2011).
Questions the dominant representations of Middle Eastern as infantilized or silenced by their religion and culture.

Muylaert, A., director. “The Second Mother.”
Portuguese film directed by Anna Muylaert on domestic work that dissects unspoken but entrenched class barriers that are present in the home.

UN Women Asia Pacific. “Domestic Work and Migration in Asia.”
Fact sheet on the challenges and legal protections for women and men in domestic work.

Women Who Tech.
Recognizing that 93% of investor money goes to startups founded by men, this platform aims to connect women in tech and increase the amount of women in Sciences Technology Engineering and Math (STEM) and startups.

Kreitmeyr-Kosa, N. 2016. “Neoliberal Networks and Authoritarian Renewal: A Diverse Case Study of Egypt, Jordan & Morocco.” Dissertation.

United Nations Development Program (UNDP). “Africa Adaption Program (AAP) Experiences: Gender and Climate Change.” (2011).
Discussion paper on key challenges to reducing gender-based vulnerability, gender sensitive approaches to AAP, and continuing efforts.

La Via Campesina.
An international peasants’ organization with campaigns to promote food sovereignty and biodiversity and to stop violence against women.

Tebtebba Foundation. “Indigenous Women, Climate Change and Forests.” (2011).
Publication of findings from research projects on the differentiated impacts of climate change on Indigenous women and their roles in traditional forest ecosystems and resource management.

Nobel Women’s Initiative. “Stories from the Road – Activist Harsha Walia Makes Connections Between Displaced Women & Oil Sands.”
Activist Harsha Walia sheds light on the relationship between violence against Indigenous women and the environment.

Perch, L. & Tandon, N. “Farming, Mining and Caring for the Land: Why a Critical Feminist Gender Discourse on Rights and Resources is More Important Now than Ever Before.” Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa. (2015).
Reflects on women’s experiences in the agriculture and mining sectors and sustainable development through a feminist critique.

Singh, K. “Women and their Role in Natural Resources: A Study in Western Himalayas.” International Journal of Research – Granthaalayah 3(1) 128 – 138: (2015).
Highlights the role of women and traditional activities in natural resource conservation.

The World’s Women 2015. “Environment.” (2015).
Chapter with annually updated qualitative and quantitative information and analysis on the particular vulnerabilities of women to climate change.

UN WomenWatch. “Fact Sheet: Women, Gender Equality and Climate Change.” (2009).
Links the socio-economic and political barriers to women’s empowerment to the gendered vulnerabilities of climate change.

Women Organizing for Change in Agriculture and Natural Resources (WOCAN).
WOCAN is a women-led international membership network with the objective to address gaps in knowledge and experience in sustainable development.

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