Complexity is the defining business and leadership challenge of our time. But it has never felt more urgent than this moment, with the coronavirus upending life and business as we know it. For the past few months, we’ve been talking to leaders about what it takes to lead through the most complex and confounding problems, including the pandemic. Today, we talk with Linda Scott, author of The Double X Economy: The Epic Potential of Women’s Empowerment, and professor emeritus of entrepreneurship and innovation at the University of Oxford. Scott is a senior consulting fellow at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, founder of the Global Business Coalition for Women’s Economic Empowerment, and was named one of the top twenty-five world thinkers of 2015 in Prospect. She is a gender economics consultant to the World Bank and has just completed a major study on women’s financial inclusion for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
David Benjamin and David Komlos: Tell us a bit about yourself and your area of expertise.
Linda Scott: My doctoral training was done under a special degree for interdisciplinary work, something that is highly prized, but carries risks. Normally a scholar is expected to go deep within their own specialized area and never cross disciplines. That depth of specialization unfortunately creates tunnel vision. Interdisciplinary work breaks down the silos and allows you to compare evidence across areas, something that often results in profound insights. The risk, obviously, is that you get something wrong in the view of one of the disciplines.
The work behind The Double X Economy demanded an interdisciplinary perspective because, though we now have hard data on women’s economic exclusion, we still lacked an explanation for how it happened.
When I began the book, I had to cross economics with an array of hard sciences, as well as marshal a lot of history, in order to answer even very basic questions for my readers. Synthesizing science like that would be a bit scary for any non-specialist. But I must have done okay: I recently got shortlisted for the Royal Society Science Book Prize, which was kind of a certification of the work because their first criterion is that you get the science right.
Benjamin and Komlos: In just a few words, can you please define the Double X Economy and why it’s important for people to understand?
Scott: This concept evolved out of my years at Oxford, where my research focused on finding ways to lift women out of extreme poverty, but where I was also teaching at one of the world’s most prestigious universities, concentrating particularly on women’s entrepreneurship. That experience, though, gave me multiple points of comparison between women in poor nations and economically elite women. I saw that both groups were experiencing the same barriers, but in a slightly softened form in the richer nations. During those years, a flood of quantitative data began coming out of major institutions showing, for the first time, that women are economically unequal everywhere, with the same patterns visible around the world, as well as the same mechanisms holding the disadvantages in place.
The Double X Economy is a term I coined to explain that phenomenon: The global economic system in which women around the world are unequal in the same way and blocked by the same mechanisms.
Benjamin and Komlos: Was there a ‘Brody Moment’ you can remember that set you on the path of researching it?
Scott: In that one moment when Police Chief Brody first sees the shark in Jaws, you can see on his face that it’s way bigger than anyone thought and far more malevolent than anyone had grasped. And what you can also see is mortal fear; you can almost feel his blood running cold. After he steps back into the cabin and says his iconic line (“you’re going to need a bigger boat”), the very next thing he does is to call for help, because he realizes that he and the other two men on the boat are not going to be able to stop the shark on their own. Yet, on shore, local leaders had doubted this shark’s very existence.
In my Brody Moment, I was also on a boat, in Bangladesh, waiting for a young man who was working to keep girls in school after puberty and wanted to talk to me about my African research into whether free sanitary pads would help. I was stunned when he described exactly the same cruel scenario we had seen in Ghana, a phenomenon we had thought was totally local. In these two distant places, girls were stalked and raped on the walk to school as soon as it was known they had menstruated. Fathers in both countries wanted girls to remain virgins so that a good deal could be had when they were sold in marriage; therefore, they started looking for husbands immediately after menarche. If an African father could not sell his daughter because of some sexual activity—or if she refused to marry someone not of her own choosing—she was subject to stigma and sometimes cast out. In Bangladesh, such girls were also permanently disfigured or killed. Some parents in both places kept the girls home after menarche, for the sake of safety and economic gain. Girls sometimes ran away to the cities, where they were often drawn into prostitution or even slavery. Sanitary pads, we hypothesized, might help them keep menstruation secret, allowing them another year or two in school, and maybe stave off these tragic outcomes.
What I felt in that moment of realization was fear. My blood ran cold. This was much bigger and much more malevolent than I thought. I realized in a flash that gender inequality was not a cultural phenomenon that varied wildly from place to place, as the universities had taught and international policy had accepted for decades. Instead, in that Brody moment, gender inequality showed itself to me as a worldwide and deeply wicked force. I immediately knew that I didn’t have enough tools to convince others that this horrible thing even existed, nor to get help.
In that blood-chilling instant, I also saw that this evil’s consistent footprint could only be explained in one of two ways: either it was natural or it was ancient enough to have spread around the globe as humanity did. For a decade, I looked for the answer to that question. The Double X Economy explains what I found and makes an urgent plea for the whole world to help.
Benjamin and Komlos: Can you talk us through how empowering women economically accelerates growth and enhances well-being at the level of an individual company?
Scott: In December 2014, I founded a group of major multinationals that were already working on women’s economic empowerment at a global scale. The idea was that they would share lessons so that economic inclusion would happen more efficiently and, I hoped, more rapidly. The group is still together. They are called the Global Coalition for Women’s Economic Empowerment and the members are Coca-Cola, ExxonMobil, Goldman Sachs, Marks & Spencer, MasterCard, Mondelēz, Procter & Gamble, PwC, Qualcomm, UPS, and Walmart. In 2017, I wrote a report about their work that included their business case: reduced costs because of increased competition; more innovation as a result of diverse perspectives; reduction in difficult workplace issues like violence and sexual harassment; and reduction in turnover among women.
These companies must work with governments in the countries where they have operations; when they saw that women’s economic exclusion was consistent across all those nations, they developed a program that would be applicable to each of those economies. Finally, the women’s economic empowerment cause was very popular with both male and female employees, as well as a plus with consumers. These corporations’ programs have now reached nearly 250 countries.
Continued in part 2 of our interview with Linda Scott.
Original article posted on Forbes on Dec 7, 2020
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