03/10/2013 10:21 EDT | Updated 05/09/2013 05:12 EDT

How Women Grow the Economy

Getty Images
Businesswomen working in headsets

Any economy, culture or enterprise that denies females equal education and opportunities taps only half of its collective IQ. This is a truism, but is ignored by too many regimes, religions and organizations of all kinds.

The economic importance of gender meritocracy was explained to me 20 years ago in an interview with Mexico's President Carlos Salinas de Gortari, who had a PhD in economics. He suddenly interrupted our conversation, got out of his chair and fetched a graph from his inner office. The document plotted the correlation, in dozens of countries, between the educational levels attained by females and each country's economic growth rates. The more education women had, the higher the economic growth rates and incomes over time.

"This budget is aimed at expanding public education to more Mexicans and also to increase the educational requirements," he said. "We believe that the little girls of Mexico will benefit the most from this budget, and that it will be the little girls of Mexico who will help to lift this country out of poverty."

According to UNICEF in 2009, Mexico's adult literacy rate had increased to first-world levels of 93 per cent with primary school attendance reaching a new peak of 98 per cent. Birthrates had fallen, thus raising family incomes, and soon the country's total economy to be as large as Canada's. Salinas had emulated the successes of the Asian Tigers and again demonstrated that education of females represented a significant competitive advantage.

March 8 was International Women's Day, an observance begun by the United Nations in 1975. Progress has been significant but 2012 marked an inflection point in terms of the "gender agenda."

High-profile atrocities against young women hoisted the issue to the top of newscasts and front pages. In October, a Taliban assassin tried to kill Pakistani teenager Malala for the "crime" of attending school, then in December a young woman was gang-raped and murdered in Delhi.

As UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said in his statement on International Women's Day: "These atrocities, which rightly sparked global outrage, part of a much larger problem that pervades virtually every society and every realm of life."

Millions of women and girls are abused, neglected, enslaved or starved when their impoverished parents feed their brothers instead of them. There are pockets of female mistreatment in all countries. In January 2012, a Canadian jury found three members of an Afghan family guilty of drowning three teenage sisters and another woman in what the judge described as "cold-blooded, shameful murders" resulting from a "twisted concept of honor."

The case shook the country.

The year's events led Christine Lagarde, one of the world's most influential and powerful women, to step up to the cause. She has enjoyed a brilliant career as a lawyer in the U.S., cabinet minister in France and as Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund since 2011. Her keynote was dedicated to the two female victims in Pakistan and India, but her message was clear that gender equality was a demonstrable ingredient for economic growth and, reading between the lines, would be required to obtain loans from the IMF.

"Gender inclusion is critically important and too often neglected by policymakers," she told a plenary session of the World Economic Forum this year in Davos. "It is no longer acceptable to block women. Universal access to education is the unconditional starting point."

Last week, Pulitzer Prize winning authors Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn inaugurated the Bluma Lecture series hosted by the Toronto Public Library Foundation. Both spoke movingly about the plight of most females worldwide, and about how they can be, and have been, helped.

Kristof used sweeping historical terms to make the point: "The 19th Century's moral challenge was about slavery, the 20th Century's was totalitarianism and the 21st Century's is about gender parity." The series was named after Bluma Appel who was an outspoken and beloved activist in Toronto who championed many causes.

Kristof and WuDunn co-authored the award winning book and documentary series Half the Sky about gender inequality. She has become an investment banker and he writes poignant and hard-hitting columns in the New York Times dealing with human rights abuses, human trafficking and social injustices around the world. The two, who are married, jointly won Pulitzer Prizes for their reportage on the student movement and Tienanmen Square protests of 1989. Then in 2006, Kristof won a second Prize for his coverage of the Darfur conflict.

They emphasized that improvements have been dramatic, but that more awareness and activities are needed to help millions more in dire straits. In the rich world, gains continue. In the US election, an unprecedented 181 women ran for Congress and in Canada, six out of the country's 13 Premiers are women: Alison Redford of Alberta; Pauline Marois of Quebec; Kathleen Wynne of Ontario; Christy Clark of BC; Kathy Dunderdale of Newfoundland and Labrador and Eva Aariak of Nunavut.

Internationally, the heads of three of the world's most dynamic economies and nation-states are Angela Merkel, Chancellor of Germany; Dimla Vana Linhares Rousseff, President of Brazil and Julia Gillard, Prime Minister of Australia. In total, females headed the governments of Argentina, Bermuda, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Costa Rica, Croatia, Finland, Guyana, Iceland, Ireland, Krgystan, Liberia, Lithuania, St. Martin, Slovakia as well as Trinidad Tobago.

In business, women continued to retain or reach heady heights such as Meg Whitman of Hewlett-Packard; Virginia Rometty of IBM; Patricia Woertz of Archer Daniels Midland; Indra Nooyi of PepsiCo; Angela Braly of WellPoint; Irene Rosenfeld of Kraft and Ellen Kullman of DuPont. And in 2012, one of the biggest pay packages in history went to Marissa Mayer, enticed from Google to become CEO of Yahoo at a reported $70 million over five years. And in sports, female athletes from several Muslim countries sent athletes to compete in the Olympics for the first time in history.

All in all, gains have outpaced slippage, thanks to advocates like Kristof, WuDunn, Lagarde, enlightened leaders and philanthropists like Bill and Melinda Gates. Perhaps one day, the education of the world's "little girls" will lift most people out of poverty.

*This article previously appeared in the Financial Post

150 Funny Women - Past And Present