By Linda Ma, 2013 G(irls)20 Summit Delegate, Representing Australia
Last year, like many young Australians, I took a "gap year" after finishing high school. I spent much of it traveling, living, and working in Asia, falling prey to dodgy dealers, whizzing along on motorcycles, and fulfilling the misguided dreams of youth. The most valuable period was the four months I spent as a volunteer English teacher in Vietnam. It was a privilege to personally witness a country rising to fulfill its economic potential. This entrepreneurship came at all levels of society, and it was particularly striking to me how it allowed women to break the shackles of a traditionally patriarchal society and claim a role in the development of their country. Whether it was a woman selling lottery tickets at a dusty roadside stall, or pushing a cart selling flowers in downtown Hanoi, or running major national companies, women were ensuring that they dictated their own futures.
If women have the means and ability to take charge of their own economic destinies, I am of the conviction that they will prove themselves more than capable of achieving great outcomes not only for themselves but globally. I believe that entrepreneurship should and does have no social bounds and should be extended to every woman. But if I would presume to give one piece of advice to women on how to unlock their economic potential, it is that old chestnut: education. And perhaps that is what I saw empowering Vietnamese women: the Confucian veneration of education as key to self-betterment.
This needs to occur on several levels. Firstly, we need to redouble our efforts towards achieving the UN Millennium Development Goal of universal primary education by 2015. Basic literacy and numeracy increases a woman's ability to participate in the economy and to run a basic business, not to mention the benefits for her health and infant mortality rates. Then, as a further crucial step, we need to increase participation of girls in secondary education. When families can afford to send children to secondary school, boys are sent as a priority because of traditional social values and a belief that they have higher economic potential, which is less valid in a globalizing, information-based world. When a girl is able to access higher-order reasoning skills, her ability to create innovative, entrepreneurial solutions in her community is greatly enhanced.
Thirdly, we must train girls and women as a matter of urgency in fields such as mathematics, science, and technology. These fields desperately need skilled talent and form the basis of a global knowledge economy, yet women avoid them because of the pernicious notion that they aren't "women's work." We need to look towards pioneering women like Facebook's COO Sheryl Sandberg and Yahoo's CEO Marissa Mayer to see confident, feminist women who are succeeding in the world of business and technology.
Finally, we need to equip women with the particular skills needed to create vibrant, diverse, adaptive economic ventures. Women should be provided with accessible, subsidized business and management education that enables them to start, run, and manage effective businesses. They should also be able to access foreign language classes to equip them with the ability to engage with a globalized world, whether this means being able to market to tourists and foreigners or to solicit foreign investment. Education should not only be a goal because of its inherent worth, but because it is the mechanism for effecting change and growth in so many other ways. I hope that my incredible privilege in being able to complete high school and go onto fulfilling higher education may be extended to other young women because of the life changing economic future it will grant them.
Linda Ma, 2013 G(irls)20 Summit Delegate, represented Australia at the 2013 G(irls)20 Summit, June 15 - 19 in Moscow, Russia. Visit www.girls20summit.com to watch the G(irls)20 Summit.
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