/ 17 February 2020

Working for women

Malala Yousafzai
Malala Yousafzai, a Pakistani advocate for the education of girls and women, receives help from Shiza Shahid for running the non-profit Malala Fund. (Niu Xiaolei/AFP)

Big business has been seen, historically, to be the preserve of men, but in spite of that — or perhaps because of it — women have long held their own in the entrepreneurial space. It stands to reason that those squeezed out of the corporate space have often worked in the informal sector to make extra money. What’s interesting is that startups led by women have been found to yield a higher return on investment; this was revealed in studies done by the Kauffman Foundation, MSCI ECG Research Inc, and American Express. 

In altruistic spaces, business knowledge has integrally important applications, and there are female-led success stories to prove it. Co-founder and global ambassador of the Malala Fund, Pakistan-born Shiza Shahid manages business operations for Malala Yousafzai, the youngest winner of the Nobel Peace Prize. A Stanford graduate, Shahid reached out to Yousafzai to lend her business knowledge to Yousafzai’s mission, which she found inspiring. In addition to assisting the young activist in strategising her campaigns for gender equality and education, she was also instrumental in the foundation of the Malala Fund, empowering women by enabling them to access education. It goes without saying that this kind of strategic impact quickly multiplies to change a society. 

Of course, there are dangers to understanding all women-led companies as intrinsically “feminist”, or social enterprises, or all “startups with a cause” as all-round ethical, “good” places to work. There are those businesses that ostensibly support women, often at the exploitation or expense of marginalised groups, and then there are the companies that have good intentions but lack the means. As social enterprises are often underfunded, their ability to provide a secure working environment is limited. Social enterprises that are unable to pay competitive salaries to their workers are hypocritical: this is exploitation by an organisation that peddles empowerment. A desire for purpose in work is widely felt among millennials, so it’s little surprise that many social enterprises have been known to use meaningful work as a drawcard. Doing what you love certainly has its appeal, but for some, the cost of sacrificing the more practical benefits of a decent wage is simply too high — especially for women, who statistically still shoulder disproportionate child-rearing responsibilities, both financially and in terms of time. 

For founders and funders of all genders, the message is clear: investing in women pays off, but decent wages are essential, even if the cause is a good one.