For a more inclusive approach to rebuilding the post-pandemic economy, women need to participate more in the most profitable exporting sectors, according to three international trade bodies.

At the World Trade Organization (WTO) Public Forum in Geneva last week, WTO director general Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, International Trade Centre (ITC) executive director Pamela Coke-Hamilton and Institute of Export and International Trade (IoE&IT) director general Marco Forgione highlighted the importance of an inclusive economic recovery, with a particular view to getting more women into the world’s most lucrative – but male-dominated – industries of STEM, automotive, aerospace, manufacturing and finance.

For Okonko-Iweala, the solution will be found in “active trade policies that ensure non-discrimination and that help women access global value chains”. One example of this is a provision contained in the outcome of the joint initiative on services domestic regulation concluded by a group of WTO members in December last year, that seeks to boost women’s participation in services trade. To overcome barriers that keep women out of international markets, the scaling up of supply-side support to women-owned businesses so they can make their way into male-dominated sectors will be vital, she adds.

However, gender-focused policy alone doesn’t go far enough, say Sangeeta Khorana, international trade policy expert at Bournemouth University and member of the IoE&IT’s board of trustees.

“Women in most developing economies are concentrated in the informal or the low skilled sector, which are typically MSME dominated,” she tells GTR. “The policies that governments are coming up with do not actually even touch those sectors. As a result, women continue to be excluded.”

To illustrate the barriers faced by women exporters in entering male-dominated sectors, the IoE&IT sponsored four female entrepreneurs from Bangladesh, Rwanda, Mexico and Uruguay who are currently enrolled in the ITC’s SheTrades initiative – a programme which connects women entrepreneurs to the global marketplace – to attend the WTO public forum and tell their stories.

Speaking to GTR from the sidelines of the forum, Kohinoor Yeasmin, CEO of Tarango, a textiles company that was one of the first social businesses to introduce fair trade principles to the labour market in Bangladesh, says that access to finance remains a major issue.

“In Bangladesh, the textiles sector is fully dominated by men, with very small percentages of women working there. I took on the challenge. If men can do it, why can’t I?” she says. However, she soon came up against barriers. “I had difficulties obtaining finance from the banks,” she tells GTR. “When I first asked for a loan, I submitted all the documents as per their checklist. They rejected me. I tried again, they rejected me again. A few years later, after receiving capacity building support from ITC SheTrades, I felt more confident. I went through the checklist from the bank, and I applied again. But once again, they rejected me – despite our prime minister having introduced a policy to provide loans to women entrepreneurs.”

“In general, access to finance is difficult for entrepreneurs because banks tend to ask for things that we simply don’t have,” adds fellow SheTrades programme participant Maria Bouvier, who launched her eponymous sustainable design company in Uruguay in 2017 and now exports to the US.

In its most recent research on the trade finance gap, the Asian Development Bank found that women-owned firms did particularly badly when attempting to obtain finance, with about 70% of their applications being totally or partially rejected. At the time, the multilateral institution made a recommendation to policymakers to focus on greater inclusion of women throughout the global financial system, however for entrepreneurs such as Yeasmin, policy isn’t the problem – implementation is. “The government might have its policies, but banks still operate according to their own principles,” she says.

Another issue that the women flag up is that of access to the information they need to be able to enter new markets.

“As a woman, networking is something that I find very difficult, which is hard because often that’s where you can make contacts that can help you to grow,” says Bouvier.

“When I first started, I had no idea about look books or any of these kinds of things. Without the training I received from SheTrades, if a customer approached me, I wouldn’t have been able to respond to them,” says Yeasmin.

Beyond gender-sensitive trade policy implementation, further investment is needed into capacity building to support more female entrepreneurs to enter the world’s most competitive exporting industries, says Khorana. This can take the form of training on how to use online platforms, for example, or how to go out in the e-commerce workplace.

“The message we want to get across to big organisations is that it’s all well and good talking about empowering women or working more with MSMEs, but we need to give them the tools to be able to do this,” says Divia Patel Smith, the IOE&IT’s deputy director of strategic projects and international development. “We need to put the tools in place, put the support in place, build their knowledge, and build their understanding to break down the barriers for them to sell into overseas markets.”

In spite of the difficulties they face, and in some cases against the odds, the four participants have managed to achieve great success in their endeavours. Julian Kobusinge, monitoring and evaluation officer at Rwandan woman-led enterprise Tropic Coffee, tells GTR that the company now exports to Asia, Europe, Australia and the United States, just seven years after its founding.

“Sometimes we convince ourselves that we’re not capable of doing something. It’s not that the men don’t want us to be there. My advice to women entrepreneurs and exporters would be simply to get on and do it, because there’s a big difference between wanting to do something and actually doing it,” says Jessica Madrid Lugo, founder and CEO of Mexican industrial company Laser & Manufacturing.

“I knew I was going to work in a male-dominated sector. I had the technical skills to do what it takes and have worked hard to be where I am. It’s been a battle, but the truth is I am here as a woman, a mother and with a husband but I’m also here as a businesswoman. I didn’t have to choose or drop anything. Sometimes, the barriers are not just outside of us, they’re inside of us.”

Nonetheless, no matter the amount of grit a female entrepreneur can muster, the World Economic Forum currently estimates that it will take 132 years to close the current gender gap and 151 years to close the economic participation and opportunity gap. If the global economic recovery is to feature women in any real sense, making trade more inclusive needs to become a first-order priority.