January 10, 2018 Helen McEachern, Chief Executive Officer Cherie Blair Foundation for Women

Soft Skills and Steel Wills: Why Women’s Economic Empowerment Needs A Holistic Approach

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Aleefa, one of the participants in the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women’s Advancing Palestinian Women Entrepreneurs project / Photo by Tamara Hadi

When it comes to women’s economic empowerment, there are few quick wins or simple fixes. But there is a growing consensus that so-called ‘soft’ skills are absolutely critical to building women’s economic agency.

Academic research shows that ‘soft power’ is often crucial to entrepreneurial success. Earlier this year researchers from the World Bank, the National University of Singapore and Leuphana University in Germany conducted an exercise with 1,500 businesses owners in Togo. The researchers split the businesses into three groups of 500. The first group served as the control; the second received more traditional business training on issues like accounting and financial management; the final group received training underpinned by psychological research, on skills such as setting goals, dealing with feedback and persistence.

The outcome was fascinating. The psychological training helped boost monthly sales by 17% compared with the control group, while profits rose by 30%. Participants in the third group also seemed to display more evidence of innovation, developing more new products than the control group. Interestingly, the more traditional business training seemed to have no effect at all.

The international development sector is also increasingly grasping the importance of taking a holistic approach to women’s economic empowerment. In its inaugural and path-breaking 2016 report, Leave No-One Behind, the UN’s High Level Panel on Women’s Economic Empowerment stated:

“The most effective vocational training programmes for women often incorporate 'soft skills and life skills' development, as well as on-the-job training (internships or apprenticeships). Soft skills, such as communication and leadership skills that are valued on the labour market, are deeply affected by gender norms; investing in such skills can improve women’s self-confidence and job prospects.”

At the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women, we take a broad approach to our mission to empower women entrepreneurs in developing and emerging economies. Our programmes focus on enabling women to unlock their potential by helping them access a range of crucial skills and tools, from mentoring to mobile technology.

In addition to providing training on the more practical aspects of running a successful business, our projects also focus on bolstering less tangible skills, such as confidence, resilience, problem solving and negotiation. We do this through face-to-face training, one-to-one mentoring support, inspirational webinars and digital learning.

There is a clear demand for this type of support. In the West Bank, we supported over 200 Palestinian women to scale up their businesses. In addition to contending with ongoing conflict and political instability, these women also face deeply entrenched social attitudes which uphold the idea that a woman’s ‘place’ is firmly in the home. As one of our project trainers put it, “Women here have to prove themselves. They need a steel will to make a successful business.”

Sana (pictured left), one of the participants in the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women’s Advancing Palestinian Women Entrepreneurs project / Photo by Tamara Hadi

Before the project commenced, we conducted research to get to grips with these issues. Many women spoke to us about the social stigma associated with failure. Others described the isolation and stress that came with launching a business without the support of their families.

In response, we developed psychosocial training which incorporated activities to enable women to fortify certain personality traits, such as persistence and opportunity seeking, and apply these skills to their own enterprises.

Nearly all of the women who joined the project reported increased pride and confidence in their abilities as a result of their participation. Networking and peer support played a crucial role in this – having the opportunity to witness the success of other participants instilled greater confidence in the women, inspiring them to persevere with their own goals.

Across the world, people are realising that business success isn’t just about balancing the books and making a hard sell. And in a world where women face vast barriers to participating safely and freely in the labour market, soft skills can play a truly catalytic role in the fight for economic equality. In reality, there is nothing ‘soft’ about building the grit and resilience needed to weather the financial and psychological storms that come with being a woman entrepreneur in a man’s world.

If we are serious about women’s economic empowerment, we must understand that soft skills are the key to building steel wills.

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