By Mercy Tembon, Regional Director for the South Caucasus, World Bank
This time last year, I wrote about the importance of promoting gender equality and removing barriers for women in the South Caucasus. My overall message was that education and the full economic participation of women are critical for accelerating progress toward inclusive growth and poverty reduction.
I made the point that countries could see real increases in their Gross Domestic Product (GDP) if gender equality was achieved in the labor market. In Georgia, for example, this could mean economic gains equivalent to 12% of GDP – almost five times the country’s spending on education in 2012.
Did you know that more and more Georgian girls are attaining tertiary education, completing on average 15 years of education overall? In school, they consistently outperform boys in reading, mathematics and science. Yet, despite this positive trend, progress towards gender equality in the country’s labor market remains slow and uneven.
At the same time, like other countries, Georgia faces both opportunities and challenges from new and innovative technologies – which are disrupting the way we think, work, and interact with each other. The skills required for today’s labor market have evolved significantly from those needed a couple of decades ago.
So, how can Georgia adapt to an evolving labor market, becoming more innovative and competitive? To begin with, the country must further enhance its human capital – its collective talent developed through education and training in technical, cognitive and behavioral skills. Such important skills development has traditionally been skewed towards young males, particularly in the fields that increase employability, such as science, technology, engineering and mathematics – what we call STEM.
Even though Georgia has made tremendous strides in narrowing the gender gap in education at all levels, girls and women remain underrepresented in STEM – fields which drive innovation. Gender gaps become stark in higher education, where female students represent only about one third of all students enrolled in STEM-related fields of study.
One of the main reasons is that girls are often brought up to believe that STEM careers are more suitable for men and less so for women. Education systems and schools can therefore play a critical role in determining girls’ interest in STEM subjects. Teachers, learning materials, assessment methods, and overall learning environment can support and boost girls’ interest and engagement in STEM subjects and, ultimately, in STEM careers.
But that’s not enough. In addition to STEM education, entrepreneurial ability is also essential to turning burgeoning talent into productivity. We know that young, innovative firms are highly important for economic growth, but the capacity of such firms to innovate can be constrained by a labor force that lacks entrepreneurial ability.
A recent study revealed that many young Georgians lack key employability skills such as problem solving and creativity, as well as social behavioral skills such as openness, leadership, and the ability to work independently. This poses a challenge for innovation in Georgia, since these are the kinds of skills that the future labor market will increasingly demand.
In recent years, a number of programs have been introduced in Georgia that offer coaching, mentoring, and training for innovative entrepreneurs. However, very few focus on women or have high participation of women. Indeed, the share of women who end up starting and leading the growth of companies in Georgia is relatively small, especially outside the capital of Tbilisi.
At the World Bank, we are committed to helping Georgia embrace its full potential for innovation and competitiveness. For example, the Georgia National Innovation Ecosystem (GENIE) Project, which is implemented by Georgia’s Innovation and Technology Agency, supports Georgian entrepreneurs – both female and male – in developing their ability to create and grow innovative businesses for the economy. The Project focuses on innovation infrastructure, innovation services (including entrepreneurial training for women), and innovation financing.
The GENIE Project also supports a broadband Internet voucher scheme for small businesses in rural areas of Georgia. The goal is to connect women-owned businesses to digital services such as online banking, as well as global e-Commerce platforms.
So, if Georgia is to be truly innovative and competitive, more girls and women must be involved! If Georgia wants to unleash its full innovation potential, more girls and women must participate in STEM and entrepreneurship programs. The more Georgia invests in quality education and entrepreneurial ability for all its citizens, the more innovative it can be in the years and decades ahead.