Interviewed by Hanna Müller
2020 has been marked by a global pandemic which has taken its toll on women economically and socially. In this interview, Olena Podoleva, Professor of Economics and Vice President at the Ukrainian National Committee of the International Chamber of Commerce (ICC), talks about why this is the case, and about what she is doing in her role to support the development of female entrepreneurship and women’s empowerment in business and technology. An interview about the importance of keeping in mind the female perspective during chaotic times.
How would you define the mission of the International Chamber of Commerce and what do you see as its role in the world, especially during the COVID-19 crisis?
The ICC is the most influential organisation in global business. We are the institutional representative of more than 45 million companies in over 100 countries, with a mission to make business work for everyone, every day, everywhere.
Through a unique mix of advocacy, solutions, and standard setting, we promote international trade, responsible business conduct, and a global approach to regulation, as well as providing market-leading dispute resolution services. Our members include many of the world’s leading companies, SMEs, business associations and local Chambers of Commerce. We represent business interests at the highest levels of intergovernmental decision-making - whether at the World Trade Organisation, the United Nations or the G20 – to ensure that the voice of business is heard. This capacity to bridge the public and private sectors sets us apart as a unique institution responding to the needs of any stakeholder involved in international commerce.
In a coordinated effort to combat the coronavirus pandemic, the ICC and the World Health Organization have agreed to work closely to ensure that the latest, most reliable information and tailored guidance reaches the global business community. The ICC has launched SOS, a one-stop shop, as part of a global campaign to SaveOurSMEs. The SOS site highlights the challenges MSMEs face and features calls for urgent and coordinated action from governments, private sector leaders and international institutions to ensure their continued viability.
It is this capacity to bridge the
public and private sectors
that sets the ICC apart as a
The past few months have been a whirlwind for the global economy. How would you assess the current economic landscape and prospects for the future?
The baseline forecast of the World Bank in June 2020 envisions a 5.2 percent contraction in global GDP in 2020 — the deepest world recession in decades. By comparison: in 2019, Global GDP grew by 2.4 percent. Per capita incomes in most emerging and developing economies will shrink this year.
At that time (June 2020), few researchers expected a second COVID-19 wave. Now we can see that the second wave is hitting many countries much harder than the first did. No one knows what impact this will have on the dynamic of GDP decline. Advanced and Developing Economies are likely to experience a deeper shock and a slower recovery, but there is much we still do not know. Coronavirus makes the future uncertain. However, the message is clear: we urgently need policy actions to protect populations and improve our capacity to respond to a global pandemic.
Today, nobody can predict the
economic impact of the pandemic.
Coronavirus makes the future uncertain.
From your perspective, how is the Coronavirus pandemic particularly impacting women?
Compared with the 2008 financial crisis, when more men lost their jobs, COVID-19 is hitting women harder. At the start of the pandemic, 55 percent of all employed in the service sector worldwide were women. There were over 800 million women in retail trade, food production, tourism, restaurant business etc. Due to the pandemic women in these sectors are affected by job cuts and shortened working hours. In some countries, there was almost a complete paralysis of the restaurant and hotel sectors – and this sector employs 144 million women.
Female workers in the health and social sector are the next group most affected by the pandemic. These include doctors, nurses, pharmacists, and care home staff. These female workers have a much higher chance of catching COVID-19. For example, in the UK, 2.5 million (or about 77 percent) out of 3.2 million such workers are women. At the same time, almost all low-paid positions (to be exact 98 percent) are held by women. Obviously, solving these problems should be the focus of our attention in the post-pandemic period. I believe that female leadership should play an effective role in this.
The crisis has battered industry sectors
in which women’s employment is
But the financial impact is only half the story:
women are at the core of
the fight against COVID-19.
Analysing the national policies of the Coronavirus crisis, we can see that the effectiveness of policies varies. Female leaders such as Prime Minister of New Zealand Jacinda Ardern, the President of Taiwan Tsai Ing-Wen, the Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg, Finish Prime Minister Sanna Marin provide more effective anti-COVID policies than their male counterparts.
However, at the beginning of the pandemic, only 10 of 152 heads of state and government were women. Therefore, women were constituted only seven percent of the world’s leaders. We urgently need to empower more women to reach leading positions!
Policy makers, regional frameworks, multilateral organisations, and international financial institutions must recognise that women will play a crucial role in resolving the crisis, and that measures to address the pandemic and its economic fallout should include a gendered perspective.
Measures to address the pandemic
and its economic fallout should include
a gendered perspective.
In your role as Vice President at ICC Ukraine, you are responsible for a variety of international projects. Which one might be the most important from a societal perspective?
I am responsible for different international projects. However, our activities around women in business concern me the most. We support the development of female entrepreneurship and women’s empowerment in business and technology.Since 2017, we have organized more than 80 events among them trainings, panel discussions, round tables, webinars, and forums in which participated more than 4000 women from different regions of Ukraine. To help women create and run successful companies, we have launched a special program attracting investors for female business. We also have mentoring programs, and have conducted international conferences with experts, not only from Ukraine but from other countries as well. We had the pleasure to host the President of Estonia, Kersti Kaljulaid, who shared her wisdom about female leadership and talked about her own career.
You also promote female leaders in social business. Can you tell us why you focus on helping women in this specific sector?
There is a trend, not only in Ukraine, but worldwide: the social enterprise model continues to attract more women than men. We find female leaders in many social business sectors: education, social welfare and employment, children and youth.
Let's have a look at what seems to drive them. Women tend to long for sustainable impact, to be innovative and to pioneer new solutions. They try to be independent and gain a better balance between professional and private life. Most aspire to develop new skills and grow professionally, while men are, in contrast, often motivated by more financial opportunities.
There are many barriers to starting up a new business, especially for women: stereotypes, uncertainty, lack of knowledge, financing, and experience are only some of them. That is why we launched different projects for female social entrepreneurs. We try to support women and accompany them along their business journey. We help them to find a partner, create a network, exchange experience, communicate, learn from each other, and find a mentor.
You are woman in leadership, holding a PhD degree in Economics, with a fruitful career not only at the ICC. What is the most important lesson you have learnt in your professional career?
No matter what career path you choose, there are three keys to success: a good idea, a good team, and hard work.
There are three keys to success:
a good idea, a good team,
and hard work.
Do you have a piece of advice you would like to share with women who wish to follow in your footsteps?
When it comes to career advice, listen to Steve Jobs: “The only way to be satisfied is to do what you believe is great work, and the only way to do great work is to love what you do”
We usually finish our interviews with a question from the Proust questionnaire. I chose this one for you: What is your motto?
Benjamin Disraeli, who served as Britain's Prime Minister, novelist and bon viveur, once said: “Action may not always bring happiness; but there is no happiness without action.”