The African Development Bank opened its inaugural African Gender Equality Index report by observing: “Women are more economically active in Africa than anywhere else in the world.”

This is visible in Ghana, where every busy intersection and marketplace teems with women vendors. Nearly 70 percent of Ghanaian women participate in the economy—a rate higher than many developed countries—and women are present in nearly every sector and in a range of roles, from cooks, to police officers, to CEOs. Conversely, women also represent a significant portion of Ghanaians living in poverty and are disproportionately at risk from the negative impacts that can accompany business operations and economic growth.

A few weeks ago, we traveled to Ghana to explore these contradictions and the role the private sector can play in advancing women’s economic empowerment and ensuring women benefit more fully from economic growth in sub-Saharan Africa, as part of a research grant sponsored by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.

Our initial findings reinforce the importance of a holistic approach to women’s economic empowerment—one that focuses on the underlying systemic factors affecting women, from education gaps to lack of affordable electricity, and many more in between.

Our research, which included surveys, interviews, and focus groups and examined Ghana’s mining, telecommunications, and garment industries, unearthed five key findings.

  1. Economic empowerment is not just about women’s participation in the economy—it is about ensuring women have the necessary resources, opportunities, protections, and skills to achieve their full potential and have a choice in what they do with their lives. The distinction between participation and empowerment is important in the context of Ghana, where encouraging women to join the labor force, in some cases, means women stay in low-level jobs so that they can continue to provide for their families instead of pursuing further schooling or career advancement opportunities. There are signs of progress, however: Women lead two of the country’s major telecommunications companies.
  2. Laws aren’t holding women back, poverty and social norms are. As one stakeholder told us: “In Ghana, there is no law that comes between a woman and her becoming anything she wants to be.” Progressive laws, such as 3 months’ paid maternity leave and equal pay for equal work, have helped tackle gender discrimination for many women from well-off families. However, women from lower-income households face a range of systemic barriers, including entrenched poverty; poor access to housing, finance, and health services; and deep-rooted social norms that dictate which types of jobs are “acceptable” for women and that place a heavier share of domestic responsibilities on women. Companies must understand the impact of these systemic barriers if they want to enhance economic empowerment of the women in their workforces, value chains, and the communities where they operate.
  3. Women business owners are key to unlocking opportunities at scale. Female entrepreneurship is regarded as essential to inclusive economic growth because women reinvest much of their earnings into their families and communities, according to many studies. Yet, the role of women business owners in advancing opportunities and livelihoods for women along the value chain is often overlooked. We found that the majority of garment factories in Ghana are owned by women, who are not only dedicated to growing the nascent sector but also to improving the well-being of their employees—most of whom are women. We spoke to one female factory owner who provides temporary housing for new employees, develops employee leadership skills, and works to build women’s self-esteem—with far-reaching impacts at and outside of work. Small business owners, however, often struggle to secure large contracts with buyers and access to credit to grow their businesses and bring these opportunities for women to scale.
  4. Training should equip women for the future. Although Ghana has made significant progress in primary education, gender gaps remain in technical training and higher education. While many companies offer on-the-job training, most of it is focused on helping women do their jobs today, not on preparing them for the future. In focus groups conducted for this project, women from the telecommunications and garment sectors highlighted how additional training was a prerequisite for promotion. For women to advance and contribute fully to companies and economic growth, they need ongoing training with long-term goals in mind.
  5. There is a need to invest directly in women and integrate gender sensitivity into companies’ activities and strategy. Many companies are aligning policies and practices with global diversity and inclusion commitments but struggle to translate these into local operational context and to include an explicit gender component. In Ghana in particular, companies should consider women’s personal safety when determining working conditions and hours or how agriculture farmland is distributed to households near mining sites to ensure women can use and benefit from the land. Gender considerations also need to be included in the development of new technological products and services and how and where these are sold or distributed to women.

It is clear that Ghana has made considerable progress toward gender equality. The number of inspiring female community and business leaders we met are a testament to that. Yet, significant challenges remain. For companies, investing in women in Ghana is not only smart business, but also a chance to strengthen sector growth, build healthy communities, and enable Ghana to live up to its potential as a key trading partner and model of an inclusive economy.