Last week’s disclosure regarding the launch of a Women’s Chamber of Commerce in Guyana is to be welcomed. A more meaningful assessment of the significance of a Business Support Organization (BSO) dedicated to advancing the interests of local businesswomen, however, must await not just the unfolding of the organization’s agenda but the serious actualization thereof. One expects, of course, that the leadership of the new Women’s Chamber understands that its credentials will be secured only after it has provided practical demonstrations of its commitment to the fortunes of women-run businesses.

That being said the new organization will be seen in some quarters as a long overdue, relevant development that seeks to respond to a need that has remained unfulfilled for years. It serves as a poignant reminder of the historic and unchanging gender imbalance in the leadership of all of our important Business Support Organizations (BSO’s) and the near shutout of women from the key leadership positions in those organizations, namely the Private Sector Commission, (PSC), the Guyana Manufacturing & Services Association, (GMSA) and the Georgetown Chamber of Commerce and industry (GCCI). Hopefully, it is, as well, an indicator of real change.

Going forward what our high-profile male-dominated BSO’s must do is not just issue platitudinous pronouncements that say nice things about the emergence of a Women’s Chamber; they must move to embrace the new organization as an equal, beginning immediately to make a place at the private sector leadership table for the new organization. This can be manifested by, at the earliest time, inducting the Women’s Chamber into the Private Sector Commission, according its voice the same decibel level as is afforded the GMSA and the GCCI within the private sector.

 Now that we have a Women’s Chamber there is really no reason why, not too far down the road, we should not see women holding positions of real influence and authority within the PSC itself and heading up high-profile delegations, whether these have to do with key engagements with government on business issues of national importance or in terms of leading important delegations engaging foreign business entities seeking to do business with the country as a whole.

It is of course no secret that even without the benefit of a lobby organization behind them, there have been some standout women as far as building and running local businesses is concerned. A lot of this has been done without the ‘fuss and frills’ that has come to be associated with the contemporary business culture. What women-run businesses, particularly those that have emerged in relatively recent years (in agro- processing, particularly) need most is the opportunity to be dealt with on an equal footing as those of their male counterparts. Even when allowances are made for the exceptions to the general rule, local businesswomen, have, in large measure been placed in particular ‘categories’ which, for the most part, include fashion design, agro-processing and handicraft. Sectors like mining, banking, large-scale retailing, construction and aviation among others, some of the perceived ‘heavy hitters in the business sector have traditionally been and remain overwhelmingly male domains.  

Interestingly, the announcement of the creation of a Women’s Chamber coincides roughly with what promises to be historic changes in the national business culture arising out of a new fast approaching oil and gas industry. One makes this point if only to remind that local private sector oil and gas-related activity that has to do predominantly with local content has been dominated overwhelmingly by male private sector leaders. One has no immediate recollection of anything even remotely resembling a prominent local female presence in local content or any other key oil and gas-related discourses locally. While the Women’s Chamber will doubtless have its own ideas as the shape of its agenda, it can do much worse than direct its lobby efforts towards probing local content ‘spaces’ for relevant women-run businesses in oil and gas related fields. 

If we were to be bold enough to volunteer on the desired direction of the new Women’s Chamber we would caution that it not drift into the realm of exclusively gender-focused issues. It must seek to take its place as a mainstream Business Support Organization so that its voice is sounded on issues that go beyond charting a strong course for women on the national entrepreneurial landscape. From the much broader perspective the Women’s Chamber must weave its own unique patterns into the national business tapestry, shaking the existing BSO’s loose from their time-worn moorings and infusing their own ideas into the shaping of a more forward-looking national business culture.

We venture, with the greatest humility, to go further. The advent of a Women’s Chamber is likely to be met   with a fair measure of enthusiasm by the increasing number of women who continue to rise in sub-sectors like agro-processing and art and craft. These we believe are among the most determined and energetic (and all too often the most disadvantaged) women in business in Guyana. Those constraints notwithstanding, their rise in business has, in many instances, been nothing short of impressive. Membership of a strong Women’s Chamber with sufficient clout and drive to tackle and help solve some of the various challenges confronting these emerging businesswomen (one of those challenges is that they are yet to be recognized and acknowledged in some quarters as businesswomen) will not only add to their sense of self-worth but can also add value to the businesses that they have built and now run with a fair measure of success. Here again it is a matter of the Women’s Chamber demonstrating that it can deliver both the technical and the motivational inputs to help women in sectors like agro processing and the creative industries lift their businesses higher.

In its earliest official pronouncements the new Chamber seeks to sell itself as a “dynamic organization dedicated to empowering women.” It says too that what it seeks to do is “to harness our members’ economic power in the country and improve the lives of women while stimulating their socio-economic growth.” Those are insightful sentiments. They reflect an awareness of the condition of large numbers of women in business in Guyana, the vast majority of whom are ‘toughing it out,’ battling against prejudices, many of which are gender-based. If, therefore, it is to make a meaningful impact on the national business landscape the Women’s Chamber’s biggest challenge is likely to be that of being an agent of change, historic change.