What is the business case for women’s empowerment ?
The business case for women’s empowerment is clear. Women touch every aspect of corporate affairs as consumers, employees, business partners, and citizens. For international businesses with global reach, investing in women delivers returns in the form of reduced risk and reputation, stable supply chains, financial performance, and innovation. Women’s empowerment cannot be considered a “niche” issue to be addressed by sustainability teams or executive leadership alone.
International business is already taking steps to advance women’s empowerment as these two examples below show.
ANN INC. has built on its strategic commitment to women and reinforced its women’s empowerment initiatives throughout its supply chain through its 100,000 Women Commitment. The company has signed on to the Women’s Empowerment Principles, expanded participation in BSR’s HERproject to deliver programs on health and financial inclusion, and mainstreamed gender into the company’s supplier code of conduct. By 2018, ANN INC. will provide education and training to 100,000 women in its supply chain. In addition, the company has revised its supplier code of conduct to ensure that the company and its suppliers share a vision to support women. The steps ANN INC. has taken to include suppliers and supplier practices in the program represent a holistic and integrated approach across the company.
Standard Chartered has identified women as powerful, overlooked consumers with specific needs in the financial services they use. Business plays a role in providing access to goods and services that help women improve their living standards, and increase their mobility and potential. Product design and development should consider the needs and risks for women of goods, services, and technologies companies offers. Standard Chartered developed the Diva Club account, designed specifically for women consumers in Africa. The account is unique in that it addresses banking convenience, links to lifestyle benefits, and responds to women’s demand for networking opportunities and joint savings clubs among women customers. The focus on women has been a means for Standard Chartered to differentiate itself from its peers, and a way to connect with its women consumers.
Strategic partnerships are the way forward
Previous initiatives have shown that business can make an impact on women’s empowerment. Business can be a formidable force for positive change, and by seeking strategic partnerships to advance women’s empowerment, business can complement and enhance work done by donors and NGOs. There is a role for each sector to play.
Donors should proactively seek opportunities to link development priorities to business activities. As globalization increases business’s operations in emerging markets, there is an imperative for development actors to work with global business to ensure that economic progress is tied to increased individual prosperity, gender equality, and shared opportunity.
One way for donors to identify meaningful entry points for working with business on women’s empowerment is to concentrate on core business priorities. Donors and business can focus on three areas: employment and quality jobs, access to goods and services, and community engagement and investment. These three areas represent levers for businesses to support an inclusive economy. For example, applying a women’s empowerment perspective to employment and quality jobs could mean supporting capacity building programs that promote women’s advancement at work. Another example would be spearheading product design that combines business technical expertise and donor access to networks and communities to develop products that meet women’s needs in emerging markets. Harnessing business’s specific skillsets and understanding core business priorities is critical to productive collaboration with business.
Local NGOs seeking to work with global business and their suppliers should adapt their intervention approach to the specifics of a private sector setting. NGOs with strong experience delivering community programs on women’s empowerment can tailor their methodology to deliver the same high quality programing within the private sector. The workplace provides a new and often underutilized intervention point to reach women.
NGOs interested in partnering with business can define a specific strategy to engage businesses and deliver programs in a business setting. New programs must take into account the unique objectives and needs of working women, such as social and economic improvement, decision-making power, or other goals. NGOs must also consider the effects of an intervention on daily operations of a business, such as lost production time to participate in the program. Finally, NGOs should build a business case linking development objectives with benefits for the business, to speak the language of business and ensure their buy-in.
Global businesses should first decide that women’s empowerment is a corporate priority, and then support women through core activities and partnerships with other stakeholders. Defining corporate priorities for women’s empowerment requires a strategic approach that weighs both existing initiatives and company priorities. Developing partnerships with donors and NGOs can further enhance impact on women’s empowerment by bringing in expertise from those stakeholders.
One good place to start is the Women’s Empowerment Principles (WEPs), a joint initiative of UN Women and the UN Global Compact. The WEPs provide tools and resources for businesses seeking to define a corporate strategy, and signing the WEPs is one way to demonstrate corporate commitment to gender equality. The WEPs also serve as a community of best practice for business and other stakeholders working on women’s empowerment to work together and share challenges and successes.