Addressing Women’s Empowerment Is Key to Sustainability: BSR’s Strategy for Business Action

Photo credit: UN Women, Open Consultation on the work and deliberations of the UN Secretary-General's High Level Panel on Women’s Economic Empowerment, March 2016, Flickr.

September 22, 2016
  • Aditi Mohapatra

    Former Managing Director, BSR

  • Peder Michael Pruzan-Jorgensen

    Former Senior Vice President, BSR

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which celebrate their first birthday this week, identify women’s advancement as a prerequisite to progress on the global sustainable development agenda and as central to achieving all 17 goals.

The UN Secretary-General’s High-Level Panel on Women’s Economic Empowerment also celebrated a milestone today by releasing its first report, which presents its findings on actions that business and all sectors should take to advance women’s economic empowerment. The report finds that progress has been “far too slow,” and gaps in gender equality remain “persistent and pervasive.”

At BSR, we agree that we need to accelerate the rate of progress. We know that the business community is capable of much more, yet we have not seen the level of leadership and ambition, focus on scale and impact, and emphasis on collaboration for women’s empowerment that we know is necessary to address these urgent issues. Every sector benefits when women are empowered, and every sector must do its individual and collective part to contribute to women’s advancement.

With this backdrop, we are pleased to launch a new BSR practice to catalyze effective and ambitious business action on women’s empowerment, drawing on our decade of experience working on global women’s issues.

Our women’s empowerment strategy is three-fold: First, we will foster better understanding of how women’s empowerment benefits business and how business can contribute to women’s empowerment. Second, we will support corporate strategies and programs and develop tools and solutions to drive progress. And third, we will build and facilitate collective action to drive larger-scale, multi-sector solutions for women’s empowerment.

Build Awareness, Strengthen the Evidence Base

BSR’s members are increasingly seeking to understand how they can contribute to women’s progress, and some are actively setting targets to empower women globally. However, company programs, despite their best intentions, too often fail to take into account the complexity of the issues at stake and the broader range of economic, social, cultural, and political factors that affect women’s empowerment. For example, investments in women’s access to finance and literacy need to be coupled with partnerships that address the underlying factors limiting a woman’s voice or agency to make decisions and shape her future.

We will work with our members and partners to bring greater awareness to the interconnected nature of these issues and advance holistic, integrated, and strategic approaches to women’s empowerment. These strategies should enable businesses to effectively invest in women’s advancement by acknowledging how different aspects of women’s empowerment are mutually reinforcing or are prerequisites for action on another, related issue. 

Our 2016 report “Building Effective Women’s Economic Empowerment Strategies” presents the case for holistic and integrated approaches and specifies the opportunities across four key sectors: consumer products, financial services, healthcare, and information and communications technology.

Develop Strategies, Design Tools, Implement Solutions

To encourage businesses to integrate women’s empowerment into strategy, measure impact, and identify priority areas for investment, we will provide services to support strategy development, assess current commitments and set goals, build meaningful partnerships, and help direct company resources toward the greatest opportunities for impact.

In our recently published “Women's Empowerment in Global Value Chains” report, written by BSR and supported by Women Deliver and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Netherlands, we introduce our view on the different levers and roles companies play in women’s empowerment through our framework for action, “act, enable, influence.” Our framework calls on companies to:

  • Act: adjusting policies, business processes such as procurement and product development, and investments that impact women
  • Enable: partnering to enable NGOs, community organizations, and business partners to promote women’s empowerment along the value chain
  • Influence: engaging in research, advocacy, and communications campaigns to build an environment that promotes gender equality and opportunities for women.

This framework helps companies see their opportunities and impacts beyond traditional areas of influence, such as recruitment and retention policies and practices.

BSR has directly supported implementation of women’s empowerment programs in global supply chains through HERproject. Next year, we will celebrate 10 years of working with more than 50 global brands through workplace-based programs that promote health, financial inclusion, and positive gender relations. In China, we have partnered with the Walmart Foundation on the Women in Factories program to reach 56,000 women in 51 factories in the past two-and-half years, equipping them with the knowledge, tools, and confidence they need to succeed in the workplace and at home.

To assist companies in assessing current commitments, BSR is leading the development of a global diagnostic tool to understand how company policies and practices align with the Women’s Empowerment Principles (WEPs). We are partnering with the Women’s Empowerment Principles Secretariat—the UN Global Compact and UN Women—together with governments and businesses to develop a practical resource for companies seeking to implement the WEPs.

Foster Collaboration, Scale Impact

Collaboration is necessary because it sets a common call-to-action and allows partners to learn from each other, share and scale solutions, and identify new areas for investment. For BSR, collaboration with our peer organizations is necessary to help drive systemic change through a common action agenda and to stay informed of new insights and research on what is working globally.

BSR is actively pursuing opportunities to integrate gender into existing standards, which will bypass the need to create separate, siloed activities and will emphasize scalable, industry-wide solutions. For instance, in the coming years, we will work six major supply chain initiatives to integrate gender into their strategies, guidelines, and protocols. And in parallel, we are working with other partners to develop country-level strategies in China, Mexico, and Vietnam for catalyzing ambitious action by local business and stakeholders.

Our partnership with the Deliver for Good Campaign is an important example of BSR’s focus on engaging a variety of partners on a common action agenda. Through this effort, we are partnering with leading women’s NGOs and international organizations to place a gender lens on the investments necessary to advance the SDGs and mobilize multi-sector solutions.  

As companies seek to lead on women’s empowerment, we encourage them to understand how they can contribute through the three approaches discussed above: identification of priorities, scaling of solutions, and development of multistakeholder partnerships.

One way is through our new collaborative network for business action on women’s empowerment, which we will launch at the BSR Conference in November 2016. This collaboration, supported by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Netherlands, is a response to what we see as missing from the range of corporate activity on this issue. The collaboration will be a forum for business to meaningfully work together and with key stakeholders, including women’s organizations, on a shared action agenda to prioritize, scale, and co-create solutions for women’s empowerment.

The High-Level Panel and the SDGs have raised the conversation on women’s empowerment to the level that it both deserves and requires. Now it is up to the business community to answer the challenge and commit to doing its part to advance half the world’s population.

Let’s talk about how BSR can help you to transform your business and achieve your sustainability goals.

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