The theme of this year’s International Women’s Day is “Pledge for Parity.” The message is clear: We have advanced the role of women in society, their access to health and finance, how they benefit from economic progress, and their contributions to all aspects of economic, social, political, and cultural life. But progress has been much too slow: According to the World Economic Forum, without stronger interventions, gender parity is unlikely to happen before 2133.
Business should address this slow pace of development for many reasons. One of those is economic: The gender gap has a significant impact on the global economy and the growth and resilience of business in all sectors. And the benefits are significant: McKinsey has estimated that advancing women’s equality could add US$12 trillion to the global economy by 2025.
The obvious starting point for most companies is recruitment, retention, and talent management practices. Few (forward-looking) businesses need reminding that workforce diversity is critical to success. However, for many companies, the greatest benefits from and opportunities to contribute to women’s empowerment may not be inside their companies, but throughout their value chains.
On this front, BSR is partnering with Women Deliver to organize a closed pre-conference this May on how companies can advance women’s empowerment in their global value chains. The event will be developed with support from the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Novo Nordisk, and will take place one day before the larger Women Deliver Conference. At the pre-conference, we will present a simple and practical draft action framework for advancing women’s empowerment in global value chains. The framework builds off our recently released report, “Building Effective Women’s Economic Empowerment Strategies,” jointly prepared with the International Center for Research on Women, and our decade of experience through BSR HERproject’s workplace programs focusing on health, economic empowerment, and women’s rights.
Our approach is built on the premise that global value chains represent tremendous levers of change for business and society, and that successful women’s empowerment strategies are holistic and integrated. We also posit that empowerment drives top-line revenue, productivity, and innovation that, in turn, improve short- and long-term financial performance.
If we look at opportunities in upstream supply chains, where raw materials are turned into goods, we have seen a growing number of companies realize that the resilience of their global supply chains is intricately linked with the status of women in the factories and farms that manufacture and develop their products. In many industries like apparel, toys, light manufacturing, agriculture, and horticulture, women make up a majority of the workers, yet they are often disadvantaged in terms of access to and knowledge about health, education, finance, and leadership skills—and they often work in hostile, discriminatory workplace environments. Companies like ANN Inc., Li & Fung, and Marks & Spencer are investing in their upstream supply chains through HERproject and other initiatives.
Other companies are looking to their downstream value chains—their customers—to drive women’s empowerment. For instance, Novo Nordisk has developed a prevention program focused on gestational diabetes, a particular type of diabetes that occurs during pregnancy and affects nearly 18 million women every year, or 14 percent of pregnancies globally. The company works with local partners to create awareness of and build treatment capacity for the illness, and it seeks to influence decision-makers to prioritize screening. And in Turkey, Vodafone has developed its Women First program, which seeks to empower women through enhancing income opportunities, facilitating personal development, and increasing access to information and technology.
The call for holistic and integrated strategies is one that should resonate with the leading companies that, over the past 20 years, have worked to improve labor standards in their supply chains. These leaders have come to realize that progress requires wider, more holistic efforts that reach beyond factory walls to influence stakeholders and decision-makers, fostering cross-sector partnerships to drive change outside factory walls. Companies that help close the gender gap in their operations and value chains will be first to seize the significant benefits of economic development, business resilience, and workforce diversity. We hope you will join us to make a “Pledge for Parity,” and to close the gender gap much sooner than 2133.