As part of our Q&A series with our experts on the past, present, and future of sustainable business, we sat down with Women’s Empowerment lead Aditi Mohapatra to discuss innovations, opportunities, and challenges in the field.

Elisabeth Best: What has been the single most important innovation in women’s empowerment in the last 25 years? 

Aditi Mohapatra: In the women’s empowerment field, it is challenging to identify any one single innovation that has independently led to the advancement of women. Instead, when considering what has driven global businesses to pay attention to and invest in this field, it is clear that the cementing of the business and economic case for women’s advancement has been critical.

With new data points constantly emerging on the benefits of investing in women, companies are able to shift away from the moral case to a business one. As a result, we can unlock the innovative potential of businesses in thinking about how their full value chains—from their supply chains to their workplaces and their product and service development—can drive gender equality.

Best: What’s the biggest challenge or opportunity you see looking forward?

Mohapatra: The challenges here can feel overwhelming: there is not a single country globally that has reached gender parity as of today. Where there has been some progress for women—wages, for example—other areas, such as women’s health rights, are seeing a rollback of progress.

Working in this field means dealing with a lot of complexity. There are rarely straightforward solutions, so it’s critical to embrace, rather than be paralyzed by, the systemic and structural barriers that stand in the way of women’s advancement. For example, today 155 out of 173 countries still have at least one law impeding women’s economic advancement.

The opportunity, however, is equally multidimensional. Women’s progress fuels economic growth and reduces global poverty. We know that a focus on women creates benefits for communities, the environment, and societies at large.

Best: What does sustainable business, specifically as it relates to women’s empowerment, look like in 2030? 

Mohapatra: The speed and scope of changes affecting business today are unprecedented. This is leading to all sorts of new realities, some of which accelerate progress for women and others where women could fall even further behind. By 2030, businesses will have to completely rewrite their narratives on gender roles and careers, families, and workplaces—as this will be expected from a new generation of employees. The new, more fluid environments these employees demand, in which childcare, working hours, and workplace structures will be transformed, have the potential to alter the mindsets and preconceived notions that often hold women back. Leading companies today are starting to update their current structures to account for these changes.

At the same time, the next decade will also see an increase in automation technologies, which are likely to disproportionally impact women: Twice as many women as men are likely to lose their jobs as automation replaces human labor, according to a recent report from the Institute for Spatial Economic Analysis.  

Sustainable businesses will ensure that the future is female, and their businesses will benefit from these efforts. They will unlock new innovations and productivity gains by ensuring women are at the table, leading decisions, creating products, and designing solutions.

Best: What are leading companies doing today to make a sustainable future a reality? 

Mohapatra: Leading companies are making the decision to have an intentional focus on women—moving away from policies, data, and tools that are ‘gender neutral,’ and rather recognizing that an intentional integration of women into program design, analysis, and measurement is critical to closing gender gaps and building sustainable communities.

These companies are also looking at the system as a whole—and embracing the complexity. They are going beyond addressing individuals to influencing the norms that often shape a woman’s opportunities. They are developing products and services, creating marketing approaches, and delivering trainings and tools that challenge biases and perceptions of women’s roles in the workplace, in households, and in their communities.

Best: What aspect of this year’s BSR Conference are you most excited about? 

Mohapatra: In my experience, it is rare that BSR and the broader sustainable business community stop and reflect on our collective accomplishments, and I always appreciate that the BSR Conference allows us to both take a pause and think about the year’s developments. After a busy September in New York, I am thrilled to be back on the West Coast for a week at the beach, hearing from and conversing with our members and my colleagues from around the world. 2017 has already been quite memorable, and I’m excited to set a new, energized direction for our work in 2018.