This Tuesday in London, BSR held a workshop to explore the intersections of women and business in emerging economies and the resulting opportunities and responsibilities for business. As companies expand their operations, improve their supply chains, and grow their markets around the world, sustainable growth will require investments in and recognition of women as consumers, employees, supply chain workforces, and community members.

By integrating women and gender considerations into their sustainability strategy, companies can improve working conditions, increase employment and professional advancement opportunities, expand their customer base, and deepen community engagement.

At the end of the workshop, participants called out four priority areas:

  1. Enormous opportunities exist for cross-sector collaboration on investments in women, and BSR can help foster these partnerships. For example, during the workshop, lessons were shared between Vodafone’s mobile banking programs in Kenya and Primark’s partnership with the Bank of India to provide bank accounts and financial literacy trainings to female factory workers.
  2. Programs targeting women represent an opportunity to link disparate investments under a shared strategic theme. Companies can link community investment strategies to compliance efforts by targeting a key workforce demographic that also represents a group of vulnerable community members.
  3. Supply chain and stakeholder engagement strategies, codes of conduct, and compliance teams need to become more gender sensitive. Laws, working conditions, and life outside of work have disproportionate impacts on women in the developing world. Issues such as health, sexual harassment, and contract status (permanent or temporary) require a gender-sensitive examination, and may warrant modifications to compliance codes and additional staff trainings.
  4. There is a need to explore the links among female customer engagement, sustainable consumption, and female “producers” of consumable products around the world. BSR will continue to investigate how these areas overlap to identify strategies and opportunities for business.

The concept of women and sustainability is new: To date, the majority of companies’ sustainability efforts have been gender neutral. However, this neutrality ignores the low status of women, the restrictions placed upon them, and the unique risks that they face in the developing world. We will continue to explore this topic at the upcoming BSR Conference 2010 in New York during the session “The Gender Lens” on Wednesday, November 3, and in a forthcoming research series in 2011.