Empowering women in the economy: The private sector is an essential partner

by 05th Sep 2017
Women workers in a pottery factory in Bangladesh, part of the Living Blue collective supported by CARE Women workers in a pottery factory in Bangladesh, part of the Living Blue collective supported by CARE

The private sector is an essential partner in the women’s economic empowerment movement. Corporations large and small employ a significant proportion of the labour force worldwide, and their value chains touch all economies and nearly every person on Earth. They have enormous power to bring about transformative change through inclusive hiring and promotion policies, market expansion, workforce development, and procurement spending.

I am excited about this conversation because it is an opportunity to bring together critical stakeholders – some experienced in women’s economic empowerment, and others newly embarking on this journey – for a conversation about what is working, what we have learned, and how we can all benefit from bringing women more fully and equitably into the global economy.

I will be wearing two hats in this discussion: one as the lead author of the second report of the UN Secretary-General’s High-Level Panel on Women’s Economic Empowerment (HLP), Leave No One Behind: Taking Action for Transformational Change on Women’s Economic Empowerment, and author of the Panel’s Driver 5 toolkit and working group paper, both entitled Changing Business Culture and Practice; and the second, as the CEO of DoubleXEconomy, a consulting firm with deep experience helping the private sector design, implement, and evaluate women’s economic empowerment initiatives.

From my vantage point, I can see that women are drivers of economic growth locally, nationally, and globally, but they are often hindered by complex, interwoven barriers to economic participation that range from legal restrictions on movement and land ownership to social norms about what communities’ regard as “appropriate work” for women. For this reason, no one stakeholder can address every limitation women face, but the private sector has extraordinary leverage that can help bring us to a tipping point.

value chains graphic

As the research outlined in the toolkit shows, women’s economic empowerment offers tremendous benefits to the companies that embrace it. However, being able to fully reap the rewards requires long-range vision, champions among company leadership, corporate will at all levels, and a comprehensive strategy that stretches across the value chain. It is an iterative process that evolves over many years to create large-scale systems change.

This can sound quite daunting, so the HLP Driver 5 working group developed the toolkit with the intention of providing clear pathways for organisations new to women’s economic empowerment to get started, and for those with more mature efforts to refresh their thinking. The first step in the process is to recognise that women are already part of every link in the corporate value chain – as customers, employees, suppliers, board members, and investors. Corporations can use the Six Questions audit (see below) outlined in the toolkit to help themselves map all the ways in which they already engage with women and to identify the areas of greatest opportunity for immediate attention.

The Six Questions audit

  • Pay: Is pay equal for women and men for work of equal value at all levels?
  • Employment: What is the workforce balance of women to men at all levels, including home workers?
  • Leadership: What is the board/executive balance of women to men?
  • Procurement: How much do youspend with companies majority-owned by women?
  • CSR: Do you have or fund programmes for women, and have you applied a gender lens to all your initiatives?
  • Suppliers: Are you asking your suppliers these questions?

It is important for businesses to design programs that are specific to their cultures and goals, but there are two initiatives that the HLP Driver 5 working group recommends all companies undertake, regardless of sector, location, or size:

1) Incentivise frontline management

Senior leadership support is essential, but mid-level managers can still be a pinch point for progress if they are not properly incentivised to develop and promote their female team members. Whether from unconscious bias or deliberate resistance, these managers often overlook their women employees and women applying for jobs. Setting key performance indicators (KPIs) with hard numbers for the hiring and promotion of women is a very effective way to create positive change so long as their KPIs are directly tied to compensation and career advancement.

2) Procurement spend

All companies spend money on procurement, and a more diverse supplier pool ensures the best products for the best rates. Research highlighted in the tool kit clearly shows that companies with more women suppliers yield better returns on their spend. Designating a specific percentage of procurement spend for products and services from women-owned businesses is a smart and easy way to expand the company supplier pool while also creating new opportunities for smaller women-led businesses who might otherwise be missed by traditional sourcing processes. This has been a hugely successful approach for the private and public-sector institutions that have adopted it.

Measuring progress on women’s economic empowerment

I am often asked about how best to measure progress on women’s economic empowerment. For the private sector, I recommend that the indicators be designed from the very outset of the project and tracked from its inception.

At its most basic level, measurement can start by using the Six Questions audit as a baseline for the current engagement of women in the company’s value chain. Revisiting the audit at periodic intervals will help companies identify where and how they are making progress with their women’s economic empowerment goals. In the intervening years, more detailed goals can be set for every link in the value chain – increase procurement spend with women to X%, increase the hiring of women in male-dominated areas, ensure equal pay for work of equal value, promote more women to senior positions, create new product lines for women customers, etc – which should be custom-developed to best suit each company’s particular needs.

This is about recognising talent, capabilities, and value

I want to emphasise that this is not about hiring or buying from women for the sake of doing so, but is about recognising talent, capabilities, and value that is too often disregarded due to gender bias. As more women enter the labour force, the talent pool will grow, and companies will have a more capable workforce, expanded market opportunities, more efficient procurement, and healthier growth outlooks. The women will benefit from the increase in work, leadership, and entrepreneurial opportunities, and the reduction of barriers that are hampering not only their potential, but society’s potential more broadly.

There is much more we can discuss about what works, and what doesn’t, to create a virtuous circle of economic advancement for women and the private sector, and I look forward to sharing more of those stories and ideas during the panel. Of course, the private sector isn’t a monolith, and different companies have different needs, markets, and goals, but whether we are taking a macro or hyper-local perspective on growth potential, women are a vital contributor to any company’s success.

The positive impact the private sector can have

I am grateful to Secretary of State Justine Greening, Tina Fordham, and Elizabeth Vazquez for their leadership on the HLP Driver 5 working group, which emphasised the positive impact the private sector can have as a partner in women’s economic empowerment. My hope is that launching the toolkit with this panel and audience discussion convened by DFID and CARE can spark innovative ideas and new partnerships that will accelerate progress on women’s economic empowerment.

The bottom line is that it is the right thing to do and the smart thing to do.

Cindy Drakeman

Dr Cynthia L Drakeman is the founding CEO of DoubleXEconomy, LLC, one of the world’s leading businesses focused on enhancing women’s economic empowerment. Cindy was the lead author of the second report for the UN High Level Panel on Women’s Economic Empowerment (March 2017) and served as a United States delegate to the W20’s 2017 meeting in Berlin.

Cindy is a member of the board of directors of Solar Sister, which is dedicated to eradicating energy poverty by empowering women with economic opportunity, and sits on the advisory council for the Clinton Foundation’s Haiti Women’s Economic Participation Consortium. She has previously served as a trustee for the National Cathedral Choral Society and as a board member of the Hilton Head Institute. Cindy has an AB from Princeton University and a DPhil from the University of Oxford.