Putting the ‘power’ into ‘empowerment’: Why decision-makers in business need to think not just about gender equality but about changing the dynamic of power

by 22nd Oct 2014
Sumitra, leader of the MUSCHTICHAAL (Handful of rice) group in rural Bangladesh – can attitudes in boardrooms increase the chances of women like Sumitra succeeding in business? Sumitra, leader of the MUSCHTICHAAL (Handful of rice) group in rural Bangladesh – can attitudes in boardrooms increase the chances of women like Sumitra succeeding in business? © CARE/Cyril le Tourneur d’Ison

I have written before about ‘cross-sector’ collaboration and partnerships. About forging alliances with shared objectives where the private, public and NGO sectors can work together, realising mutually beneficial outcomes. We often talk about the combined ‘power’ of all these actors – but how do we put the ‘power’ in ‘empowerment’ into the hands of women on the frontline of overcoming gender inequality?

This question came to the fore at the Sharing Value Asia Forum in Singapore – CARE’s third successive experience of partnering the annual event, which this year focused on the fast-emerging consensus around how the ‘Power of Many’ may yet be our best ticket to solving some of the region’s pressing social and environmental dilemmas.

A note-worthy feather in the cap at this year’s event, however, was the insertion of a sub-theme to the discussions – which the organisers chose to call ‘The Era of Empowerment’ – culminating in a distinguished closing panel of representatives from the private sector (Diageo and Walmart), government (Singaporean Ministry of Health) and civil society (CARE and UN Women), addressing the issue of gender equality in the workplace.

Affirmative action needed

Whilst I appreciate for many commentators that it might seem unnecessary to spend thousands of dollars convening 180 people to debate the ‘business case’ for gender equality – do we still really need to be making these cases? – it’s hard to dismiss the over-riding evidence about gender inequality, across all sectors, reported on at the Forum.

From my perspective, debate on this we must and, where need be, affirmative action has to be the only way forward.

A case in point

Before we even get onto a subject dear to NGOs’ hearts – that of the world’s marginalised, and vulnerable women – let’s begin with Singapore.

The country lags behind others in the region in terms of the number of women of working age who are employed (approx 53%). Each year over 500,000 women are incentivised not to return to work after giving birth due to the costs associated with doing so – a woman needs to earn well over $1,200 a month just to cover the childcare cost of looking after her children.

Consider also that 70% of jobs in Singapore are provided by SMEs (small and medium enterprises). Less than 10% of SMEs provide family care leave, only 1.5% offer childcare benefits and just 3.8% have flexible work arrangements. (For more data on this, click here.)

Top down change?

Creating a groundswell of engagement and activism on gender issues is essential, and the Forum represented one such moment in time: a gathering of current and future decision-makers equipped, today, with fresh sets of data and an invigorated sense of urgency around how individuals like them can positively influence the cultural, societal and corporate norms currently exacerbating gender inequities.

But what then of CARE’s target groups at the lowest end of a country’s demographic? Women cut out of supply chains, pigeon-holed as being capable ‘only’ to manage affairs in the household. Women suffering violence at the hands of their husbands or other family members, excluded from making their own choices in society. Powerless. Without voice.

How can increasing the percentages of women in a corporate board room in Singapore possibly have a positive knock-on effect for a mother of five children living in rural Bangladesh? For that matter, what differences can be made for that same mother if more women were in charge of the Bangladeshi private sector?

Diversity in a workplace is key

There are no simple answers to these questions. At the Forum we heard from one speaker of how she worked for a female manager who refused to interview women between the ages of 25-45 years old, so as to avoid employing staff who might require maternity leave. Who knows, really, whether a company led exclusively by women would ultimately have a better chance of addressing society’s complex issues – and gender equality – than one led exclusively by men?

Surely, diversity in a workplace is key, and diversity on every level – gender, age, skills, ethnicity, experiences. To go one step further, one company at the event claimed diversity to be the only thing worth investing in to ensure competitive advantage in today’s market.

We also heard how ‘doing the right thing’ as a business, by implementing gender-sensitive ways of working, still provides a common driver for many companies in the overall mix of reasoning. Gender equality makes for good business, and for good ethics – both are important.

Some attitudes are hard to break

Yet, when challenged on the issue of a more balanced approach to offering employees maternity and paternity leave (even going so far as promoting ‘shared childcare’ for parents/employees), one company was quick to rebut this as not viable. As a proposition it was too expensive for (his) business to accommodate, too complicated. But what of the costs incurred by that very same company in the future to recruit new employees, replacing those disgruntled at such unfair and unequal HR standards? We know retention and recruitment costs can cripple any organisation, and so why are companies still loathe to support more equitable policies?

Perhaps the answer to that lies in some part in what my colleague from Cambodia, Stav Zotalis, worded so emphatically when taking her turn on the closing panel discussion.

A light-bulb moment

When addressing the issue of ‘empowerment’, no matter what the context, she said, people so often fail to close in on the word ‘power’ which sits at the heart of any variation of empowerment. This instantly made a connection with her audience.

Ultimately, all relationships in life draw their characteristics from the dynamic of power – whether it be that of employer to employee, buyer to seller, beneficiary to benefactor. The contemporary spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle believes that true power comes from within. Maybe he is right?

The power to make decisions and have choice – to purchase, to move about freely, to access products, services and information. These are some of the raw ingredients to fuelling an empowered status for any human being.

And the very same thing (a decision, a choice, access) which might be taken for granted by one individual will be sought after and aspired to – in some cases for their entire lives – by another.

The dynamic of power

Changing paradigms in this regard takes time. However, recognising that this dynamic of power lies beneath any form of empowerment, and is absolutely fundamental to how every one of us lives our lives, is, perhaps, a solid starting point from which to move forward.

And move forward we must on this agenda – whether you are a government minister, a housewife, self-employed, a CEO, or a father of two like me, typing these words in a coffee shop in Sapa, Vietnam, and trying to make sense of what my daughters will make of this one day, if and when they choose to read it for themselves.

Tim Bishop

Tim was formerly the Private Sector and Women’s Economic Empowerment Specialist in the Women’s Economic Empowerment team. He initially joined CARE International UK in London in September 2006 to set up the Private Sector Engagement team, which established a range of global partnerships and sustainable development initiatives for CARE. He then moved to Vietnam in 2011 where he led several internal initiatives aimed at improving CARE’s programme quality and global connectivity. This included the establishment of a new area of programming called Resilient Market Systems, analysing how to improve CARE’s women’s economic empowerment work within the context of humanitarian crises.

Still based in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, he now works in the CARE USA Innovations Team and leads their global work to develop more systematic ways of delivering poverty and social injustice interventions by focusing on design systems, new operating models, and turning learning from across the CARE network into best practice. Examples include: working with CARE Philippines to design new humanitarian relief programmes with local communities; with CARE Egypt on social accountability; and with CARE West Bank Gaza on resilient market systems.

Prior to joining CARE, Tim spent 10 years in London, working in public, private and non-profit sector roles, largely specialising in corporate communications, fundraising and marketing functions.

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Email: tim.bishop@care.org