Thursday, May 23, 2019

Investing in Women’s Empowerment: Private Sector Helps Lift Women

I just finished reading Melinda Gates’ new book, The Moment of Lift: How Empowering Women Changes the World. It’s a really amazing read that takes you inside the lives of women around the world who struggle to make ends meet, to feed their children, to succeed in male-dominated societies. But it also offers hope, inspiration and wisdom of how women's lives can be uplifted. 

This week more than ever I needed to read an intelligent book by and about women. I’ll share one excerpt that I found especially poignant: 

“From high rates of education, employment and economic growth to low rates of teen births, domestic violence, and crime – the inclusion and elevation of women correlate with the signs of a healthy society. Women’s rights and society’s health and wealth rise together.”

She goes on to write, “If you want to lift up humanity, empower women. It is the most comprehensive, pervasive, high-leverage investment you can make in human beings.”

This got me thinking about corporate investments in women. For years, diversity has been a core pillar of companies’ corporate responsibility strategies. This has meant stronger policies protecting women from sexual harassment in the workplace and creating family-friendly work cultures. These, of course, are good things.

But, lately, I am seeing examples of companies investing in programs and policies that go further, that truly empower and aim to lift women up. Here are three examples I particularly like.

In 2018, the women’s retail designers Ann Taylor, LOFT and Lou & Grey (all owned by Ascena Retail) fulfilled its goal of empowering 100,000 women in its global supply chain by providing health and financial literacy training.

The retail giant explains on its website: “We learned a lot from working with these inspiring women. …women can drive enormous positive change by sharing their knowledge and skills with others. When women do this, their colleagues, families, and communities all become better equipped to manage their health and/or finances, creating a ripple effect of positive change.”
For Ascena, empowering female supply chain workers to be financially literate and better stewards of their health wasn’t just to boost its corporate reputation. It was about better performance. After the trainings, the company’s suppliers reported reduced turnover and absenteeism. The trainings also led to strengthened relationships between workers in the factory and supplier management.
Unilever, makers of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, Dove beauty products and Lipton tea, states, “We believe that women’s empowerment is the single greatest enabler of human development and economic growth.”
It’s not surprising why; women make up more than 70 percent of Unilever’s consumer base, 50 percent of the talent pool from which it recruits, and play a central role in its supply chain.
So serious is its belief in the power of women that the company has committed that, by 2020, it will empower 5 million women by advancing opportunities for them in its operations, promoting safety, developing skills and expanding opportunities in its retail value chain. Already the company has seen results: In 2018, 49 percent of Unilever managers were women.
The company is also taking its message on the road, advocating to other businesses that they also embrace women’s empowerment by being:
  1. Gender aware by having the right information and data in place to inform policies.
  2. Gender active by having the right policies and practices in place that respect women’s rights and empower professional and personal development.
  3. The new norm by ensuring that harmful norms are not perpetuated through outdated business practices, while actively promoting more positive portrayals of women along the value chain to challenge stereotypes.
Moving from ice cream to the tech industry, not exactly the sector that comes to mind for women’s empowerment. But here, too, there are some good examples, such as Intel.

Earlier this year, Intel was one of the first U.S. companies to announce that it had achieved gender pay equity globally. It also reached its $100 million commitment for spending on women-owned businesses more than a year early, and announced a new goal of $200 million for 2020.
Intel is also investing in programs to empower girls and young women to continue school. It is a founding member of the Reboot Representation Tech Coalition, through which 12 companies have pledged more than $12 million to double the number of women of color graduating with computing degrees in the U.S. by 2025.  In addition, Intel has invested in the Center for Advancing Women in Technology’s Technology Pathways Initiative, which seeks to enrich the U.S. workforce with a diverse pool of college graduates equipped to be innovators in the digital economy.
Ascena. Unilever. Intel. Not only do these example lift up women and humanity, they create long-term value for business. And that’s a good thing for everyone.


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