Women’s empowerment: the responsibility of business?

Yesterday, I spoke at a United Nations Global Compact event in Delhi, convened by CARE India, and debating the role and responsibilities of business, in terms of how they address women’s empowerment.

As catchy opening lines go, it’s very possible that half the readership of this blog (yes, both of you) may not instantly be gripped by the idea of 1,500 words on anything just described.  You’d be forgiven for this, of course – it is Friday, a week from Christmas, and there are better things to be doing.

Believe me, there was a moment stepping up to join the panel yesterday when being an Englishman and talking about women’s empowerment and business in the Indian context (during New Delhi’s own centenary week since it was first established under colonial rule) made me wonder what I’d in fact let myself in for.

Turns out, I need not have worried too much.

The event ticked all the necessary boxes for which its organisers were hoping, however, as can often happen during such formal and choreographed occasions, the best parts were those moments of intuitive reflection, which come when people go off script, speak without posture, and tell a story.

Women’s empowerment is an in vogue phrase for us NGOs.  But what does it mean in real life?

CARE would say we are an organisation with a mandate that seeks to “empower” women and girls, but the truth is that empowerment is one of those words open to misinterpretation.  Empowerment can incorporate many things – equity, rights, decision making, confidence, lack of fear – and it is hard to measure (the issue of ‘measurement’ is another thing NGOs spend a lot of time chewing over).

The business case for humanitarian organisations, such as CARE, focusing on women – and girls – in their programming efforts is well made.  We know, for example, that, in developmental terms, the return on investment for microfinance initiatives (lending small amounts of money to individuals and groups through savings or credit loans) will be more successful if there is a focus on lending to women, rather than to men.  Women are more thoughtful and practical in the way they invest money in household necessities, in education and health-based needs, and in ways that will reap consistently better benefits for their family, than if the same amounts are lent to men.

There is very little to argue against in the face of the data which exists on this – and I am not about to put forward a case to counter (particularly given the fact that I am currently sipping a Starbucks’ triple shot latte at Kuala Lumpur airport whilst typing this, and fighting the urge to go into the shop next door and buy Florence an “I love Malaysia” t-shirt.)

The question yesterday then was to what extent should business play a role in empowering women?

Albeit another often misunderstood term, Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) and all that it stands for, would have businesses adopting policies that support a rights based agenda and, increasingly, one which looks at gender equity: in the workplace; along the supply chain; and in all aspects of how a company runs its operations, and makes it profits.

This is a good starting point, and there are some regulatory controls over this (mostly voluntary) including in India.  However, female to male ratios in all levels of the corporate sector in India remain woefully low.

Businesses can and should do more and, with India’s “explosive” growth predicted to continue on all levels, the opportunities in that context are tantalizing – for companies, and also for half the population to be better included, respected and, maybe even, empowered.

The business case is also well made, and was reinforced yesterday, for the Indian corporate sector to place more of an emphasis on women and on gender issues.  For one thing, the vast majority of customers and consumers in the country are women.  TV retail channels (think USA proportions, and then double) are all geared towards a female audience.

Furthermore, when you look at the country’s ratios of men to women at birth, compared to those found for attendance at primary and secondary school, and then at those as they relate to employment in the private sector, a fairly extreme pyramid is formed.  At birth, it is 50:50.  At corporate board level it is more like 100:1.

I spoke to one Indian company yesterday who explained, therefore, just what an obvious missed business opportunity it was not to be tapping into the pool of talent the country has in the form of its women.

We heard also from another about how it was simply not possible to do business in India in 2011, and be successful, without employing a diverse workforce.  In short, a gender “balance”, as much as a balance of skills and backgrounds, is what almost all of the companies gathered in the room yesterday was seeking.

And then we heard some stories.  One, in particular, a female panellist, who soared to great heights in the commercial world, not because of an “enabling environment” (this post is turning into a game of NGO bingo!) which supported her doing so, but because, in her own words, she felt from the youngest of ages no discrimination growing up in a family which valued her in equal proportion alongside her two brothers.

Her mother was a housewife, and all her siblings had time in and out of school for various reasons but, overwhelmingly, there was a balance in her family which meant she grew up with the confidence in her own convictions to define success in her life, and in her own terms.

Her career achievements may well have been enhanced by her company displaying responsible, gender sensitive, approaches, but in her mind the key to her success in the boardroom was down to the tone, and an ethic, set clearly from the start of her life, in her home.

This perspective was welcomed by many yesterday, and triggered what I felt to be some of the more insightful moments of the afternoon.  A dawning realisation that, corporate responsibilities and supportive UN principles aside, it is society which shapes so much of our own prejudices and perceptions and, in this regard, the issue of empowering women, in many different contexts, is undergoing generational change which companies, and even the state, can only influence to a certain extent.

It was pointed out that in 2020, the leaders of business, of government and within civil society, will be children born in the 1980’s.  Scary thought maybe, but when you think it over, the 80’s were an era when seismic change in many parts of society was well under way and, growing up in these times, perhaps equips future leaders with a perspective on things wholly fitting to a more socially responsible agenda.  The global issue of poverty eradication, for example, was given catalytic recognition and airtime back in the 80’s, spawning institutional level commitments to tackling its underlying causes.

During the 1980’s we also saw a rise in emerging technologies, in connectivity of people and planet and, for the first time, a harsh light was shone on the negative impacts that vast wealth can bring.  All that, and a propensity for fluorescent clothing, large permed hairdos, and a decade long pursuit of love-it-or-hate-it new fangled popular music.

30 years on and the issue of global poverty has moved further up the agenda not just for politicians and CEOs, but for University graduates, teenagers, and today’s on-line community, free to speak out in new ways about societal imbalances they have inherited.

Personally, I like the idea of tomorrow’s employers re-introducing lurid yellow and orange uniforms and blaring out Michael Jackson’s “Don’t stop ‘til you get enough” over the office tannoy – productivity levels might not go up, but it would be a lot of fun – but what, if anything, does this have to do with women’s empowerment?

The point I took away yesterday was not about women’s empowerment being seen as an organisation’s objective per se, but about society accepting fundamentally the value in the distinctions everyone brings to the world, and what these distinctions in turn can bring to bear – in the home, in the workplace, and elsewhere.

The world of business has a huge role to play in harnessing the best people, men and women, from different walks of life.  Much more attention is undoubtedly required to address issues of gender equity in all aspects of the workplace, especially in India, and this needs more than just a set of policies and indicators.  Events such as the one CARE India thoughtfully hosted yesterday also help move us forward.

Ultimately, however, real change happens when we look within ourselves, and take responsibility for our actions, our perceptions, and place a value on those of others.


3 thoughts on “Women’s empowerment: the responsibility of business?

  1. Sandy MacDonald (@sandymacd) January 1, 2012 / 9:36 pm

    I agree Tim. People need to be comfortable with differences, and value what diversity brings to Boards, committees, leadership teams, whatever. Sadly I have days when I think it’s not moved on at all in the past 30 years. But then I work in financial services in the UK – it hasn’t much!

    • saigonsays January 15, 2012 / 1:36 pm

      Keep up with trying though Sandy me ol’ mucker. It only takes the actions of a few to make all the difference (a wise man once said).
      Hope 2012 started well up in bonny Edinburgh?
      All the best,
      Bish x

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