Women’s Day Special ‘Gender equality must for economic, social and democratic development’


By Suresh Kr Pramar

India’s growing economic strength has helped the country achieve a high rate of growth over the last decade. The rapid increase ad spread of the corporate sector, along with the spread of higher education amongst girls, has resulted in more women taking up professional positions in companies. Indian women are gaining managerial positions in business as the country’s economic growth surges ahead, yet few are able and secure jobs with real power.

According to a research study by the Centre for Social Research (CSR),  a New Delhi-based gender rights think-tank, professional women in India not only face attitudinal challenges, but also problems within their organisations like a lack of gender policies to accommodate the domestic pressures on them. They suffer because of the stereotypical view that they are “fragile” and ineffective.

“Women’s representation at the top level of management is proportionately very low compared to men. A solid glass ceiling exists which is resisting women’s movement in their ladder of career growth,” says Ranjana Kumari, CSR’s director. “A major barrier for promotion of women managers comes from insensitivity of the corporations towards women’s social roles and responsibilities.” A big majority of companies did not have specific gender policies to help promote women to leadership positions.

A just released international Research study by Corporate Citizenship and Nottingham University’s International Centre for Corporate Social Responsibility (ICCSR) says Gender equality is the key to a country’s economic, social and democratic development as it generates higher growth outcomes and lower poverty. Despite strong evidence of the vast benefits of women’s empowerment, in many parts of the world women remain poorer and lack access to the same opportunities as men.

In its announcement speech, at the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize Ceremony, where three women’s rights advocates shared the Award, the committee recognised that “We cannot achieve democracy and lasting peace in the world unless women obtain the same opportunities as men to influence developments at all levels of society”. The World Economic Forum’s 2011 Global Gender Gap report, which compares equality between men and women across the world, found that in countries where the gender gap is smallest, there is greater productivity and economic competitiveness.

According to the Report the business benefits of investing in women are evident across the world. Not only do skilled women represent a pool from which to hire, they are also a significant, and in many developing countries, largely untapped market of consumers. As such, there are clear business benefits if companies think creatively about how to manage their business through an innovation ‘lens’ of gender.

Research has shown that the empowerment of women tends to have a strong multiplier effect on the wider community, spreading local economic development. Educated women, who can control their own income, generate a number of wider benefits, including improved child health, increased agricultural productivity and enhanced economic growth.  A World Bank study has found that providing girls with an extra year of schooling can increase wages by up to 20 percent and also contributes to lowering birth rates, which can have a profound economic impact.

The Report has identified three benefits which businesses can gain by investing in women’s empowerment. First,investing in women spreads economic opportunities creating stronger communities and, as a result, a broader base of consumers and potential employees. Second, by increasing the number of women across the value chain, including employees, suppliers and business partners, and providing training and education, a company can achieve higher productivity. Finally, engaging women in distribution networks and targeting female markets can help a company to increase sales.

Wider economic opportunities Companies have realized that investing in the empowerment of women can spread economic opportunities on a wider scale, creating stronger communities. This creates opportunities for the private sector to pursue growth and profitability. The Report quotes the ‘10,000 Women’ programme started by the investment bank Goldman Sachs  The programme is a global initiative to teach business and management skills to 10,000 women entrepreneurs in developing countries, including India. The women selected are trained in marketing, accounting, and other business skills.

Another programmes is the one launched by Nike Foundation’s ‘Girl Effect’ project addressing the needs of adolescent girls in developing markets. The project  supports a range of programmes directed to girls’ basic needs and financial opportunities. It comprises “…a communications platform that describes how the 600 million girls in the developing world have the power to transform their societies.”

Higher productivity Many companies are increasingly realising the benefits of providing resources, education and training to women across the value chain, as a way to increase productivity and quality. This might be upstream, downstream and within the business, including employees, suppliers and business partners. By increasing the number of women amongst employees, suppliers and business partners across the value chain, companies expand their pool for hiring. This allows them to choose among the most qualified people, as opposed to choosing from a less diverse pool. Diverse groups tend to significantly outperform homogenous groups when it comes to problem solving and innovation.

An example is Wal-mart’s programmes to teach literacy and workplace skills in the developing world. In India it provides training to female cashew farmers, helping them to progress from low-level pickers to high-end processors. The business case is clear: the company expects increased productivity, higher quality, and greater diversity in its supply chain as a result.

Increased sales A number of companies are engaging women in their distribution networks to increase sales and reach previously inaccessible areas such as rural and slum areas. In addition, a company can benefit from local networks to access challenging markets, as well as insights into customer preferences, in particular when targeting female markets. In many developing countries, women have strong and broad social networks and are trusted members of the community.

Hindustan Unilever in India launched Project Shakti to ‘help women and create entrepreneurs’. Project Shakti is run by in partnership with NGOs, banks and the government. HUL has made women across India direct-to-consumer sales distributors for a range of low-cost products. It has provided training opportunities in sales, bookkeeping and other skills. Project Shakti has over 45,000 woman entrepreneurs selling products to approximately three million consumers in 100,000 villages spread across 15 states in India. The company has managed to double the number of rural households that it reached, gaining access to new market segments in hard to reach areas.

Despite these shinning examples, the Reports out “the issue of women’s empowerment remains a relatively new area for companies and there are a number of challenges that businesses face in addressing it. These include an overall low level of understanding of gender issues and socio-economic conditions in emerging markets, limited funding to invest in programmes and initiatives, and a lack of senior level buy-in to the issues.

“Nevertheless, the business case for women’s empowerment remains strong, as it can generate wealthier communities – hence a broader base of consumers and employees, and more efficient value chains. In addition, engaging women in distribution networks, and specifically targeting women as a consumer group, are ways to increase sales.”

In light of the social, economic and business benefits of addressing gender equality in emerging markets, the Report has suggested that companies should take a strategic approach to the issue in a number of ways:

1.      Map gender disparity in key emerging markets at country land local business operations level. This could involve insights into the role of women in the country, cultural norms, women’s rights, and women’s
role in business and politics.

2.      Gather data and insights on women across the value chain.  Key questions should go beyond the number of women involved across the value chain and salary levels, and give a detailed picture of the socio-economic environment for women, such as their education levels and access to financial services.

3.      Deliver social investment programmes focusing on women’s empowerment in key markets. These programmes should be closely linked to the core business strategy. This could involve education of women in relevant business skills in local markets, with a perspective of increasing the pool of local hiring.

4.      Invest in education and training for female employees, suppliers and business partners across the value chain. Carry out assessments to identify areas where training could be beneficial to increase quality and productivity.

5.      Identify opportunities across the value chain where women could be further involved as direct employees, suppliers and business partners.This could include the distribution, production or manufacturing functions

6.      Build partnerships with organisations such as academia, NGOs and foundations specialising in women’s empowerment.

(Suresh Kr Pramar, Trainer, Writer,  CSR Consultant and the Executive Director, Centre for Training & Research in Responsible Business is a veteran journalist presently actively involved in promoting CSR through his publication CRBiz and by conducting workshop on Corporate Social Responsibility. He is regular contributor to INDIA CSR (www.indiacsr.in), largest CSR Network in India. He can be reached at suresh.pramar@gmail.com. His Mobile No: 09213133042/9899305950)


Photo: www.bandt.com.au

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