The Role of Corporations in Supporting Women’s Economic Progress: Engaging, Enabling and Advocating

The past month has seen multiple global events commemorating International Women’s Day, including CCC’s stellar collaboration with the UN Office of Partnerships and UN Women, The Empowerment Bridge: Building a Lifetime of Opportunity for Women and Girls. These events have emphasized some common points: though the world has seen much progress for women and girls in the 20 years since the Beijing Platform, many challenges remain on the road to gender equality. What are the specific obstacles still on that road, and how can the private sector best contribute to ensuring a clearer path to empowerment for women around the world?

It was in this spirit last year at the International Women’s Day Forum at the UN that the Harvard Kennedy School Corporate Social Responsibility Initiative (CSRI) and CCC made a joint commitment to convene a series of high-level roundtable dialogues to explore the role of corporations in supporting women’s economic empowerment. The roundtable series covered a variety of issues, including:

  • efforts to champion career development opportunities for professional women;
  • initiatives that connect women-owned suppliers to corporate purchasing departments and broader markets;
  • programs to improve women’s rights, training and healthcare in factories and farms;
  • projects to increase women’s access to finance and technology;
  • social investments targeted at supporting better education, health, financial literacy and community leadership opportunities for women; and
  • corporate-sponsored research and communications to raise public awareness and strengthen public policy on women’s economic empowerment.

The content of the roundtables informed a report, A Path to Empowerment, which will be launched in mid-April and which lays out a three-pronged framework for private sector involvement. This framework, based on CSRI Director Jane Nelson’s previous research as well as her July 2014 article entitled “Giving women at seat at the economic table,” outlines the following strategies for corporations:

1) Engage more strategically with women in core business operation and value chains.

Companies can make public commitments, set measurable time-bound targets, and implement clear strategies, internal management systems and external partnerships to engage more women more strategically in their core business activities and global value chains as professionals, hourly workers, business partners, farmers, artisans and factory workers. For example, Walmart has committed to a three-pronged strategy by 2016 to increase sourcing from women-owned businesses by $20 billion in the United States and double current levels in other markets; Amway creates entrepreneurship training programs specifically for women; and Gap Inc. empowers women working in its supplying factories through job and life skills training.

2) Enable women through corporate community investment and philanthropy.

Companies can make a substantial contribution through leveraging their corporate community investment and philanthropy programs to enable women and girls to build their leadership capabilities, economic assets and human capital. Key areas of philanthropic focus for many leading companies, such as Intel, Qualcomm, Microsoft, and Reserveage, are initiatives to improve women’s access to education, training, skills development, information and communications technology, and financial and digital literacy as well as programs that support women’s health, safety and wellness.

3) Advocate for women through corporate research, communications and policy platforms.

Companies can commission research to strengthen data collection and the evidence base for women’s and girls’ rights and economic empowerment as well as engage with policy makers and promote women’s rights and opportunities through advocating for public policy reform and innovative government approaches.

As U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon noted last week, “The least utilized resource in the world is women’s potential.” We are delighted to contribute to the conversation around how together we can tap this most critical and valuable resource—stay tuned for the release of the report mid-April.