Male Business Leaders Need to Support Women's Empowerment

03/25/2015 10:55 am ET | Updated May 25, 2015

On March 10-11 at The United Nations, leaders from government, civil society and the business sector convened to discuss how business can be a force for change in advancing gender equality across the globe. This call for business to play a leadership role in advancing women could not be more urgent.

Despite progress on some fronts, the fact remains that women endure various forms of discrimination, harassment, violence, marginalization and exclusion across the globe. In one place it may be honor killings, in another genital mutilation, or trafficking, or young girls attacked for trying to attend school, or women not permitted to drive automobiles, or earning 78 cents for every dollar a man earns, or holding only 17 percent of Fortune 500 board seats. There can be no doubt that gender inequality is the great human rights issue of our time.

It is also the great economic challenge of our time. Can you imagine how much wealth is locked up inside outdated, patriarchal structures around the globe? Unprecedented economic value will be unleashed, and an unprecedented economic boom will occur, if women are afforded the same educational and economic opportunities as men.

McKinsey has reported that, as a result of women entering the workforce over the past four decades, GDP in the U.S. is about 25 percent higher than it would have been. Goldman Sachs economist Kevin Day has calculated that eliminating the remaining gap between male and female employment would boost GDP in the U.S. by 9 percent, the eurozone's GDP by 13 percent and Japan's by 16 percent. Booz & Co. reports that raising female employment to male levels could increase GDP by 10 percent in South Africa, 12 percent in the United Arab Emirates and 34 percent in Egypt. And there is now a compelling body of research underscoring that where women are better represented on corporate boards and in corporate management, companies simply perform better and become more profitable.

The Women's Empowerment Principles, a joint initiative of the UN Global Compact and UN Women, are premised on the fact that women's full participation in economic life is essential to build strong economies and establish more stable and just societies. The Principles call on businesses to:

  • Establish high-level corporate leadership for gender equality
  • Treat all women and men fairly at work -- respect and support human rights and nondiscrimination
  • Ensure the health, safety and well-being of all women and men workers
  • Promote education, training and professional development for women
  • Implement enterprise development, supply chain and marketing practices that empower women
  • Promote equality through community initiatives and advocacy
  • Measure and publicly report on progress to achieve gender equality

Most business leaders today, of course, are men. It is vitally important that these male leaders become engaged on the critically important issue of gender equality, not only because it is the right thing to do but because it is the smart thing to do. Indeed, if men take up this battle, we are convinced that we can achieve the transformative change that is needed.

In Australia, one of us launched the group, Male Champions of Change, by identifying a dozen powerful men in some of Australia's most preeminent organizations, and now that group has grown to 25 of the most prominent leaders in Australia. The group meets frequently in person and is a source of rich discussion, particularly at the intersection of disciplines or sectors. Putting the Chief of Army beside the head of a bank, for example, results in thought-provoking conversations about job flexibility and leadership. The fact that these men would not ordinarily come together is part of the group's appeal. Some of these leaders have taken bold steps to advance gender equality within their organizations as a result of this dialogue.

In the United States, one of us has helped lead efforts to organize investors to pressure companies to add more women to their boards of directors, through letter writing, proxy voting, dialogues and shareholder resolutions.

Together, we have found that increasing numbers of male leaders in the business sectors -- particularly fathers of daughters -- are beginning to understand that there is not only a strong moral case for advancing gender equality but a strong business case as well. Gender diverse leadership simply leads to better results. Women's advancement is good for the bottom line.

The global economy is dominated by great businesses that have vital interests in advancing gender equality. Just as importantly, these global brands are some of the most successful and admired organizations in the world. When they speak, people will listen. Companies like Microsoft and Coca-Cola (who have already signed the Women's Empowerment Principles), Apple and Google, Nike and American Express can send a message that will reverberate across the globe: that gender inequality is no longer acceptable; that gender discrimination will no longer be tolerated.

If this vital message is to be sent, male business leaders must get involved. We call on businesses across the globe to endorse the Women's Empowerment Principles and join the fight for gender equality.

Elizabeth Broderick, Sex Discrimination Commissioner for the Commonwealth of Australia, and Joe Keefe, CEO of Pax World Funds, are Co-Chairs of the Leadership Group of the Women's Empowerment Principles (