Women's empowerment is good (for) business

05/17/2017 10:51 am ET

One hundred million viewers tuned into Audi’s gender equality advert shown in the break of the most recent Super Bowl final. The company gave a powerful message. As a young girl in a cart raced passed countless male competitors, her father’s voice echoed around the stadium: “What do I tell my daughter? That, despite her education, her drive, her skills and her intelligence, she will automatically be valued at less than every man she meets?” Then, she pulls into first place. “Or maybe I’ll be able to tell her something different.”

In the commercial, Audi expressed its commitment to wage equality. The company is on the pulse: Audi knows it is worth standing out in this space and that there is much to reap in business gains. But Equileap’s 2017 gender equality index shows that even the top companies still have a long way to go on treating men and women equally. L'Oreal and Pearson Communications scored highest, although both only achieved 22 out of 35 available points. The detail in the report – a key guide for investors - serves as a reminder that businesses with higher gender diversity offer higher returns to investors. However, according to the UN, women in full time jobs still earn between 70-90% of what men earn, at best.

We do see a growth in understanding that the benefits of investing in gender equality are significant, namely that it favours access to a larger customer base and increases staff commitment, as just a start, according to the 2010 McKinsey report: The Business of Empowering Women.

But real gender parity is about more than fair pay and requires a mindful and thorough approach throughout the supply chain and within the company, as exemplified in 2014 Dalberg/ICRW/Oak Foundation report - the Business Case for Women's Economic Empowerment. While the risks of not addressing inequalities and exclusion are increasingly outweighing the investments and changes required to create more inclusive, healthier and fairer business environments, still such changes only happen (too) slowly.

The recent support for our Girls Can Code initiative focused on teenage women in Afghanistan has been transformative for the first cohort of 40 girls, but also for the companies involved. Vinli and fellow tech company Dialexa created mentoring videos for the young coders, along with running a campaign to raise funds for them. These are meaningful contributions businesses can make easily, with real benefits. The companies told us that they realised they "must look outside of our own circles and help to educate and motivate women that have the talent and passion to do something great.”

In recent years, we've worked with a plethora of businesses making moves in this area. There's the corporate foundation of global commodities' company Trafigura, who provided funding and strategic advice for the Womanity Award and the WomenChangeMakers Fellowship. Lawyers Hogan Lovells are currently providing legal guidance to the winners of our 2016 Womanity Award winners, the Mexican feminist media collective Luchadoras. Popular Arabic YouTube channel Kharabeesh is partnering with us on crowdsourcing story ideas for the third series of our gender-progressive fiction series Worth 100 Men. We've also had Accenture Development Partnerships provide expertise by laying a strategic growth plan for WomenChangeMakers fellows in India and Brazil. A member of the Versace family supported WomenChangeMakers Fellow organisation Rede Asta - a Brazilian fair trade manufacturer employing poor, unskilled women - by donating an exclusive design.

Through this, large corporates discover a new world. They gain inspiration and expertise in new sectors and the chance to experiment with different ideas. Importantly, they are also able to offer their staff stimulating opportunities for meaningful social engagement.

The 2010 McKinsey report found that of those businesses who had invested in women, nearly 60% had seen profits increase through the opening or expansion of markets. Corporates have collectively invested more than USD 300 million in women in underserved communities in recent years, according to a 2014 Dalberg report - the Business Case for Women's Economic Empowerment.

But more concrete action is needed, particularly in creating safety, freedom of movement, expression and agency, and the realisation of all human rights for women, to guarantee real progress and equality.

There now stands a very rich opportunity for businesses to be part of building and operating in a more equal world; a world in which companies can expand and stabilise in frontier markets, in which there is double the amount of talent to cultivate and engage with and double the number of customers to serve. Those who languish in an unequal marketplace will find themselves out-paced by modern companies who glide past their old-style carts in a powerful new vehicle, thanks to a clearer and more creative vision of progressive business.

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