Claire Manuel reports on how companies like Mondelez, Marks & Spencer and Walmart are sharing knowledge on how to unleash the power of women throughout their businesses

While many companies are looking to address gender equality in their own operations, far fewer are looking at how they can boost the economic prospects of women in their supply chains, despite the fact that by doing so they could have a far bigger impact.

McKinsey Global Institute estimated in 2015 that if women were to participate in the economy identically to men, they could add as much as $28trn to global annual gross domestic product by 2025¸ roughly equivalent to the size of the combined Chinese and US economies.

It identified the creation of economic opportunities for women as a key intervention required to bridge the gender gap, and called for the private sector to play a more active role, in concert with governments and NGOs.

The coalition is focused on highlighting the potential commercial benefits of promoting women in their supply chains

At the end of last year, the University of Oxford heeded the call by getting together with nine of the world’s largest companies to formalize the Global Business Coalition for Women’s Economic Empowerment (GBCforWEE). The members of the group, who have been meeting since 2014, share knowledge and best practice, with the aim of finding out how better to include women in the world economy.

The initiative was founded by Linda Scott, who is best known as creator of the concept of the Double X Economy, a perspective that describes the global economy of women and their roles not only as consumers, but as investors, donors and workers.

The nine members of GBCforWEE include Coca-Cola, ExxonMobil, Goldman Sachs, Mondelēz International, PricewaterhouseCoopers, Marks & Spencer, Mastercard Center for Inclusive Growth, Qualcomm and Walmart.

Creating economic opportunities for women is key to bridging the global gender gap.

The coalition is focused on highlighting the potential commercial benefits of promoting women in their supply chains, says Angie Rozas, senior director of social impact at Coca-Cola. These include product and supply improvements, market expansion, recruitment and retention of key talent, building brand reputation, supporting work relationships with governments and improving financial performance.

Rozas says Coca-Cola, which aims to enable the economic empowerment of 5 million women entrepreneurs across its global value chain by 2020 through its 5by20 initiative (see Coca-Cola’s 5by20 recipe to empower 5 million women), has a long-term commitment to the coalition and has found great value in working with it.

“The opportunity to meet other pioneering companies, who also already have significant experience in this important area, provides a huge opportunity for us all to share learning, as well as work together to overcome common barriers,” says Rozas.

This coalition gives M&S a great forum to explore the issues, learn from others and ultimately scale what we are doing

One area where it is proving most useful, she said, is in the complex area of measuring the economic and social impact of empowering women.

Another member of the coalition is Marks & Spencer, which has made a number of ambitious commitments in its Plan A sustainability programme around women’s empowerment. It has recently partnered with the Department for International Environment  on its Work and Opportunities for Women programme.

Hazel Culley, sustainability manager for foods at the UK retailer, points out that M&S relies on resilient global supply chains, and a large majority of those working in the supply chains are women. “This coalition gives us a great forum to explore the issues, learn from others and ultimately scale what we are doing,” she says.

M&S's Hazel Culley visiting women tea-pickers as part of the retailer’s Plan A scheme. (Credit: M&S)

Christine Montenegro McGrath, who is chief of sustainability at Mondelēz, said the company incorporated what it had learned through the coalition into the design of Cocoa Life, its signature sustainability programme, in which women’s empowerment is a cross-cutting theme. She said women play a critical role in both cocoa farming and community transformation. “Measuring the impact of our interventions is critical to our success and we’ve strengthened our approach with learning from the GBCforWEE members.”

While business plays a critical role in achieving women’s economic empowerment, Scott says an ecosystem approach is necessary, with governments, NGOs and the private sector working together.

“They [the coalition] simply want the public-sector players to recognize that business is taking, and must take, a fully integrated, substantive role in the team of players working on this problem,” she says. “They don’t want to be funders only. And, in my view, the world community will have overlooked an important resource if it does not learn to engage with the private sector in a way that makes use of all its capabilities.”

While business plays a critical role in achieving women’s economic empowerment, an ecosystem approach is necessary

She points to Marks & Spencer’s gender action learning system (GALS) workshops as a good example of an ecosystem approach. The workshops were delivered to 500 male and female smallholder coffee growers in Peru, who have been heavily affected by climate change. Analysis by M&S concluded that increasing women’s income and leadership would be essential to salvaging the situation, so GALS helps communities develop new visions for women and men to relate to each other as equals.

The programme is still in its early stages, but the results so far are encouraging: to date, 200 families in the region have adopted a ‘gender balance tree’ at home, plus there has been an increase in female co-operative members, an increase in women selling in the local market, and more women taking leadership positions in the community.

While the coalition represents a welcome step towards the goal of women’s economic empowerment, it is still just nine companies out of millions. To truly make an impact, there needs to be a change in the way all businesses think and act, Scott says. A gender equality approach needs to be recognized and embedded as a key ingredient to any company’s commercial success – and the GBCforWEE needs to be a club that every company aspires to join.

Claire Manuel has been an editor and journalist for more than two decades, specializing in international development, sustainability and climate change. She is also editorial  director at Witan Media.

Main picture credit: CRS Photo/Shutterstock

This article is part of the in-depth briefing, Gender and Diversity. See also:

Lise Kingo: ‘We have to spark a gender equality revolution’

The US firms opening their doors to greater diversity

Investors turn up pressure on Google over gender and diversity

Coca-Cola’s 5by20 recipe to empower 5 million women

Vodaphone makes progress in push to close the mobile gender gap

How Equileap is helping investment in girls to grow up

supply chains  women's empowerment  GBCforWEE  M&S  Double X economy  Oxford University 

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