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Last week CGD hosted our first in a series of events focused on “beyond aid” approaches to promoting gender equality. CGD Senior Fellows Amanda Glassman and Mayra Buvinic were joined by New York Times columnist and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Nick Kristof and Unilever’s North American External Affairs Director Tom Langan to answer the questions:

  • How can the private sector harness its resources to improve the lives of women and girls?
  • Going beyond traditional forms of corporate social responsibility (CSR) – often cast as a “fringe” activity – how can companies better integrate a gender lens into their value chains?

Nick Kristof, who has focused much of his writing (including his No. 1 best-seller Half the Sky) on the oppression of women and girls in the developing world and the economic and social benefits of gender equality, kicked off the conversation by focusing on why the private sector should do more to promote gender equality. He explained: “When women have more control over assets and income, their children do better.”

Consistent with Kristof’s words, we know that from a development perspective, promoting gender equality is a no brainer: when women have the opportunity to open a business, they hire others (usually other women), and economies do better. When women are able to save and invest their incomes, they disproportionately invest in their families, and children’s health, education levels, and overall well-being improves. Women’s access to education, jobs, and contraception lowers fertility rates, which avoids the risk of a “youth bulge” and associated political and social instability.  

But focusing on gender equality also makes sense for companies’ bottom line. Tom Langan spoke about Unilever’s Sustainable Living Plan and its focus on women’s empowerment: a strong example of what one private sector player is currently doing to integrate gender equality into its business model. Over 70% of Unilever’s consumers are women, so increasing women’s incomes allows existing customers to increase their consumption. And empowering women as micro-entrepreneurs to sell Unilever products (such as through Project Shakti) also brings in new customers: those women in poor and rural areas who may not have had access to Unilever products before. 

Finally, Mayra Buvinic, one of the directors of CGD’s Gender and Development Program, focused on the future of private sector engagement in promoting gender equality. Mayra’s previous work with the UN Foundation and the ExxonMobil Foundation on the Roadmap for Promoting Women’s Economic Empowerment revealed that – more than many other interventions designed to improve women’s incomes – providing access to formal savings accounts makes a real difference. Women in developing countries show a preference for savings and for using savings for business investment, but lack the opportunity to do so privately and securely in formal savings accounts.

The private sector has a significant role to play in providing women access to formal financial services: those that are not gender-blind but instead tailored to women’s needs and constraints. Our current research at CGD builds upon that finding. We are examining the impact of mobile savings products – provided by banks and telecommunications companies in Indonesia and Tanzania – on women’s ability to save and increase their incomes through rigorous field research (more details to come in a future blog).

So what can be done to make sure the private sector increasingly plays its critical part in promoting gender equality? The panelists agreed: accountability and reporting are key. Holding companies accountable – either through firm certification systems that verify their investments in gender equality – or through other mechanisms that encourage corporations to collect data and report on how they are integrating gender equality into their business models – will be critical if global goals related to gender equality are going to be met. Along those lines, CGD Senior Fellow Charles Kenny (also a director of our Gender and Development Program) has developed a proposal to encourage US firms based abroad to provide equal opportunities for women within the workforce.

Here at CGD we’ll be continuing the conversation on how the private sector (and others) can contribute to promoting global gender equality and, importantly, how to generate the data and create the monitoring systems to track results.