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How empowering women benefits businesses

Here's why ANN Inc. and others find both social benefit and economic profit in delivering for women and girls.

This article was originally published in BSR Insight.

In May, thousands of advocates, policymakers and leaders from business and civil society gathered in Copenhagen for Women Deliver, the world’s largest global convening focused on the health, rights and well-being of girls and women. The private sector is already widely recognized as a key partner in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the theme of this year’s event, and the strong representation of business among attendees will be particularly noticeable this year.

Attendees have been focusing on the SDGs as they specifically relate to women and girls. To kick off the week of inspiring speakers and discussions, BSR — in partnership with Women Deliver, the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Novo Nordisk — convened more than 65 private-sector leaders for a pre-conference May 16 to explore the business case for investing in women and identify actions companies can take to empower women across their value chains.

During the event, we unveiled a new framework for accelerating private-sector action on women’s empowerment in global value chains. The framework identifies the main business drivers, key principles for action and three primary roles companies can take to drive their investments in women — and discussions throughout the event underlined that leading companies already are putting into practice the core components of the framework.

To start, business leaders shared how their companies are advancing women’s empowerment while also achieving business goals. For example, Standard Chartered takes a multi-faceted approach that considers the different ways women create value as employees, consumers and community members. Companies such as ANN Inc. approach their women’s empowerment programs as an opportunity to infuse their corporate values throughout business operations, including among their business partners.

In addition, attendees raised the need for visionary leadership, consumer engagement, local ownership and considerations for extending benefits into communities as important for taking a holistic, integrated and strategic approach to women’s empowerment, the core principles at the foundation of the corporate-action framework.

The framework also presents three roles for companies to consider to drive change. Every company can take action in areas under its direct control to benefit women in its own operations and throughout the value chain. They also can enable and influence other companies, partners, individuals and policymakers by incentivizing, partnering and communicating with others in their industries and supply chains — thereby changing the broader market.

In discussing the three roles, participants shared their best practices and discussed common barriers to achieving their desired impact. Participants mentioned impact measurement several times as a shared challenge — and opportunity — for advancing investments in women’s empowerment.

Given the multi-faceted nature of the topic, companies should consider positioning their investments in women’s empowerment within larger frameworks and defining clear goals, strategies and metrics for what they hope to achieve. Additionally, impact should be measured at the individual, family/community and institutional level, which will build a strong evidence base for further investments.

Considering women’s unique needs can unleash extraordinary economic and social benefits.

Business action on women’s empowerment also requires consideration of the full value chain, including opportunities downstream, such as enabling access to products and services that support women and girls. Company examples underlined that considering women’s unique needs in the design and delivery of products and services can unleash extraordinary economic and social benefits — as well as business profits. 

A final theme from the event was the need for strategic partnerships and cross-sector collaboration to maximize the impact of company investments in women. Partnerships are essential at every stage of program implementation — from the design and delivery to impact measurement and scaling.

And the private sector can’t do it alone; successful approaches to women’s empowerment require close collaboration with governments and civil society. Participants agreed that any new partnership requires identifying common goals, leveraging respective assets, building trust and communicating openly and transparently. Participating companies also made it clear that they are committed to partnerships beyond just providing financial support, and that the private sector is ready to act.

BSR will continue to build momentum around private-sector action through its participation in Women Deliver’s Deliver for Good initiative, a new global campaign to apply a gender lens to the SDGs, and a new partnership with the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

In his closing, BSR Senior Vice President Peder Michael Pruzan-Jorgensen left participants with these parting words: "Women deliver. Business must deliver too. By investing in women, business drives growth, productivity and innovation — and creates a better world."

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