from Development Channel

From the Board Room to the Factory Floor, Employing Women Is Smart Business

Ethnic Dong women work at a tea leaf processing factory in Liping county, Guizhou province, China, March 2014 (Courtesy Reuters/Sheng Li).

September 23, 2014

Ethnic Dong women work at a tea leaf processing factory in Liping county, Guizhou province, China, March 2014 (Courtesy Reuters/Sheng Li).
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Emerging Voices features contributions from scholars and practitioners highlighting new research, thinking, and approaches to development challenges. This article is by Henriette Kolb, head of the Gender Secretariat at the International Finance Corporation (IFC), and Nasim Novin, consultant at the IFC Gender Secretariat.

As Hillary Clinton said during the 2014 Clinton Global Initiative (CGI) Annual Meeting in New York City earlier this week,  "We cannot grow the global economy if we do not open the doors to women to participate in the economy."

Research from the past decade clearly demonstrates the economic case for women’s full participation in the labor force. Strategy& (formerly Booz & Co) estimates that increasing women’s presence in the workforce to the same level as men’s could boost GDP by 5 percent in the United States, 12 percent in the United Arab Emirates, and 34 percent in Egypt. And according to McKinsey & Company, companies with more women on boards and in top management perform the best.

Yet across the world, women face persistent barriers in the job market, often the result of discrimination and culturally entrenched ideas about gender roles. In fact, the World Bank’s Gender at Work report finds that women’s participation in the labor force has stagnated over the last two decades, declining from 57 to 55 percent worldwide. Of the women who are empowered to participate in the global workforce, more than half are engaged in the informal economy, rather than in salaried or wage jobs.

With the world economy struggling to revive in the aftermath of the global recession, now is the time to remove the obstacles to women’s paid employment and reap the economic and societal benefits of women’s full economic participation. The private sector is increasingly taking on this task, as more and more companies become convinced that including women at all levels of their organizations is a business imperative—and not just a corporate social responsibility or public relations issue.

Demonstrating their commitment to promoting women’s private sector employment, ten companies recently joined the She Works partnership initiative announced by World Bank Group President Jim Yong Kim at the CGI Annual Meeting. Kim urged other companies to follow their lead, emphasizing that empowering women in the workplace is essential to achieving the World Bank’s goals of reducing absolute poverty and boosting shared prosperity.

The unique partnership with CGI brings together leading multinational companies that have already made significant progress toward gender inclusion in their workplaces—Care.com, Coca-Cola Company, Ernst & Young, Gap Inc., and Intel Corporation—with leading firms based in emerging markets—Belcorp, Kuwait Energy, Odebrecht Group, Ooredoo Group, and Zulekha Hospitals. Each company has pledged to implement measures that are proven to enhance women’s employment opportunities, such as mentorship programs, flexible working arrangements, company-wide gender assessments, and leadership training to increase diversity in management.

The partnership also provides a platform for companies to meet, share best practices, and learn from one another. It presents a unique opportunity to exchange and adapt lessons between the developed world and emerging markets. Working with critical partners, such as the EDGE Certified Foundation, the International Labour Organization, and the UN Global Compact, the World Bank Group will facilitate knowledge-sharing events and develop practical approaches that companies can implement to improve gender equity in the workplace.

Partnerships to enhance women’s employment are vital to scale up those programs that are already proven to be effective. She Works is expected to improve employment opportunities for more than three hundred thousand women across the world over the next two years. Considering approximately 865 million women worldwide have the potential to contribute more fully to their national economies, this is just a drop in the bucket. More energy and attention from both governments and the private sector is needed to chip away at that daunting number.

Nevertheless, this initiative is an important starting point. By drawing on the thought leadership and convening power of the World Bank Group, combined with the practical experience of companies, this type of partnership can have catalytic power. The World Bank Group calls on other companies to use the example set by the She Works partnership to actively promote gender equality in the workplace, thus creating the momentum needed to grow the global economy, end absolute poverty, and increase shared prosperity.

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