Updated: Feb 5
I was pleased to be invited to speak at the APEC meeting in Papua New Guinea that focused on women in the economy. I gave two talks and have promised to post the slides here on the website for the people who attended (and anyone else who might be interested).
One speech, which was given on September 6, introduced the Global Business Coalition for Women’s Economic Empowerment, which originated in December 2014, launched at Chatham House in November 2017. There was also an independent report released at the same time as the launch.
As previously reported, the core message of the GBC4WEE is:
That women’s economic empowerment is one of the premier strategies for good in view today, both for growth and humanitarian reasons
That business has a core role to play, especially if we want the reforms and interventions currently being tested around the world to be taken up on a sustainable basis
That business represents the potential to “scale” gender equality in a way that charities and governments cannot reasonably be expected to do, but the interventions have to “work” within a true business case.
At APEC, I began by explaining that the group was originally convened at Oxford, under a grant to the university made by the ExxonMobil Foundation. I had enough experience working with the companies on women’s economic empowerment to believe that they were learning a lot about how to create programs on behalf of women. I wanted to make it possible for them to share their lessons with each other, so that efforts could be made more effective and efficient, but also to share what they have learned with the rest of the international community working on this important topic. I selected the corporation to convene according to two criteria: (1) the had to have serious engagement with women’s economic empowerment and not just superficial awards and such, (2) they each had to be in a different industry, in order to avoid any competitive conflict and to get as wide a sector spread as possible.
There are nine corporations in the GBC4WEE, all of whom were present at that first meeting: Coca-Cola, ExxonMobil, Goldman Sachs, Marks & Spencer, Mastercard, Mondelēz, pwc, Qualcomm, and Walmart. We are in the process of adding new companies for the first time and are talking to Procter & Gamble and IBM, who both be attending the November meeting. The GBC4WEE meets now twice a year, once in May in Washington, DC and once in November in London. However, the group also meets virtually in between these face-to-face gatherings.
The GBC4WEE “went public” in November 2017, at a Chatham House launch in London. There is an online video from that launch where I explain how the programs coherently address specific problems that hold women back, using one sector, agriculture, as the example. I wrote an independent report under the Oxford grant and this was also released at that time. I carried some copies to APEC and also gave away cards that would help people find it online. As always, the materials went quickly. You can download that report here.
At APEC, I also briefly outlined the long experience, wide range, and large geographic scope of the GBC4WEE’s collective programs for women’s empowerment, for which there are further details in the report.
I gave a topline summary of the positive business outcomes that result from these programs. I did this for two reasons. There were businesses represented in the audience and I wanted them to be able to see that it would be a good thing for them to do, too. And, I continue to see that other people, especially in government and civil society, have a hard time imagining why businesses want to engage with women’s economic participation in this way.
As always, I gave the caveat that I am not the spokesperson for these companies, by choice. I do have my own opinions and want to be free to express them. The distinction I draw is that I can talk about the companies, but I do not want anyone to think I speak for them.
The GBC4WEE, however, has a pretty innovative concept of its own, which is that business should play a core role in the economy, because they can scale and sustain the practices that work to include them economically in a way that governments and charities cannot do. I always add, on my own opinion, that the private sector really is the economy, after all, and so if we want to empower women economically, the private sector must be engaged. However, while all of the members of the GBC4WEE think it is crucial that business be a key part of this movement, none of them think business can do this alone, but must partner with government and civil society in order to achieve the goal.
The program of women’s empowerment will be sustainable if we can “bake it in” to the world’s commercial systems. That step will help to ensure that lasting change is achieved. It is time for government and civil society to begin thinking about corporations as more than just a check-writing machine. These companies represent an important resource that we should try to engage rather than avoid.
I ended by talking a bit about where the GBC4WEE might go from here. The group sees itself primarily as serving a knowledge-building function. They are not taking on the awarding of grants or funding of programs, since that kind of thing is already handled by others elsewhere in their organizations. I do anticipate that they might be collaborating with each other or else other institutions on some larger scale efforts. And I can imagine that they may wish to advise those same large scale projects in their formative stages. Very often, big projects are planned and announced that anticipate including the private sector—without having actually talked to any private sector players. Since feasibility problems then often arise, it seems a good idea to check these things out ahead of time. They do see themselves wanting to help recruit other businesses into the women’s economic empowerment movement, both large and small.
In sum, I said, the GBC4WEE’s formation is an important landmark for the movement and can be an important resource for other partners.