Women’s Empowerment: The Right and the Smart Thing to Do
In the days leading up to International Women’s Day, the US Chamber of Commerce Foundation and the Office of Global Women’s Issues at the US Department of State hosted their annual International Women’s Day Forum: The Equality Opportunity. The Forum was focused on women’s economic rights not only as the right thing to do but also the smart thing to do.” Suzanne Clark, Senior Executive Vice President of the US Chamber of Commerce, opened the Forum and set the tone with an impassioned, cogent speech. She laid out the business case for women’s economic empowerment, highlighting the immense potential in labor force productivity and consumer spending that remains unmet because of the gender-based barriers women face in business as both members of the workforce and as entrepreneurs.
A common theme throughout the day was gender-inclusive workplaces and how the world has a long way to go before equality is the norm. Laura Liswood, Co-Founder and Secretary General of the Council of Women World Leaders, spoke about “the illusion of inclusion,” i.e., companies and institutions that have programs and rhetoric that ostensibly support women’s participation and empowerment but do not reflect true gender diversity and inclusion.
Angela Guy, Senior Vice President of Diversity and Inclusion at L'Oreal USA, emphasized how inclusion is about feeling valued, which can significantly affect an employee’s level of productivity. Jennifer Aument, President of North American business at Transurban Group, shared her personal experience of feeling undervalued at work and the emotional toll it took on her, a concept that she referred to as “female factor fatigue” – feeling worn down after weathering daily sexist microaggressions in male-dominated industries.
Gender equality in the workplace must not solely depend upon women being individually tough and confident. CEOs and leadership teams of companies must all support gender equality, pay equity, and empowering women, according to Julie Ann Overcash, Vice President of Human Resources and Director of Global Rewards and Talent Retention at Intel Corporation. At the Foundation for a Smoke-Free World (the Foundation), we are particularly interested in innovative measurement and monitoring of progress toward sustainable workplace gender equality. As male-dominated industries transform, so must their policies and work culture in support of the advancement of women.
The Foundation also has a deep interest in – as Dr. Patricia Greene, Director of the Women’s Bureau at the Department of Labor, phrased it – how “men are often the default beneficiaries of new technology.” The Foundation is dedicated to funding research that applies sex- and gender-based analyses to develop better, innovative, and effective technology and products to smoking cessation and tobacco harm reduction interventions. On her panel, Dr. Greene gave an example of exoskeleton suits that are being developed for men, with the hope that they will be “adapted later for women.” She also urged listeners to reframe the conversation around who technology is developed for, emphasizing that “men” and “women” are not homogenous categories.
Michelle Bekkering, Senior Coordinator for Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment and Senior Deputy Assistant Administrator of the Bureau for Economic Growth, Education, and Environment (E3) at USAID, spoke about the agency’s new Private Sector Engagement Policy and how global GDP could grow by as much as $12 trillion by 2025 with gender parity in global labor force participation. She emphasized in her speech the importance of market-driven enterprise and consultation with the private sector in determining where the best opportunities are in the labor force. The Foundation’s Agricultural Transformation Initiative shares these tenets, as it focuses on ensuring that each investment dollar spent is contributing to building capacity and strengthening local and national economies in a sustainable, gender-inclusive way toward a better future for smallholder farmers, their families, and their communities.
Lona Stoll, Deputy Vice President of Sector Operations at the Millennium Challenge Corporation, spoke on a panel about the value of partnership in investing in responsible value chains. She succinctly stated the key takeaway of the day – “We need to structure our investments to ensure women and girls are benefitting.”
We must move from awareness to action. Whether you are investing your time and energy to create a safe and inclusive workplace or investing capital in entrepreneurs, invest in women and girls because it is both the right thing to do and the smart thing to do.