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Business and women will gain from overcoming gender assumptions

Sensemaking / Business and women will gain from overcoming gender assumptions

How can organisations overcome psychological barriers to empowerment, from low self-esteem to unequal wages?

By Ruhi Kandhari / 16 Mar 2016

This article was first published in The Long View 2016 chapter Women Beyond Gender. Please share your thoughts here and join the conversation on social media with #longview2016.

Surveys conducted by governments, corporates and not-for-profits in developing and developed countries alike have pointed out that women continue to consider their marginalisation at home or the workplace natural, have lower self-esteem that men and think of their rights as privileges.

Normalisation of practices such as unequal pay for equal work, and acceptance of the ‘double burden’ – domestic and professional, and with maternity and childcare posing barriers to promotion, have led many women to internalise that their worth outside the household is less than that of men. For instance, UNICEF’s Global Report Card on Adolescents 2012 stated that nearly 50% of girls and women aged 15–49 across developing countries believed that wife beating was justified.

These ‘psychological barriers’ are manifest in developed countries too, and a factor in women’s unequal presence and participation in the business world – according to Women Matter, a report published by McKinsey in 2007. Not much has changed in the near-decade since then. Almost 50% of qualified British women continue to doubt themselves, found a survey conducted by Head and Shoulders in 2013. These women believe they would be further in their career if they had more self-belief. Similarly, in 2014, a gender-parity study for management consultancy Bain & Company surmised that most women enter the workplace full of confidence, but after just two years on the job their aspiration levels and confidence to achieve their goals halve. Only 16% of women were still thinking they could reach executive roles.

Women’s movements in developing countries have been focused on basic rights – such as access to nutrition, education, maternal health and protection from domestic violence. In isolation, these initiatives have shown some success. What’s needed is an overhaul of the gender systems themselves, though – a means to break through the psychological barriers to equality.

But where to begin?

Businesses are starting to recognise that not only is it ethical to promote gender equality but that it is crucial to ensuring their long-term success. The phenomenon is commonly referred to as the ‘gender dividend’. In a report with that title published in 2011, Deloitte argued that fully integrating women into both the workplace and the marketplace can yield a significant return.

“The Gender Dividend is a steady benefit that is earned by making wise, balanced investments in developing women as workers and potential leaders, as well as understanding women as consumers and their impact on the economy and the bottom line. Done right, the Gender Dividend should be reflected in increased sales, expanded markets, and improved recruitment and retention of a key talent segment”, the authors stated.

The aims of women’s movement and businesses can be aligned in future if corporates recognise that eliminating discrimination is just a starting point. A sustainable system that benefits businesses and gender equality requires there to be no impediments for women to influence and make decisions. This will happen not on its own but only if the corporates, which are mostly built, dominated and led by men, are willing to challenge the gendered assumptions inherent in systems.

Former UN Secretary-General and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Kofi Annan has said “there is no tool for development more effective than the empowerment of women”, and according to the McKinsey Global Institute, a ‘full potential’ scenario in which women played an identical role to that of men in the labour economy would add up to $28 trillion dollars to the global annual GDP – the same as the combined GDP of the world’s two largest economies, US and China.

Some efforts are underway. In March 2013, global beverage alcohol company Diageo signed Women’s Empowerment Principles (WEPs), a joint initiative of the UN Global Compact and UN Women to guide businesses on empowering women, and launched a journalism awards scheme. The awards aim to inspire journalists in developing countries, who struggle to find opportunities to voice their opinion on rampant gender inequality, to raise awareness of concerns situated in specific local and cultural realities.

Voice is an important step towards choice. According to Marcela Manubens, Global Vice President for Social Impact at Unilever, “Empowering women isn’t just the right thing to do: it is the single greatest enabler of human development and economic growth. Unilever’s future growth depends on meeting women’s needs and aspirations and on supporting an increase in their livelihoods by enabling them to fully and formally participating in the economy. Consequently, the advancement of women’s rights and women’s economic inclusion is a business priority.” Unilever has made a commitment to empower five million women by 2020 by building a gender- balanced organisation with a focus on management, providing safety for women in the communities where it operates, enhancing access to training and skills and expanding opportunities in its value chain.

Empowerment is a step-by-step process, according to Ela Bhatt, founder of the Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) in India. SEWA is a trade union for poor self-employed women workers, the majority of whom belong to the unorganised sector. Its main goal is to organise women for full employment – including work security, income security, food and social security (including child care, healthcare and shelter).

“In concrete terms, empowerment means control over resources. Those resources may be financial, but also mental and intellectual. A woman should be able to take decisions individually or collectively and own financial resources like land, a house, a workplace in her own name”, Bhatt says. The World Bank champions SEWA as a model that should be replicated globally.

At the UN Women’s Business and Philanthropy Leaders’ Forum held in September 2015, multinational companies and foundations dedicated millions of dollars to gender equality. The participating corporates agreed to close the gaps that hinder progress for women and girls. “There can be no gender equality without investment and willingness to change the status quo”, said the UN Women’s Executive Director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka.

Entrepreneurs are developing creative business models purely aimed at challenging the gendered status quo while empowering women socially and economically. Take the ‘24x7 She Taxi’ start-up in Kerala, India, which endorses a ‘by-the-womenand-for-the-women’ business model. It is a one of its kind cab service that brings together women cab owners and drivers and women passengers. On one hand, it offers a lucrative market to women cab owners and on the other, a safe commuting option to women cab users. The drivers are also made aware of women’s rights and laws protecting them, which they can share with the women, who use the cab service.

Similarly, Arunachalam Muruganantham, who invented a low-cost sanitary-napkins producing machine, set up Jayashree Industries to enable women to produce and sell sanitary pads without middlemen, while sharing information about hygiene.

Multinationals need to pursue the same agenda: not just ensuring rights for women in their supply chain but breaking down all barriers for women to act – whether the primary factor affecting their status as a citizen is gender, or another form of discrimination.


The UN Global Compact and UN Women published these principles to guide corporate action for gender equality:

  • Establish high-level corporate leadership for gender equality.
  • Treat all women and men fairly at work – respect and support human rights and non-discrimination.
  • Ensure the health, safety and well-being of all women and men workers.
  • Promote education, training and professional development for women.
  • Implement enterprise development, supply chain and marketing practices that empower women.
  • Promote equality through community initiatives and advocacy.
  • Measure and publicly report on progress to achieve gender equality.

Ruhi Kandhari is a winner of the Women’s Empowerment (WE) Journalism Awards 2015

Art by Bogdan Aleksandrov

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