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Women’s Empowerment Principles: National Coalitions Bring Equality Means Business Home


By: Joan Libby Hawk, WEPs Special Advisor, UN Women and UN Global Compact

What do Switzerland, New Zealand, Japan, Australia, India, Iceland, Paraguay, Brazil, Serbia, Spain, Turkey, the United Kingdom, Lebanon and South Africa have in common? Stakeholders in each country have begun to use the Women’s Empowerment Principles—Equality Means Business as a platform to work with business to advance gender equality.

A partnership initiative of UN Women and the UN Global Compact launched in March 2010 in recognition of International Women’s Day, the WEP’s seven Principles provide a gender-sensitive roadmap for business to advance and empower women in the workplace, marketplace and community. Just two and a half years later, the WEPs’ business network now comprises approximately 450 companies from all over the world whose CEOs have signed the WEPs Statement of Support and publicly pledge to work to implement the WEPs. Whether initiated by a UN Women office, a UN Global Compact Local Network, a business or group of companies, a nongovernmental organization, or local or national Government officials, these various WEPs-oriented coalitions design the way they are organized, set their own priorities, establish goals and programmatic approaches.

While the four-person WEPs team works from UN Headquarters to provide support, advice, materials and guidance, the decentralized activities reflect the WEPs wide appeal as a tool that enhances women’s economic empowerment, facilitating dialogue and action. Addressing the annual 2012 WEPs meeting in New York, the Secretary-General said: “When you embrace these Principles, you join a great and gathering movement to unleash the power of women and change the world…By working together based on shared values, we can advance the common good.”

In June at the Rio + 20 UN Conference, the WEPs once again helped set the stage at the Corporate Sustainability Forum (CSF) for a deep discussion of the connections between gender equality, corporate sustainability and sustainable development—numerous WEPs companies and supporters from Government and the NGO community were on hand and participating.

As UN Women Executive Director Michelle Bachelet remarked in her keynote speech, “Women and Sustainable Development—the Role of Business—at Rio + 20 Corporate Sustainability Forum CEO Luncheon on 18 June 2012, “Investing in women, in their training and leadership, and equal opportunity, brings high returns, a “gender dividend” as Deloitte like to call it.” Levi Strauss & Company, one of the first companies to sign on to the Women’s Empowerment Principle, puts it this way, “We partner with women around the world to shape what’s to come: a more equitable workplace, healthier families and communities, and a more sustainable planet.”

Gaining Traction through National Coalitions

The WEPs’ participants – companies, UN Women and the UN Global Compact, nongovernmental organizations and governments— are sparking the formation of national coalitions. Working in collaboration, these self-organized groups meet to highlight good practices and tested approaches, identify common problems and pilot projects to move implementation forward, either individually or as a group. Once again, there is “no one size fits all” organizing pattern, each coalition tailors the efforts it shapes.

Since the Rio experience is so recent, let us look first at what has been happening in Brazil. This emerging economic powerhouse showcases a dynamic stakeholders group led by companies that have forged a WEPs “Alliance” aimed at developing a shared framework of indicators and action steps for WEPs implementation. The efforts began at a regional conference focusing on gender and domestic labor held in September 2010, presided over by then President Lula, and attended by leading Brazilian public and private companies including Banco do Brasil, CPRM, Electrobras, Embrapa, Petrobaras, Serpro and ItaipuBinancional. In that public setting, the companies reconfirmed their support of the WEPs and commitments to gender equality. Moreover, the UN Women Regional Director took the opportunity to personally present to the President the WEPs booklet, translated into Portuguese turning a photo opportunity into an organizing moment.

Brazilian laws and policies under Lula and continuing through the current first female president place a high emphasis on achieving women’s rights and banishing discrimination and violence against women. With that enabling environment, businesses have gravitated to the WEPs because of their practical roadmap, emphasis on examples, UN-based credibility and easily tailored platform for national initiatives.

The result is the creation of the Business Alliance for Strengthening the Role of Women in Society, a business group that includes DOW, Cummins, Ernst & Young Terco, Deloitte, Hays and KPMG, Walmart and others. In keeping with the WEPs emphasis on inclusion, NGOs such as BPW and academics also participate.

At their most recent meeting they shared experiences around human resources, the challenge of retaining talented women and moving women through the pipeline to leadership positions. One company offered insights from a recent survey on the national labor market and input about perceptions on the idea of quotas for women and how gender biases – often not understood – can work against companies’ gender equality and empowerment goals.

This shared expertise will enable the stakeholders to develop policies and projects that improve company performance while expanding the lessons to benefit more companies and women throughout South America. Currently, Brazil boasts one of the highest number of WEPs companies—39 in all.

South Africa’s WEPs Stakeholders Enhance Women’s Leadership and Enable Entrepreneurs

The South African Chapter of Business and Professional Women International (BPW), working with the Ministry of Trade and Industry, UN Women, Deloitte and other companies, used the WEPs as a jumping off point to inaugurate some new approaches to implementation. They focused on two Principles: First, leadership and increasing the number of women on corporate boards. Second, enterprise development and opening up the supply chain to women entrepreneurs. Recognizing that unleashing the untapped potential of women’s economic empowerment and fueling the energies and talents of women entrepreneurs is a win-win strategy for the South African economy and society, the Ministry provided some much needed funding. Business too stepped up; offering to train women Board of Director candidates with the necessarily skills, legal and financial expertise. Technology will play a big role too: Procurement policies will be on-line and transparent and the roster of board-ready women candidates uploaded. Building on this foundation, UNDP, the Government, UN Women and NGOs hosted an “enterprise development” event for women in business to share good practices and identify the continuing stumbling blocks. The process now shows some clear directions and engages many stakeholders.

WEPs in India—Addressing Inequality

In India, the WEPs launch and outreach took a different direction. CARE India, a prominent and respected NGO, selected the WEPs platform as means to address gender equality and the role that businesses in India can play to promote women’s empowerment. The Indian context is very complex, a mix of dynamic modern development rubbing shoulders with longstanding discrimination again women that, despite governmental and civil society efforts, continues to restrict women and girls from realizing their full potential. As the Indian business community grows stronger and more diverse, CARE, along with the UN Global Compact’s Indian Local Network and UN Women, designed a strategy to jump start the dialogue and show the way to action. The publication, Gaining an Edge through Gender Equality, a WEPs national Primer written around the Indian case for the Principles, became the strategy’s centerpiece.

Bringing this initiative full circle, the WEPs annual New York meeting in March 2012, featured this effort. Using video conference technology, the stakeholders spoke directly to a diverse international audience, spreading the message and exchanging ideas of next steps.

New Zealand, Business and Government Come Together

A formal WEPs launch at Government House in New Zealand brought together eight leading chief executives and New Zealand’s inaugural signers of the CEO Statement of Support from Price Waterhouse Coopers, Vodafone, Alcatel-Lucent, The Warehouse, Z Energy, Westpac, Skycity Entertainment and Heidrick and Struggles along with the Governor-General of New Zealand, the Honorable Sir Jerry Mateparae. Representing both multi-national businesses and local ones, this CEO group pledged to encourage other businesses to sign up and use the Principles. As the New Zealand government remains keenly interested in advancing economic empowerment among Pacific women who traditionally lag in legal and economic rights, the WEPs are both a national and an international tool. The New Zealand coalition also includes, UN Women, the New Zealnd National Committee, the New Zealand Rights Commission and the New Zealand Federation of Business and Professional Women (BPW).

WEPs Circles Expand

The Netherlands in October will be the location of the newest WEPs launch and will join the many other ongoing coalitions from Japan, Serbia, Iceland, the UK, Australia, Spain, Lebanon, Paraguay and Turkey who are continuing to develop and implement their national approach. In addition, organizers of events such as the recent Second African Women’s Economic Summit held in Lagos, Nigeria included the WEPs in their event program to disseminate this useful women’s economic empowerment framework for those companies and organizations working to align their business goals and activities with gender equality and inclusion. Similarly, the upcoming second annual Women Vendors Exhibition and Forum (VVEFII), taking place in Mexico City, 6-7 November 2012, that provides a marketplace for companies to expand business relationships with women-owned enterprises, offers another opportunity to advance the WEPs goals by applying a gender lens to the supply chain and procurement (WEPs Principle 5). The WEPs will also be launched in Iraq this coming September at an event being organized by Government of Iraq and UN agencies, including UNDP, UN Women, and the recently launched UN Global Compact Iraq Network. Finally, an event organized with KPMG Netherlands and the Women’s World Banking’s Women in Leadership Programme focusing on private-public partnerships will showcase the WEPs and is scheduled for Amsterdam in mid-October.

Quickening Pace and Challenges

The pick-up of the WEPs in so many parts of the world highlights both that gender equality has moved from the sidelines to the center of many agendas including, in significant ways, the corporate agenda. Research and findings from the business community continues to mount and the external situation underscores the need. On 31 July 2012, the Credit Suisse Research Institute, which analyzes trends expected to affect global markets, reported that companies with women on their boards performed better in challenging markets than those with all-male boards in a study suggesting that mixing genders may temper risky investment moves and increase return on equity. The study concluded that shares of companies with a market capitalization of more than US$ 10 billion and with women board members outperformed comparable businesses with all-male boards by 26 percent worldwide over a period of six years.

This finding highlights why so many diverse stakeholders find the WEPs a practical tool for companies. Deloitte’s Global Industry Leader for the Public Sector Greg Pellegrino, who spoke at the WEPs meeting in 2011 describes “…an urgency that the time to invest in women is now. Not in a year or two when the economy recovers. Not when the dust settles after various laws and regulations take effect but now. If you want to grow your economy or business and stay competitive, you need to start taking the role of women in organizations and in leadership roles more seriously—and focus on intentional change.”

For more information, please contact Joan Libby Hawk, Special Advisor, Women’s Empowerment Principles UN Women and UN Global Compact.