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Gender Roundtable: Corporations Supporting Women and Girls: Does it work?
October 26, 2011 @ 8:00 am - 5:00 pm
On October 26, the fourth Gender Roundtable event hosted by Women Thrive Worldwide examined the effect major corporations have on the economic development of women and girls worldwide.
Corporations Supporting Women and Girls: Ethics, Efficiency, and Effectiveness was a lively debate moderated by Ritu Sharma, Women Thrive’s Co-Founder and President. The conversation centered around the impact of corporations as they become more engaged in global development, both through their charitable work (through CSR or corporate social responsibility projects) and through the increasingly global supply chains of their businesses.
- Penny Abeywardena, Senior Manager, Women and Girls Portfolio, Clinton Global Initiative
- Dean Cycon, Founder and CEO, Dean’s Beans Organic Coffee Company
- Joan Libby Hawk, Special Advisor, Women’s Empowerment Principles, UN Women and UN Global Development
- Carol Grigsby, Senior Advisor, Economic Growth, Agriculture, and Trade (EGAT) Bureau, USAID
Establishing the parameters of corporations’ involvement is essential because, as Penny pointed out, “Some corporations are just as influential as governments.” Other panelists pointed out that many corporate efforts to work with women worldwide seem to be marketing strategies, with little accountability or follow up. So what should their role be? What kinds of actions are most productive for companies to take? Do efforts like the Women’s Empowerment Principles, which urge companies to follow gender equality principles in their own operations, or the Clinton Global Initiative commitments process on global engagement, help?
The panelists thought they did, but they agreed that these efforts were not the complete solution. According to Dean, whose company sources coffee from all over the world, the best thing corporate leaders can do is really understand the source communities who get or make their products, learn what their needs are, and make changes to their own businesses in response. Charitable funding, while helpful, is not enough to guarantee long-term benefits. “Social change doesn’t necessarily come from money,” said Dean, “but rather from corporate engagement.” For communities, he said, “Economic empowerment leads to political empowerment.”
The rest of the panelists agreed, and emphasized the need to educate the private sector beyond the traditionally ‘safe’ women’s issues they have engaged in, like education or entrepreneurship. Carol explained that land rights and gender-based violence, for example, can directly affect their businesses and their employees. The panelists acknowledged that corporations aren’t necessarily equipped to solve issues like these, which are the province of national governments and local institutions. But an example of what they can do, Joan suggested, is provide funding for women who need legal assistance, thereby ensuring their access to justice. Carol pointed out that many corporations want to help – they just don’t know how to do so while still being profitable.
All panelists supported corporate engagement in development, and stressed that it should be based on an equally balanced dialogue between the private sector and communities who create their products. Done right, companies have a lot of potential to do good for women, but the jury is still out on whether that will happen.