Don't Leave Out Half the World

Whether you’re talking about the developing world or the wealthiest nations, it’s hard to deny that women will play a greater role in the economy of the future. To understand how to think about this trend, Andrew Benedict-Nelson of Insight Labs talked to Penny Abeywardena, associate director of commitments and head of the Girls and Women program at the Clinton Global Initiative.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: So we’re doing an exercise to imagine the world ten years into the future. But I’d actually like to start by going ten years into the past. I think that if you were to bring a visitor from the nonprofit sector or the international development sector from 2003 forward into today, one thing they would notice is that we’re talking a lot more about the economic empowerment of women and girls. Would you agree? Why has that occurred?

Penny Abeywardena: I think a lot of people were talking about it in 2003, but they were women’s rights groups and individuals who worked directly on the ground with communities. What I think has changed now is that there are also a lot of people in the private sector talking about this, whether it’s a philanthropic venture or a core business strategy. That’s an area where the Clinton Global Initiative (CGI) has definitely taken the lead. It’s become pretty clear that if a large organization wants to address global challenges, engaging girls and women will always help maximize the results. That’s the conversation that is happening between civil society, the private sector, and government.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: Could you explain why focusing on women and girls helps maximize results in that way?

Penny Abeywardena: It’s a cultural shift from thinking about women as a marginalized community or a problem that needs to be solved to recognizing that they are half the population, half of the potential solutions to be harnessed. That’s what Nick Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn got so right with the title of their book, Half the Sky.

So at CGI we have nine tracks that organize the work our members do and inform the programming we curate for our members.  But the “girls and women” track is a little different. Its primary purpose is to make sure that there is programming for women and girls within each of the other issue-based tracks. So whether you’re talking about energy or education or global health or technology, there is a lens focusing on women and girls that can be integrated into all of our members’ solutions through their “commitment to action” form.

When I first started in 2009, we did a review of our entire commitments portfolio and found that less than 10 percent of our commitments reported that their work had anything to do with girls and women. But then you see something like a pharmaceutical company delivering HIV/AIDS drugs that never took into account that 90 percent of the people they service are women. So this has become part of the way we curate programming — we help people to see that doing something like delivering those drugs to women is going to be different than it would be to deliver them to men, thus making their project more effective.

Another one of my favorite examples is cookstoves distributed by NGOs. This has been done for a couple of decades now. I was talking with one of my advisers in the early years — she’s from India — and she pointed out that most of the cookstoves distributed in India in the past were flat. But curries are one of the primary dishes in India, and you can’t cook them on a flat stove. So these cookstoves were being designed without the input of the women who would actually be using them in these communities. We’ve had decades of these things being distributed and discarded because women were left out of the decision-making and design process.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: Could you tell me a little bit more about how this fits in to the plans of corporations who view the developing world as part of their future business strategy?

Penny Abeywardena: Absolutely. Unilever did a study of their consumer base last year and found that it was about 80 percent women. They recognized that their senior management needed to reflect that, so they have committed to increasing the percentage of women in those roles to 55 percent over the next couple of years. CGI is also incubating a large commitment with several companies to incorporate more women-owned businesses into their global supply chains. That could have huge implications for the women being brought into the global economy, from training to access to markets and capital.

These companies recognize that this isn’t just something good and kind for their corporate social responsibility division. This is important for their core business.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: You would think there would also be an important resonance between these different ways of looking at investing in women. Here’s what I mean. A company might look at, say, a country in sub-Saharan Africa and notice that most of their consumers are women. Very well — they’ll add more women to their team to better understand them. But if the research is right, investing in those women would also help with much longer-term issues like the stability of government or building an educated middle class. It’s like a kind of insurance on their investment.

Penny Abeywardena: That’s exactly right. Of course, if the kind of products you make are primarily consumed by women, there’s also a more direct incentive to increasing their power in society and their spending power.

There’s another interesting implication in all of this, which will be the changing role of men. How will we educate our boys and men to participate with women as equals in this kind of economy? The World Bank recently released a study that suggests that if men aren’t brought along in this project of educating and empowering women, violence against women will rise. In most countries — the U.S. included — men identify with the role of breadwinner. But what happens when women become the ones who are connected to things like the global supply chain? We’ve got to be strategic about that.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: So we've already got a positive trend going. And every day more people are being persuaded of this point of view. Because of that, the economic empowerment of women and girls might actually be an exponential trend — if more people are working on it every day, we have no idea how fast that growth might happen. So it seems to me that we should look at the kind of maximum and minimum scenarios here. Let’s start with the maximum, a kind of “victory” scenario. What’s your wish list of things that need to happen on this issue?

Penny Abeywardena: One of the things that need to be addressed is land rights. Violence against women all over the world. Women as environmental stewards. Women as critical to informal employment and resilient cities. All of that would need to be addressed for “victory.” But I’m a little reluctant to answer the question. There’s no one silver bullet — we’re talking about half of the population. They need to be addressed in order to address any issue fairly.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: That’s fair. But let’s imagine the world in which you get everything you want. What I’m trying to do is imagine what the economy might look like in that world.

Penny Abeywardena: Okay. So let’s talk about how we’d get to that world. Let’s say that women are half if not more of the leadership — economically, politically, socially, all around the world. There is no more gender-based violence, even in conflict settings. And women have equal access to land rights and inheritance rights everywhere. Those are at least three things that I would like to see handled by 2023 for “victory.”

So what would that world look like? It’s hard to say. Would women really be less war-mongering? You would think it would at least lead to greater equality in the distribution of resources.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: I’m wondering if we could solve the problem by looking at the past. So in certain types of societies, you have dowries. All sorts of economic behaviors assume that dowries exist — it influences saving and spending patterns for instance. Well, in a world where women are equal, I’d guess you wouldn't have dowries anymore. And that would influence the way people think about spending and saving in regards to their families.

So what about something like, I don’t know, corruption?

Penny Abeywardena: It’s really hard to say — the corruption piece, the political piece, the conflict piece. On the one hand, I want to say that women have certain characteristics that allow them to handle things better, but at the end of the day we are taking about humans with distinct characteristics. That said, we have evidence that when women are involved in conflict resolution and peacemaking that it leads to better outcomes. But I don’t know if you can guarantee that something like corruption would be addressed if women are equally empowered. I don’t think we have some sort of moral superiority.

But certainly giving women access to things like land rights would certainly make the playing field more equal for everyone. You’d have to think through how that would impact things like political movements more generally.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: Let’s come at this another way. We know that in international economic development, money spent on women and girls is more likely to be re-invested into the community. Could you extrapolate from there?

Penny Abeywardena: Right. Think about something like the child bride situation around the world. It’s absolutely preposterous that there are places in the world where a 12-year-old girl can be married off to a 70-year-old and then become pregnant at 14. The implications of ending practices like that would be huge not just for that girl, but for the entire community in which she lives. What does it look like when instead she has received an education, gone to college, joined the workforce, become a leader in her community? It’s hard to say what it would mean exactly economically, but clearly there are extraordinary benefits that start with simply giving a woman the right to say what happens to her body.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: So we’ve thought about the “maximum.” Now let’s think about the “minimum” — the best we can hope for if trends just keep going the way they are now. You’ve made the case that we’re already on a trajectory where companies are thinking about the economic empowerment of women as a part of their core business strategy. Let’s say that’s all that’s going to happen over the next 10 years and you don’t get any of the wishes we talked about above. How are companies going to behave differently?

Penny Abeywardena: Let’s look at the land rights issue. There are a lot of companies that want access to land for various reasons — let’s say they want to build an oil refinery. When they negotiate with local governments about what happens with that land, they can make sure that some of those benefits go to women. That will ultimately help them with the women who are the consumer base of that country.

Another interesting area is women within STEM — the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. If companies can figure out how to work with women in this area, the potential workforce that could tap would be as large as that of China or India. This could be a strategy to find the potential future workforce of your company.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: Here’s what I take away from what you just said. Lots of companies — even pretty small, local companies — realize they need a globalization strategy. It sounds as if the economic empowerment of women could be viewed as one club in that bag, one tool in that box.

Penny Abeywardena: Exactly. Companies are realizing that, and platforms like CGI are helping to articulate exactly what it looks like, whether it’s from a workforce perspective or a consumer base perspective. Companies will have to think about all that as they think about their bottom line.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: It’s interesting to think about how exactly you would use it strategically. For example, you could imagine a company trying to move into a country where a competitor has been since the days of the British Empire. They know all the existing players. Well, empowering women might be one way to change the game, to be a “challenger brand.”

Penny Abeywardena: Right. Or think of a country like Japan. Their economy has had persistent problems, but something like 40 percent of the population is not active in the workforce. The women are missing.

So it’s a shift in thinking about women not as a problem to be solved, but as a resource to be harnessed to solve other problems. That’s the perspective that’s being adopted by the private sector.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: Interesting. So if a country has yet to tap the power of its women, for whatever reason, we almost don’t know how powerful it could be.

Penny Abeywardena: Well, it’s not completely uncertain. There is data from the World Bank, from civil society groups, from governments like the Dutch, that proves the economic benefits of empowering women for countries’ economies. We’re just trying to figure out how to do it in a way that is sustainable and scalable. We’re not looking for proof — that’s where the conversation was five years ago. Now we know it works. So in the next ten years, we’ll all probably be figuring out how to make it work for more people. How do we double down on it? How do we bring more partners into it?

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: We’re in the prototyping phase. No more need to do basic research.

Penny Abeywardena: We’re beyond basic research for sure.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: I’m going back to the comparison with globalization more generally. We’ve known for decades that we’re going to have a more global workforce. But only in the past few years have you been able to say, “Okay, I need to compile a massive database, I’m going to go to eLance and round up workers from all over the world to do it.” It’s interesting to think that we might have similar tools that let countries do something similar with the empowerment of women and girls.

Penny Abeywardena: Everybody makes this move when they’re ready. A lot of it has to do with the internal conversations that are going on within companies. A lot of them happen organically. It’s about having the right advocates internally. Then a platform like CGI can help the company make a lot of these things happen. But my experience has been that there is not one rule or one argument that works every time.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: It depends on the core business interests.

Penny Abeywardena: Yes. Though I think there are some specific tools that would be useful in the conversation, like a better understanding of women’s purchasing power and where that could be in five years. Right now there is a widespread recognition that women matter as consumers. But what if there were a way — whether it’s in the developed world or the global South — to actually harness the power of all those women and make demands of companies? And what if the companies could tap into that to figure out what they’re missing?

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: I see what you’re saying. So right now, if you want to use the strategies we talked about earlier, you basically have to assemble the network yourself. But what you’d be talking about would be almost a kind of marketplace for the untapped power of women worldwide. I’m imagining this CEO getting on the phone and saying, “Tell me what women in Country X want.”

Penny Abeywardena: But you know, that actually exists. That’s the role the non-profits and the international NGOs can play. That’s the expertise that they have. The problem is how to connect all these stakeholders together. A lot of that knowledge about the way things are on the ground already exists if you’re willing to put the work into the right partnerships.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: Interesting. You can imagine that a lot of companies that do business internationally already have people whose job it is to connect them with the knowledge and opinions of the business community in any given country — that is to say, the established men. This could be a sort of companion knowledge to that, but it’s provided by the nonprofit sector.

Penny Abeywardena: This is why I love CGI and I love my job. We make it a priority to get those experts on the ground in conversation with people in other sectors. So I don’t think it makes a lot of sense for people to say, “Oh, I don’t know who to talk to.” You just have to put some work into building that network.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: And the result of that could be a new set of rules. So when you set out to do business in a new country, you don’t just talk to folks from the biggest bank in that country. You just assume that you would talk to folks from the nonprofit sector as part of your due diligence or your market research. And at least a part of it is because of the perspective they could give you on where women and girls could fit into your strategy.

Penny Abeywardena: A part, but a key part. It’s half the population. I have that on repeat because that’s the way of thinking about this that makes people do business differently. It makes you more strategic and more effective.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: A lot of times when you start a business in a field that’s pretty saturated, you have to make the case that there’s some flaw in the market research, that there’s consumers out there that nobody has tapped yet. This sounds like a way of doing that over and over again.

Penny Abeywardena: Just look at a company like Safaricom in the mobile industry and all of the specific things they did to reach out to women. There is an economic empowerment angle in giving women cell phones. But it’s also a smart business move to reach out to this huge untapped market that doesn’t have mobile technology yet. You can’t necessarily guarantee a product for your market this way, but you can have a general sense of where the market is going.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: And you’d think it would be a move you could perform more than once. I mean, I really doubt you’d end up in a situation where you’d say, “Oh, well this worked in Country X, but not in Country Y, because it turned out women there didn’t really want to be empowered.”

So if there’s any justice, one would assume that when we get to 2023, we’ll also have greater equality here in the United States. Presumably you’d look at the Forbes 100 or the CEOs of Fortune 500 companies and see more women. Let’s take that as a given. What can all of this thinking about the economic empowerment of women worldwide tell us about the consequences of women in more leadership roles like that?

Penny Abeywardena: Well, to begin with, a lot of the conversations that we have about the economic development of women abroad are still really relevant here in the U.S. In some rural communities or blighted areas, the data is still pretty relevant. There are places where things like maternal health are still pretty abysmal, so the kind of strategies we talked about for improving women’s lives abroad would still matter.

There’s also an organization in this country founded by Nell Merlino called Count Me In that tries to get women’s businesses over a million dollars. Many women’s businesses stagnate before they reach that level. So I’d say there are many parallels to the kind of workforce development work we’ve been talking about.

But to get to your question, yes, we need more of the kind of work that’s been going on at Unilever. We need more women not just in senior leadership, but across the entire C-suite. A lot of people have written about the fact that women get stuck at the “mezzanine” level. We need to talk more about sponsorships into leadership positions. Right now many women have to rely on men being the sponsors, and here in the U.S. there are many cultural and social mores that make it difficult for a 60-year-old man to support a 30-year-old woman as she moves through her career.

So over the next five or ten years, you have to wonder if we’ll finally have that network — a “girls’ club” in addition to the “boys’ club.” And what will that look like internally within companies? That will be interesting.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: It seems reasonable to assume that if that’s the direction we’re headed, corporate culture would probably change a lot. What I mean to say is, if companies really think through, “Huh, why is it difficult for an older man to sponsor a younger woman?” they would likely be thinking through all sorts of aspects of how management works that has nothing to do with gender per se.

Penny Abeywardena: Yes, that’s something I’d feel very comfortable stating. Companies are already re-organizing leadership for all sorts of reasons, many of which have to do with technology. I think it’s safe to say that women’s leadership is going to influence what management styles look like, what the hierarchy looks like.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: What do you think about the role of female consumers in the industrialized world? Most companies seem to already know they’re important.

Penny Abeywardena: I think that in the U.S. many companies are starting to think of the local female consumer as a kind of testing ground for the things they are going to take to their global supply chain. But there is more of an argument to be made around the workforce than the consumer base here. There are all sorts of initiatives around girls and STEM, for example.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: Do you think there are products we’re not getting because a disproportionate number of, say, engineers, are male? That is, do you think there would be advantages of gender equality there beyond the numerical increase in the number of folks doing STEM?

Penny Abeywardena: Absolutely. You just have to look at something like the cookstoves example. The product was dysfunctional because the end user wasn’t incorporated into the design process. So there’s a lot to be said about how engineering will be different when this other half of the population is actively engaged in to the entire process. And for the first time now, we have organizations like Girls Who Code and Black Girls Code. The kind of products these girls will design in the next ten years are products that we haven’t thought of yet. They will be based in their perspective and experience.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: So there’s an equivalent of the cookstove story for your iPhone.

Penny Abeywardena: Absolutely, yes.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: Let’s wrap up by turning to the law. One would assume that what’s true for innovation in other areas would be true there, that there are products and services one would see from women-run firms that haven’t been invented yet. Do you think that’s true?

Penny Abeywardena: It’s hard to say given how vast the legal industry is and all the different types of law. But I can’t imagine it wouldn’t be relevant there.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: Now let’s talk about the developing world again. Let’s say I run a major international law firm and I hear about what you’re up to with corporate supply chains. Let’s say I want to get in on it. Do you have a job for lawyers to do?

Penny Abeywardena: That’s easy. I’d ask them to work on inheritance rights and land rights. Those issues often get stuck in international law or legalese. And there’s a lot of business to be done in that area. I’d like to see them take up that mantle.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: Yeah, and I’d guess that when you did a little bit of digging around these large firms, you’d find precedents. You’d find projects where they had worked to reform a commercial code or the intellectual property regime of some country — now they’d just be doing it with a focus on women.

Penny Abeywardena: As these companies move into new countries, they really have a lot of influence in things like the transfer of land. So yes, it would be interesting to see law firms leading the conversation about what would be best for the entire community in that area.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: So now think about a large firm that pointedly ignores this issue. Is there some sort of nasty surprise waiting for them in ten years?

Penny Abeywardena: You could have a lot of female attorneys who don’t want to work at that firm. You could also have a lot of potential clients who think of them as a company that doesn’t “get it.” The “nasty surprise” would ultimately be their bottom line.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: You talked earlier about using women as a resource to solve problems. In this project, we did an earlier segment on technology, where we asked how things like increased computing power would influence the legal profession in ten years. And we eventually came to a consensus that these tools are not going to show up in a neat, tidy package — they’re probably going to appear in the form of competitors who can do the work firms are doing now for an extremely low cost.

Well, you could imagine the women and girls issue proceeding the same way. There may be firms — or other entities — that figure out how to use the kind of factors we’ve been talking about to achieve a competitive advantage and the established entities won’t know what hit them.

Penny Abeywardena: Right — without the capacity to think about these issues, firms may fall behind when it comes to who is selected for major projects, but they may not understand why. Part of it may be because women are going to be more of the decision-makers in companies or foundations or any sort of entity that might be a client.

But there is another piece. Something like the work I’ve described with land rights, inheritance rights, could be a major money-making venture for firms in the future. Firms that aren’t sensitive to these sorts of things could lose important opportunities to become part of a new market or build a relationship with a new company.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: It seems to me like the equivalent of that moment that happened, well, more than ten years ago, when somebody would pick up the phone at a law firm and look around and say, “Does anyone here speak Spanish?” Sure, you could add a capacity to speak Spanish pretty quickly, but in the meantime you’re missing a bunch of work. It’s about opportunity recognition.

Penny Abeywardena: Some women are going to choose companies whose values align with their own. That’s easy enough to see. What’s harder to anticipate are all of the new markets and opportunities these firms could miss when they’re not in touch with half of the population

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: But they can at least anticipate the need to anticipate it.

Penny Abeywardena: Exactly.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. It is attributed to Insight Labs, and the original version can be found here.