When Business Works With Women

Women in the developing world will be critical partners in building more sustainable and profitable communities and reaching the Millennium Development Goals.
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This week in New York, corporate responsibility professionals from around the world have gathered at the BSR Conference 2010 to develop new and innovative strategies. On Wednesday, I led a discussion with Exxon Mobil, Levi Strauss, and SAP about how their companies are using investments in women to accomplish business goals. This morning's plenary speakers -- Zainab Salbi of Women for Women International and Andrea Jung, CEO of Avon -- reinforced the point. As Salbi put it: "Women need to be the center of the discussion, rather than in the margins of the discussion."

BSR's HERproject -- a factory-based women's health initiative -- provides one avenue for global business and their suppliers to invest in women. HERproject has been promoting women's health in supply chains since 2007, when we launched factory-based health education programs in China. Since then, HERproject programs have reached over 100,000 women in China, Egypt, India, Mexico, Pakistan and Vietnam. In managing HERproject, I've discovered firsthand what poor women in developing countries need, how impactful simple programs can be and the kind of impact individual women can make once they have been empowered.

In the factories where HERproject has worked, we see many common (and preventable) health issues: anemia, reproductive tract infections and unsafe sexual activities. Often these problems stem from a lack of information. But once awareness began to grow, linking these women to the services they need became much easier, with both workers and businesses feeling the benefits. For example, women in one HERproject factory in Pakistan improved their feminine hygiene, including 33 percent who have begun using sanitary napkins. As a result of these changes, female workers reported a 25 percent reduction in poor concentration at work, 28 percent less absenteeism related to menstruation, and 33 percent less difficulty in meeting production targets. Overall, reported absenteeism was 11 percent lower, with a 24 percent reduction in the mean number of days absent. This means that not only were the women benefiting from greater health education, the companies and factories saw a positive impact on their bottom line.

HERproject demonstrates that by investing in programs that empower women, companies can not only reduce business risks, but also create enormous opportunities for growth and innovation. Investing in women will become increasingly important to all companies as they expand operations and supply chains in the developing world, where gender inequity impacts business and society in myriad ways.

The concept of women and sustainability is new: to date, the majority of companies' sustainability efforts have been gender neutral. But women in the developing world will be critical partners in building more sustainable and profitable communities and reaching the Millennium Development Goals. By integrating women and gender considerations into their sustainability strategy through programs like HERproject and providing jobs, skills, tools, products, and services, companies can help women become part of the solution to building a more just and sustainable world.

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