Published: Written By: Kathy Julik-Heine

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The number of people living on less than $1.25 per day (what is considered extreme poverty) has dramatically decreased from half the citizens in the developing world in 1981 to 21 percent in 2010.[1] Statistics like these are echoed constantly as we begin to pass the years set for development milestones in decades past. While significant strides have been made to improve the quality of life of the world’s citizens, global poverty remains at the root of many societal problems. Lifting the remaining 1.2 billion individuals out of extreme poverty will require even more innovative solutions, and, most importantly, a keen focus on a population that has too long been under tapped – women. Women hold a key to sustained and accelerated economic growth and the achievement of poverty eradication in this century.

Narrowing the gender gap in the 21st century and offering the world’s citizens equal opportunities to contribute to the global economy, demands more than the interest of foreign aid and civil society organizations advocating for women’s rights; it requires the coordinated efforts of a constellation of activists – from governments to the private sector. To catalyze a truly transformative shift — all parties must work together with the baseline assumption that empowering women affects the bottom line for all.

Women as Accelerators

Evidence demonstrates that investments which promote gender equality and women’s empowerment result in faster, more sustainable and more inclusive growth than investments that omit them. By empowering women economically, through education and employment, barriers fall not only for women themselves but for entire communities. This multiplier effect which results from women’s empowerment has the power to generate an economic surge for communities, nations, and the world if properly leveraged. Countries where men and women have more equal access to economic opportunity, educational attainment, healthcare, and political empowerment are more competitive in world markets, have higher GDPs per capita and score higher on the UN’s Human Development Index of 185 countries.

With women identified as a critical source for accelerated economic growth, and the key to poverty eradication in the 21st century, the question remains – how can market players most effectively tap into this potential in innovative ways that are sustainable in our ever-changing world?

The Private Sector

As multinational corporations expand into the developing world, they have begun to realize that women’s disempowerment causes staggering and deeply pernicious losses in productivity, economic activity and human capital. Companies that embrace female empowerment will see their labor forces become more productive, the quality of their global supply chains improve, and their customer bases expand. Not only is there a development imperative to empower women for the alleviation of poverty, but the private sector is actually incentivized to do so.

While corporate social responsibility efforts directed towards women have become widely accepted as a best practice among high performing private sector players[2], an even greater profit margin is being revealed through the mainstreaming and inclusion of women in all business practices from supply chains, to management, to marketing. A number of multinational corporations are already hard at work in this space, capturing the dividend of investing in women as workers and consumers. The Coca-Cola Company presents an example of some of the work being done in this space by multinationals through their 5by20 initiative, launched in 2010, which seeks to expand economic opportunity for five million women entrepreneurs through its value chain by 2020.

Governments and Social Enterprises

The 21st century has already been marked by a new relationship between the citizen and the state. Citizens today are demanding more services, more freedom of choice, and greater economic opportunities from their governments. At the same time, people and institutions alike are demanding fewer constraints, far less corruption, and less intervention from government. Where governments have failed to meet the demands of citizens, new institutions have been born at the intersection of commerce and social welfare. Traditionally private sector players have been gradually adapting, seeking to operate in ways that empowers citizens, therefore returning stronger workforces and wealthier consumer bases to their emerging market investments.

Social enterprises are returning immense impact through the tools of business not only for women but their families, communities and nations. As they continue to learn, evolve, and grow, they will need to employ best practices from the private sector not only in how they generate returns on investment but in all areas of their operations from supply chain operations to organizational transformation.

Women hold the key to the acceleration of emerging economies and the alleviation of extreme poverty in the 21st century. The private sector, governments, and social enterprises each have unique incentives to lead the economic engagement and empowerment of women, however, given the deeply interconnected world in which these players operate, they must work together and in new ways to capitalize on this opportunity and to embed the inclusion and empowerment of women into the fabric of economic and social growth for future generations.

Kathy Julik-Heine, EMEA (Europe, Middle East, Africa) Lab Manager, Deloitte Belgium

[1] The World Bank, “Remarkable Declines in Global Poverty, But Major Challenges Remain,” April 17, 2013

[2] Rosabeth Moss Kanter, “How great companies think differently,” Harvard Business Review, November 2011; Eccles, R. G., Ioannis Ioannou, and George Serafeim, “The impact of a corporate culture of sustainability on corporate behavior and performance,” November 2011.

[3] USAID Gender Equality and Female Empowerment Policy