2020 will forever be remembered as the year COVID-19 laid bare the burdens of women. While different from one context to another, “the negative effects are disproportionate for women everywhere,” as we highlighted in a previous blog.
As the world recovers from the pandemic, we must ensure that we build a more equitable future. Many amazing initiatives have been launched and inspiring female leaders have stepped up, participating in fulfilling this goal. And we need to do more.
We, at FSG, have the chance to collaborate on exciting projects around the world, contributing to this effort. We wanted to take the opportunity of “International Women’s Day” to celebrate our partners and the work they are doing.
Here are three key themes we have been working on…and will keep pushing on in 2021:
Advancing Equity in Health
Gendered inequalities in health have long been systematic and the onset of the pandemic has only served to exacerbate and elevate the importance of applying a gender-lens in health. Here we share some examples of the important work striving to solve these inequities:
- Advancing inclusive drug development: The burden of infectious diseases often falls disproportionately on women of reproductive age, women who are pregnant, and upon their unborn babies. For instance, 30% of all pregnancies—representing about 11 million women in 38 moderate and high transmission sub-Saharan African countries—would have been exposed to malaria infection in 2018 (WHO). Malaria in pregnancy (MiP) poses significant direct and indirect risks to the mother (adverse pregnancy outcomes due to MiP include maternal anemia, a leading cause of death) and infant (estimated to contribute to 12-20% of stillbirths each year). Despite this risk, currently recommended medicines for these women are often suboptimal compared to those available to the general population. Pregnant and lactating women have been systematically excluded from clinical research for decades—we have seen the implications of this as the COVID-19 vaccinations have come online and pregnant women overall and specifically health care workers are left to themselves make the decision because data has not been collected during clinical trials (to put this into context, 80% of health care workers are female). FSG has been working with the Medicines for Malaria Venture (MMV) over the past 18 months to explore how to integrate the needs of pregnant and lactating women into clinical research and plans to continue to contribute to advancing greater equity in drug development.
- Elevating the importance of menstrual health: Approximately 52% of the global female population is of reproductive age, and most of these women and girls menstruate each month for between 2 and 7 days. Despite menstruation being an integral part of the life experience of over two billion people, nearly 25% of them (500 million women and girls) report not having what they need to manage their menstruation. The needs and requirements of women and girls vary across geographies, as do the barriers that inhibit them from exercising their ability to fully participate in their communities, the workforce, and advance toward their own aspirations and ambitions. Building upon FSG’s research on the topic in 2016 and 2019, we are continuing to support the field in exploring how to unlock additional investment and shift mindsets in partnership with key funders, investors, and companies.
Accelerating Women’s Economic Empowerment
Around the world, women remain less likely to participate in the labor market, are paid less than men, and bear disproportionate responsibility for unpaid care and domestic work (UN Women). Examples of FSG’s contribution to addressing these challenges include:
- Improving women’s participation and equity in the workforce: In India, where women do almost ten times more unpaid work than men, employment prospects for women have further worsened since the pandemic. Women are 20% less likely to be re-employed as compared to men post the COVID-19 induced lockdown in India (Deshpande, 2020). FSG’s Growing Livelihood Opportunities for Women (GLOW) program aims to create more than 500,000 jobs for women in India by leveraging inclusive and sustainable business models and to improve women’s participation and visibility in the workforce and gender parity in pay, promotions, and opportunities (publication coming soon; see emerging analysis here).
- Advancing women’s careers in a changing world of work: In Bangladesh, women represent at least 60% of the workforce in the garments industry—a vital part of the country's economy, which accounts for over 80% of its total exports and employs more than 4 million people. However, less than 1% of managerial positions in its garment enterprises are held by women (Centre for Policy Dialogue, 2018). Women are typically employed in lower-paying roles on the production floor—jobs that are highly susceptible to automation. To ensure that women are not left behind, the H&M Foundation has initiated a long-term project to equip female garment workers in Bangladesh for a future where their work will be defined by automation and digitalization, to save jobs, and to create new job opportunities.
We believe there is much more work to be advanced to support women’s economic empowerment. Key themes we will continue to explore include the care economy, employee ownership models, and gender-lens investing with an emphasis on the role of catalytic capital in unlocking greater impact for women and girls.
Elevating Equity Through the Lens of Gender and Race in the Corporate Sector
In the corporate sector, we see a continued challenge in companies focusing on diversity without a commitment to inclusivity and equity, particularly for women of color. Companies often work to recruit women of color, but don’t have an inclusive culture to help them succeed. This results in imposter syndrome, a lack of opportunities, and ultimately higher turnover rates—not to mention the negative effects on mental health for those individuals.
This has only been exacerbated in the pandemic, in which most working women lack the flexibility and support to manage both work and home duties. As a result, we’ve seen disproportionate rates of women dropping out of the workforce, and even greater rates for women of color. Increasing communication, expanding benefits like paid family leave, and increasing flexibility can all help mitigate this challenge. Companies owe it to their employees—and their bottom line—to do better for women in the workplace, particularly women of color.
FSG has been working closely with companies, foundations, and other actors to elevate a focus on race in US contexts, including at the intersection with gender.
- Activating opportunity employment: Talent Rewire is “Shared Value in Action.” We bring together hundreds of companies and grantees to exchange, pilot, and share innovative ways to improve livelihoods for people facing systemic barriers to employment, including women and people of color. We support employers as they pilot innovative approaches to hiring, retaining, and advancing talent in order to reduce barriers to employment. We create productive spaces for employers to understand their employment data, share ideas with each other, shift mindsets, and understand their role in economic mobility for frontline employees across a range of sectors including retail, financial, utility, and food manufacturing.
- Equipping employers with tools and guidance: Insights on powerful practices that help retain and advance women—including how different policies can help or hinder women of color and white women differently—have been captured in a series of FSG reports, including Advancing Frontline Women and Advancing Frontline Employees of Color.
- Making the case for racial equity in the US: FSG has been working in partnership with several organizations, including PolicyLink and JUST Capital, to advance practice and shift mindsets around the importance of racial equity (see The Competitive Advantage of Racial Equity). We are encouraged by an increasing number of companies seeking our support, and we look forward to partnering with others in 2021 and beyond.
This International Women’s Day, a year on from the beginning of the pandemic, we wish to celebrate and thank everyone that has been contributing to the response. Be that juggling work and childcare while schools are closed, being on the frontline caring for patients, or galvanizing equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines. We thank you.
We are also grateful to our clients and partners for their passion and commitment to tackling some of the most challenging inequities and taking action—you are a source of inspiration.
Finally, we want to thank colleagues and collaborators (past and present)—particularly those who are cis or trans females or genderqueer across ages and backgrounds—and all allies that have been supporting and championing us to go further and do more. We look forward to continuing to advance equity for all in 2021. Please do get in touch if any of the topics or projects resonate or if you just want to connect and exchange ideas and reflections.