What Does It Really Take for Companies to Lead on Gender Equity?

This is the sixth in a series of articles based on the guide to Centering Equity in Corporate Purpose published by FSG and the Shared Value Initiative in May 2022.

Women drive our global economy. They control more than $20 trillion in annual consumer spending today, and that figure is expected to rise to nearly $30 trillion annually in the next five years. As a market, they represent an opportunity more than twice as big as China and India combined. And the number of women joining the workforce is expected to rise by 80 million by the end of this decade, creating a new wave of female professionals and consumers. But most companies have a long way to go to serve women. While many have made public commitments to gender equity, their efforts are often limited to their workforce and overlook the needs of women in their communities. In doing so, they continue to perpetuate gender inequities at a societal level and fail to capture the value the female economy presents.

In Centering Equity for Corporate Purpose, we talk about how companies leading on equity get into relationship with the problem before they start to develop solutions. For companies who are authentically committed to gender equity, this means looking at disparities for women in their workforce through essential initiatives like elevating women into senior leadership positions and eliminating gender pay gaps. But it also means going further to deeply understand issues of equity for women that have been hidden or unexplored across their business model.

A central tenet of these companies’ gender equity journey is designing for and with women. They do this by asking themselves how they are overlooking the needs of women in their workforce, supply chain, and society at large. By considering what it will take to adapt their products, services, and systems to meet women’s needs. And by bringing to the table a diversity of perspectives, expertise and evidence from across the business and beyond to co-design solutions. Below we present two stories, each one inspired by real FSG clients and partners, to show what this looks like in practice and the results that designing for and with women can deliver.

First imagine an international pharmaceutical firm. For decades the child and maternal health field had focused on preventing a parasitic disease in pregnant women due to its deleterious effects on their unborn children. But little was known on the effects of the disease, or of taking preventative medicines, on pregnant women themselves because women of reproductive age had been excluded from the drug development process for over a half-century. To understand how it was overlooking women’s needs, the firm undertook an analysis of gender-disaggregated data and consulted with women at risk of the disease, healthcare practitioners, scientific experts, and peer firms. In doing so, it found a significant gap in the market for safe and efficacious medicines for pregnant women suffering from infection. Armed with this knowledge, the firm brought together a multi-disciplinary working groupled by a senior female scientist, comprised of staff from across scientific disciplines, patient access, legal and communications, and with meaningful input from women beneficiariesto explore what it could do to better serve this population. The group co-created a proposal for how to adapt the firm’s product innovation and development process. Women’s voices, experiences, and needs are now embedded into the firm’s strategic decision-making and investment decisions. Investments required to make these adaptations saw pay-back through faster market introductions due to better data for regulators, avoiding costs of running additional trials seen by competitors of up to several million dollars. Greater demand amongst healthcare providers and women who now had data to make informed choices also drove up total market share in priority markets.

Now imagine a dynamic digital FinTech bank. After a newly appointed female Head of Product looked at the banks’ customer data disaggregated by gender, she found that 60 percent of its clients were women. Wanting to learn what made the bank’s offering attractive to female customers, a consultative process was undertaken. Women, particularly those from groups that had been historically marginalized, preferred accessing financial services digitally as they just did not have time to go into a bank due to competing work and care demandsand when they did, they felt unwelcome. Digging deeper into the balance sheet using disaggregated data, she also found that women are great clients, with higher levels of saving and lower rates of loan default compared to other customer segments. With these new insights, the bank went on a journey to seize a significant share of the female market through inclusive innovation. An advisory council of women serving as a sounding board was formed. Kiosks that enabled new accounts to be opened and debit cards dispensed were placed in supermarkets and shopping centers. Products were adapted to better serve women’s preferences for access to credit and debt, combined with incentives and rewards that played to their preferences. And within two years, the bank had attracted several million USD in investment and had boosted its total client base by 25 percent.

By designing for and with women, companies can surface previously invisible biases and discover new opportunities to capture the female economy. Companies that truly lead on gender equity are creating business models that understand the differing needs of women and serve women more effectively across their products, services, and systems instead of ignoring them. And momentum is growing.

As you reflect on your organization’s gender equity journey, we encourage you to consider:

  • Are there senior champions for equity overall and/or specifically gender equity? Might you be that champion and what would it take?
  • Do you understand to what extent gender poses material risks as well as opportunities for your firm, operations and purpose?
  • What data (including gender disaggregated data) do you need to better understand the opportunity, potential barriers and track progress overtime? Whose perspectives are needed to inform, interpret data and draw insights?
  • What strategic learning questions and gender-sensitive metrics will be needed to track and inform adaption and progress overtime?
  • Is there sufficient technical gender expertise within the business? Might there be a case for creating a role for an in-house gender specialist?
  • Are there communities of practice or public initiatives that can support the firm to both prioritize and gain support through peer-to-peer learning and exchange?

We would love to hear how your organization is progressing on its equity journey and what you have seen it takes to really lead in gender equity. Please reach out to share your perspectives and experiences or to find out more about what we are learning.

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