Skip to main content
Previous Blog Home Next

Why Partnership is a Business Imperative for Companies Pursuing Gender Equity

We believe that participation of the private sector is a key factor in achieving lasting social change at scale for a number of issues. When it comes to advancing gender equity, companies are uniquely positioned to drive change around social norms, expand economic opportunity for women, and create products and services that better serve women because of their resources, reach, and ability to develop innovative solutions. However, complex social issues like gender equity cannot be solved by a single organization alone. Advancing gender equity requires a concerted effort by multiple actors and “unconventional partnerships” within the company’s ecosystem.

Much has been written about the assets corporations bring to these partnerships. There has been less discussion of the crucial gaps within companies that they can fill through strategic partnership with NGOs, nonprofits, and government. Specifically, we see 5 common challenges that companies can bridge through bilateral or multilateral partnerships:

Challenge 1: Inadequate gender-specific data

Without disaggregated data focused on gender, companies have a difficult time identifying opportunities or barriers for innovation on products and services, within the value chain, or across the wider ecosystem. Whether a company is trying to raise awareness, improve access to products and services, address technical skills gaps in their workforce, or influence government policy, they must start from a place of strong understanding and make decisions driven by data, just like in any other part of the business.

Diageo, an international drinks company, has partnered with CARE International throughout Diageo’s global value chain. CARE brings deep gender-based knowledge, experience in the communities Diageo works in, and strong research skills, while Diageo brings economic opportunities in support of CARE’s women’s economic empowerment goals. CARE International is driving research efforts across the value chain, striving to ensure that initiatives are firmly rooted in the needs of the women who Diageo interacts with throughout its daily operations. In South East Asia, for example, the partnership’s focus is on tackling sexual harassment for beer sellers and workers in the tourism industry. “We work with CARE International on research as this gives us better insights into how to design new and adjust existing programs moving forward... It is hard to have systemic change in our ecosystem when you’re not in partnership,” says David Croft, global sustainable development director at Diageo.

Challenge 2: Limited market share and industry-wide workforce challenges in certain geographies

Some companies investing in gender equity have called for ‘neutral brokers’ to bring partners together in pre-competitive spaces, particularly for business-to-business collaboration. In emerging markets where the market potential is high yet immature, or there is a lack of available skilled workers, companies are keenly aware that partnership in a ‘pre-competitive space’ is essential to grow and capture market opportunities. In Saudi Arabia, for example, securing high-quality, customer service personnel was a common challenge faced by many businesses establishing themselves in the country. General Electric, Saudi Aramco, and Tata Consultancy Services came together to establish an all-female business processing center in Riyadh. Pooling their resources and co-investing has enabled all companies to benefit from a much-needed business service at a lower cost while also empowering more women.

Research has found that companies invested over $300 million in women’s economic empowerment initiatives from 2002 to 2013. Yet such programs are often not aligned, mutually reinforcing, or executed jointly, leading to fragmented, isolated initiatives on an individual company-by-company basis. In our broader research on “The Ecosystem of Shared Value,” there are examples of partners pooling resources and committing to working together to achieve a common vision. For example, Danone and Mars’ launched the Livelihoods Fund for Family Farming (Livelihoods 3F), to share the cost and learnings from efforts to advance smallholder farmer livelihoods and sustainable agriculture, and includes empowerment of female farmers amongst its goals. “Co-creating new solutions while working with other companies, NGOs, and public services is part of Danone’s business culture and model,” reflects Franck Riboud, president, board of directors, at Danone. There is an opportunity for more companies to come together to strengthen the enabling environment for their businesses, and co-financing and shared learning is one promising approach advancing gender-equity could benefit from.

Challenge 3: Insufficient knowledge of gender-specific norms, values, and rights

Without partners that have expertise and capabilities in understanding the multifaceted dimensions of gender in a local context, companies alone often struggle to engage with the customers and communities they seek to serve or employ.

Nestlé, for instance, has been working through its upstream supply chain with the World Cocoa Foundation and a range of local partners who have a deep understanding of local norms and gender dynamics across its value chain in Africa and Asia. Through this partnership, Nestlé has developed and delivered tailored gender-bias training aimed at changing social norms and values related to gender to both men and women in 25 co-ops in their cocoa supply chain—36 percent of total co-ops. SVP Global Head Chocolate and Confectionery at Nestlé, Sandra Martinez emphasized the importance of gender-skilled local partners: “Having passionate and local people to run the trainings has been incredibly important and it provides credibility and openness, particularly amongst the male participants.”

Challenge 4: Catalyzing normative change at scale

Companies can seek to influence societal norms, informal rules, and government policies, but cannot directly change them, even if their competitiveness depends on it. Common messaging across multiple actors can amplify the impact of efforts to influence norms, whether it’s a coalition of businesses coming together or one company leveraging relationships in their supply chain. Chefsache (meaning “CEO priority”), for example, is an initiative in Germany where 11 private-sector, government, media, and science and technology organizations, including Allianz, Bayer, Bosch, IBM, and Siemens, along with McKinsey, came together under the sponsorship of the chancellor, with a goal of changing social attitudes that influence whether women take leadership roles in business.

Smirnoff, Diageo’s vodka brand, is choosing to partner with actors within its ecosystem to change societal norms and values on gender. Research suggests that women only made up an average 17 percent of headliners in 2016 at music festivals around the world. Smirnoff’s 'Equalizing Music' initiative aims to increase this figure substantially by the year 2020. The brand has launched a new platform with music partners such as Spotify to give exposure to women working in the electronic music industry. The brand is also encouraging industry leaders to sign a pledge to advance gender representation across performance bookings, exposure in media, and music availability. Through this initiative, Smirnoff is positively influencing the environments where its target market will enjoy its products, while also positively influencing gender norms at scale.

Challenge 5: Difficulty tracking and measuring the impact of investments in women and girls

As with all shared value strategies, companies must track the ‘virtuous cycle’ of social and business value created from investments in women and girls. If a company doesn’t have the capabilities internally to evaluate their investments, they cannot effectively adjust their strategy or make a strong case for continued investment with internal stakeholders or external partners.

Gap Inc., the global apparel firm, partnered with the International Centre for Research on Women in 2006, to ensure that Gap, Inc.’s Personal Advancement and Career Enhancement (P.A.C.E.), was providing their factory workers with the skills they need to advance beyond entry-level positions. The program was shown to be effective, with more women reporting a desire to take on leadership roles and responsibilities and feeling empowered to solve workplace problems. The model has been proven to be scalable through this on-going partnership’s rigor and evaluation, growing from the original pilot in India to being operational across 7 countries, reaching over 20,000 women.

We encourage companies pursuing gender-related partnerships to think about scale from the beginning. Here are important considerations for leaders addressing these challenges in their companies:

  • Even when striving to understand the issues, go beyond the usual market research on the individual, and ensure you select partners that will have an eye to systems-level levers, such as gender norms and institutional or government policies. Consider whether your CSR/sustainability team or corporate foundation can support this research in such a way that it can be shared for public use.
  • Look for unconventional partners with the capabilities you need, ideally ones that bring a number of important skills to your partnership, like research capacity and local knowledge.  Consider whether your goals align with government priorities, opening the door to a public-private partnership.
  • Be bold—if the challenge is a population-level issue, working with other companies in a pre-competitive space will grow the overall market size, yielding first-mover benefits to those that take the initiative.
  • Commit to building firm-wide capacity for measuring the impact of gender investments by not only selecting partners that can build your capabilities in gender investment tracking but also by bringing someone with these skills into your company to expand long-term capacity to track gender-related investments.
  • Take an integrated approach across your company. Bring together business units for sharing information and lessons. If your company has many gender-focused initiatives, why not pull the right people into a room and ignite the discussion today?

Learn more about FSG’s work with corporations >

Flynn Lebus

Associate Director

Lolita Castrique

Former Consultant, FSG

Laura S.L. Herman

Managing Director