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Three Lessons Learned on the Road to Gender Equality

Bahar Alsharif's picture
What is a game changer for women in business and management? That was the topic on everyone's mind at the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) HQ in London this week. I had joined private sector leaders, including representatives from employer organizations around the world, for a one-day conference organized by CBI, the International Finance Corporation (IFC), and the International Labour Organization (ILO). Together, we reflected on latest research, shared best practices, and identified approaches to overcoming "stubborn bottlenecks" in achieving greater gender diversity at top. 
 
Artists' live illustrations summarized the panel discussions.

Despite the clear business case for diverse management teams, ILO’s latest report shows that 5% or less of the CEOs of the world’s largest corporations are women. The 2014 Global Gender Gap Report shows that the gap in economic participation has narrowed by only 4% since 2006. Based on this trajectory, it will take 81 years for the world to close this gap!

Given this daunting challenge, what can we do, together, to close this gap?

Here at IFC, a member of the World Bank Group and the largest development institution focused on the private sector in developing economies, we have made gender-smart solutions that make good business and development sense an integral part of our investment and advisory work while simultaneously pursuing an internal diversity and inclusion agenda.

IFC’s Treasury not only launched the first ever Women in Business Bond to attract greater investments in women entrepreneurs but also stands as an internal Diversity and Inclusion Champion, supporting the efforts of IFC’s Diversity and Inclusion Council to hire, retain, and promote more women.

Similarly, through initiatives such as Banking on WomenBetter WorkSheWorks, and Women on Boards, IFC is working with private sector clients to help women entrepreneurs grow their business, improve women’s employment opportunities and conditions, and amplify women’s voices as leaders.

Most importantly, IFC realizes that success depends on sharing knowledge, best practices, and lessons learned amongst partners and stakeholders, as we did during the conference in London. Below are three key lessons that IFC has learned along the way:
 
Numbers are not everything: Being too focused on numbers may lead to missing the full picture. Research commissioned by IFC on gender diversity in Pakistani boards demonstrates that 72% of the KSE 100 Index businesses that have women on boards are family-owned firms in which female board members are family members who often perform limited roles. As a result, IFC launched a series of unprecedented roundtable discussions and trainings in major cities to build capacities of more than 150 female managers and directors. Policymakers revised Pakistan’s Code of Corporate Governance to encourage the inclusion of gender diversity as a key consideration in board composition.
 
Limited progress without male champions and partners: Partnerships between the public and private sectors, within the private sector, and with male gender equality champions are the key to delivering more promising, sustainable results. Australia’s Male Champions for Change Initiative is a good model, where amongst others, male CEOs with women on boards lobby CEOs of companies without women on boards. Big things can happen when people work together!
 
Isolated women in leadership approach produces limited results: At IFC we have learned that companies that adopt a more holistic approach towards gender equality and implement gender-smart solutions to economically empower women as consumers, employees, suppliers, leaders, and community stakeholders achieve more sustainable results. By bringing the entire business into the conversation, unique synergies can be created that can help individual business departments and units tackle challenges such as the lack of sex disaggregated data systems and creating incentives for changes in behavior.
 
As I look ahead, I am optimistic and encouraged by the momentum generated at the conference in London. This year holds a unique opportunity to keep our attention focused on this topic with Beijing+20 and the Sustainable Development Goals, which include a gender goal and specific indicators. While maintaining a sharp focus on knowledge sharing and partnerships, IFC will continue working with client companies in designing gender-smart solutions that change business culture, drive results, and contribute to inclusive and sustainable growth.

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