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There are one billion women around the world who do not have access to what they need to start their economic lives.  That is a staggering figure, so I was keen to attend a recent panel discussion hosted by Hogan Lovells on how the private sector can help advance women's economic empowerment.

"it has been estimated that if women played the same role in the labour market as men, $28 trillion could be added to global annual GDP by 2025"

The UN High Level Panel on Women's Economic Empowerment

In 2016, the United Nations set up a High Level Panel on Women's Economic Empowerment ("HLP") with support from the UK Department for International Development ("DFID").  Its aim is to get women's economic lives higher up the political agenda with a view to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals.  The HLP has since published two reports and seven toolkits that address the importance of women's economic empowerment and provide practical recommendations for improving women's economic lives.

However, before discussing the role played by the private sector in advancing women's economic lives, the panel addressed the question "Why women's economic empowerment?"  Of course, empowering women is the right thing to do. After all, like men, women have the right to good work.  However, the consensus among the panel was that empowering women is also the smart thing to do. 

Gwen Hines, Director for International Relations at DFID and deputy HLP member, noted that while women make up half of the global population, we are not making optimal use of this valuable asset.  Indeed, it has been estimated that if women played the same role in the labour market as men, $28 trillion could be added to global annual GDP by 2025.  Dr. Cynthia L. Drakeman, CEO of DoubleXEconomy, argued that "women's economic empowerment is the greatest opportunity of our time".  She pointed out that women make up between 40 and 60% of small farm owners and food producers worldwide.  Therefore, if we can't find a way to bring these women into the value chain, we will have a hard time feeding our population. 

Nana Asantewa Afadzinu, Executive Director at the West Africa Civil Society Institute, added that women's economic empowerment also has an effect on wider communities. She explained that more than 55% of the increased income of women in West Africa is invested in their households and added that "when you empower a woman, you empower a whole society".

Cathy Pieters, Director of the Cocoa Life Programme at Mondelez International, explained that it is important to give women agency and let them know that they are part of the solution.  She talked about her own experience visiting a local community in Africa.  Asked how the programme had affected child marriages, one of the local women stood up and responded that, previously, only her sons had attended school.  Their school fees had been paid for using her husband's money.  Now that she was making money herself, the woman used it to send her three daughters to school.  Pointing at Cathy, the woman added: "my girl is not getting married until she has a job like you and drives a car like that".

Purna Sen, UN Women Policy Director and deputy HLP member, explained that in order to ensure lasting and sustainable change for women, it is important to understand that economic life, political life and violence against women are linked.  She added that the corporate sector is key in achieving women's economic empowerment.  Ms Sen referred to a recent news story about two women in Australia who could not seem to get their company off the ground, until they starting signing off their emails as 'Keith Mann'.  Suddenly, they received quicker, more serious and more polite replies, all because people thought that they were communicating with a man. 

So, how can companies contribute to women's economic empowerment?  

 Ms Pieters said that before implementing any policies, she puts on her "women's empowerment glasses" and asks herself whether the proposed policy works for women.  For example, training sessions that were delivered as part of the Cocoa Life Programme were previously organised at times when women were busy looking after their children or preparing food.  Now training sessions are scheduled around this, so that women can have the same access to training as men.  Ms Pieters also emphasised the importance of role-modelling.  She said that, when visiting local communities, she noticed that women would ask her questions if she stood at the front of the group.  Conversely, if she stood behind her male colleagues, women were less likely to speak up.

Dr. Drakeman, who played a key role in the production of the HLP's second report, stressed that any policy should be adapted for the company implementing it.  That is why, rather than exactly prescribing the steps an organisation should take to empower women, the HLP's second report and toolkits are specifically designed to provide concise, direct and helpful guidance on how to start.  The toolkits can be used by any company, regardless of its size or where in the world it is located.  They encourage companies to ask themselves a number of questions to determine, for example, whether women in that organisation are paid equally, how many women occupy leadership positions and whether a company has female suppliers.  Organisations are also encouraged to ask their suppliers these same questions to make sure that that women's economic empowerment is pushed through the value chain.

The panel made a very convincing case for supporting women's economic empowerment and I am glad that I had the opportunity to attend this discussion. Anyone who would like to access the HLP's reports and toolkits can do so via this link.

Through our Empowering Girls and Women Initiative, Hogan Lovells tackles gender-based violence, promotes girls’ education and supports women in business, though a variety of means including our community investment, diversity, fundraising and pro bono programmes. We do so in the belief that, as the panel made clear, standing up for the rights of girls and women creates a better future for all of us.

Sophie Vriezen is a second seat trainee, working in the Hogan Lovells London office.