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Reflecting on 'The Business Case for Women’s Economic Empowerment' workshop

By Roger Dassen - February 21, 2012

BIAC, AMCHAM France and OECD workshopThe recent joint workshop on the business case for women’s economic empowerment which I chaired at the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) in Paris was, I hope, another small step to integrating women’s experiences, perspectives, and voices into the fabric of our organizations, systems, and societies. Over 120 experts from around the world had gathered, including the U.S. Ambassador to the OECD and the OECD Deputy Secretary General, and representatives of business, government, and investor communities.

It was a joint meeting between the OECD; BIAC, the Business and Industry Advisory Committee to the OECD; and the American Chamber of Commerce in France and the aim of the day was to provide a business perspective and best practice experience to the OECD’s Gender Initiative. A report on the shared ideas will go forward to the 2012 OECD Ministerial and Forum to be held in May.

The levels of engagement in the discussion reflected just how important an issue this is for many, and for many reasons. What was being discussed didn’t seem to be mostly about the research and the data. It was much more grounded in common-sense and shared experience. Several people mentioned President Obama’s recent remarks on the subject and used them as their starting point. He had said that what we are talking about when we talk of women taking a much greater place in the economic structure is very simply that we want the same opportunities for our daughters as we want for our sons. Put like that the issue becomes very simple and almost unarguable.

The U.S. Ambassador emphasised how progress had to go beyond the idea of simply commissioning more research and now aim for real solutions. The Deputy Secretary General of the OECD urged people to look at the facts and figures, talk about what worked and then go ahead and implement best practices.

So the underlying question for the day therefore was how best to bring about what ought to be the natural order of things.  Women, by any measure, are the biggest emerging market and represent a very significant and often under-used pool of talent. The progress toward enabling this talent to take its active and fulfilling place in the economy has been very slow. We all know that in the abstract there is a high level of acceptance of the business case but there still appear to be huge practical obstacles to the means of achieving the breakthroughs which would bring about this change comprehensively. And, as I said at the workshop, for some, it often feels as though there has been more head nodding than rolling up of sleeves, and looking at the facts, in general, the numbers have barely nudged.

All the evidence, both anecdotal and research-based, suggests that good companies want to encourage diversity of thought. They want to provide a good work/life balance and realize all the benefits that entails. At the workshop, there was a feeling of a wide range of different approaches to the issue all moving steadily forward in largely the same direction. We heard of the car industry where the majority of purchasing decisions are made by women and so, not only do the services provided to the consumer need to be changed to reflect this, but the business model needs revamping. We heard of the frustration of large investor organizations at the lack of diversity of perspective on the boards of companies, as well as the fact that some investors have diversity as one of their investment criteria. The question was measuring this impact to see if it will make a difference. We heard how attitudes toward women on company boards changed in Italy after the introduction of legislation requiring quotas, where as improvement is being seen in other markets using other incentives. We heard of the example of a scheme in Turkey which provides independent assurance of a series of best practices, from a CEO declaration of commitment to equal opportunities through to measures on training and promotion. The principle of what gets reviewed gets better seemed to be working. The scheme was growing in support and influence.

We heard of the importance of collaboration within business organisations, a skill which women excel at. We heard of the rapid growth in the number of women entrepreneurs and the organizations they run. We heard, for example, of a massive increase in the UK in women-led entrepreneurship. Finally, we heard from the OECD on their cross-directorate approach to addressing the employment, education and entrepreneurship of women and their consideration of data needed for member countries to move the needle.

This workshop is part of a process. The way ahead is one of putting the examples together and providing business with a comprehensive route to enduring change. We need to talk about what companies have done and how they have achieved their successes. And we need to be clearer about efforts which didn’t work and the lessons to be learned. It is a question of moving on from the existing studies and research and using the valuable experience the workshop revealed in order to bring about ongoing change. That is our challenge.

Charles HeeterCharles Heeter is with the DTTL Global Public Policy Group and a principal in the U.S. member firm. In his role, he engages in Deloitte global public policy initiatives, is responsible for building cooperative relationships with capital markets stakeholder groups, and helps coordinate the Deloitte global regulatory network. Heeter is also Chairman of the Business and Industry Advisory Committee to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).


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Charles, I'd like to collaborate with you on a women's empowerment initiative in Metropolitan Philadelphia.

There is a need unserved for women with work gap from raising families here. A Deloitte sponsored program in partnership with the Wharton School would complement Deloitte's WIN Initiative that Julia Cloud leads, in Chicago.

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