A Call to Action to Partner with UN Women

Date: Thursday, March 8, 2012

Keynote remarks delivered by UN Women Deputy Executive Director Lakshmi Puri at United Nations Office for Partnerships and the US Chamber of Commerce Business Civic Leadership Center Forum, 8 March, 2012.

[Check against delivery.]

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Good morning to all of you. It is a pleasure to be here and to join you, Mr Martinez-Fonts and Mr Rich, for this opening.

I would like to warmly thank the UN Office for Partnerships, the US Chamber of Commerce Business Civic Leadership Center and the Center for Women in Business for organizing this important event.

Today, as you know, is International Women's Day. This is an important to day to take stock of progress that has been achieved in making gender equality a reality. It is also a time to reflect on areas that need greater efforts and to look ahead to the untapped potential and opportunities that await future generations of women and girls.

During the past century, we have witnessed a transformation in women's legal rights, educational achievements, and participation in public life. More women are exercising leadership in politics and business, more girls are going to school, and more women survive childbirth and can plan their families.

Yet while tremendous progress has been made, no country can claim to be entirely free from gender-based discrimination. This inequality can be seen in persistent gender wage gaps and unequal opportunities, in low representation of women in leadership positions, in child marriage, and in continuing violence against women in all its forms.

And this century-long struggle for equal rights and opportunities for women has made one thing clear - progress depends on active leadership by individual women and men who have spoken up for gender equality and stood up for women's rights. Some of them are perhaps in this room. We at UN-Women are looking at business leaders as champions for gender equality and women's empowerment.

We believe in strengthening our partnership with all segments of society. Not only do we work closely with governments - here at the UN and on the ground in 75 countries - we have also developed strong partnerships with civil society and the private sector. Many of you in this room already are our close partners and we are looking to expand and deepen our common engagement.

Women are consumers, they are workers… they are a key target group for businesses, both as clients and as employees. We are convinced that engaging the private sector is a key strategy to unlock women's potential. This, in turn, will contribute to eradicating poverty and hunger and improving the lives of billions of individuals, women and men.

This is especially true for women's economic empowerment, which is one of UN-Women's priorities this year. When women are empowered and earn an income, they invest back into their families and communities. This drives hunger, poverty and malnutrition down and improves standards of health, education and well-being. This is good for all of us and business can bring so much to this effort.

Businesses around the world are already taking action. Some are setting gender diversity targets to increase representation of women at management levels and establish equal pay agreements. Others are investing in local activities to support girls' education in science and technology. Still more are advancing women's empowerment by connecting women entrepreneurs to finance so they can grow their business. In Haiti, for example, women artisans are making products from sustainable materials that meet international quality standards and selling them on the international market.

We have a partnership with the Coca Cola Company that is promising. Building on the strengths of both organizations, The Coca-Cola Company and UN-Women are working hand-in-hand to address barriers commonly faced by women entrepreneurs. This is done through business skills training, access to financial services and support networks of peers and mentors. It contributes to The Coca-Cola Company's commitment to support 5 million women entrepreneurs globally by 2020.

We are looking at companies that can provide specific experience, capacity and in-kind resources to advance our mission. For example, leading technology companies have strong business interests in reaching women. Through these companies, ICT, SMS and other technologies can be leveraged to support the empowerment of women at a scale that would not be possible for UN-Women to do on its own. In turn, companies can achieve and increase their business objectives and their market base. There are other areas, too, where we are looking at developing specific, targeted initiatives. Research and data gathering and analysis is one example which can bring benefits for businesses and advance gender equality.

Large businesses are valuable partners not just for women's economic empowerment, but also to enhance women's participation in public life. From giving a voice to female consumers and responding to their needs more proactively, to equal representation of women on boards of directors, businesses can enhance women's participation in decision-making.

As the Financial Times reported a few days ago, equal representation in the boardroom is still a distant dream, including in European countries which are considering the measure of introducing quotas to ensure a better balance of male and female directors. At current rates it will take 40 years for board seats to be shared on a roughly equal basis between men and women.

Of course, businesses can also play an important role in enacting corporate gender responsibility programmes. Today, women make up 45 percent of the world's workforce, yet they account for 70 percent of the poor. Women in developing countries work an average of 60 to 90 hours per week. If we look at non-agricultural sectors, women earn an average of 75 percent of men's pay. 90 percent of the 27 million workers in export processing zones are women, most of them between the ages of 16 and 25.

These statistics show that businesses have an important role to play to create decent jobs and incomes for women, build their skills and capacities, raise and harness their social and economic potential while contributing to environmental sustainability and upholding human rights.

The Women's Empowerment Principles, a partnership of UN Women and the UN Global Compact, offer a platform for business to drive purposefully the advancement of women in the workplace, in the marketplace and in the community. We specified these three areas deliberately as each, and all of them, are necessary to build healthy economies, strong societies and a sustainable environment.

The seven Principles provide a map for companies to integrate gender equality throughout their enterprises. A company's interest and influence do not stop at its front door, but extend along the supply chain and into communities where employees come and go every day.

In the two years since the launch of the Women's Empowerment Principles, the initiative has grown globally, taken root at the national level and become a benchmark within a leadership group of companies. You can find more information about this initiative here today and I encourage your business to sign up to these principles.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Empowering women, upholding their human rights and advancing gender equality is not just good for women, it is good for business, too. One fact is undisputable - countries and companies with higher gender equality enjoy higher levels of growth and performance. And the growth is more inclusive, which benefits all of us. As our Executive Director, Ms Michelle Bachelet, likes to say: “Empowering women is not only the right thing to do, it's the smart thing to do.

A large number of advocates have repeated this point. As US Ambassador Melanne Verveer noted in a recent article, the impact of women on the global economy can be at least as significant as that of China's and India's respective one-billion-plus populations.

Consumer-product businesses are already bypassing retail and hiring women to build person-to-person distribution channels for everything from cosmetics to beverages. Avon, for example, gives more than 6 million women the opportunity to start their own businesses; these entrepreneurs serve as Avon's main sales force, resulting in more than $10 billion in revenue. Similarly Unilever has trained and invested in 45,000 underprivileged Indian entrepreneurs, mostly women - a strategy that accounts for 5 percent of the company's total revenue in India.

Women can also be the best innovators of the products they use and sell, sometimes transforming their communities with something as small as an electric light, a cookstove or a mobile phone. Evidence shows that women are powerful drivers of systemic environmental, societal and economic change.

Opening opportunities to women in business and all sectors of society is strategic for the long-term, for equity, for growth and for sustainability.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

From advancing women's political participation—to expanding economic opportunities for women—to mobilizing to end violence against women and girls—to increasing women's participation in peace-building—to making sure that budgets and plans work for women, UN-Women is working to deliver on a promise… the promise of equal rights and opportunities for women and men.

You can support UN-Women by investing in the Trust Fund for Gender Equality and the Trust Fund to End Violence Against Women. Information on the transformative work of these Trust Funds is available today. These funds are managed so that they go directly to women and allow you to track the concrete impact of your contribution. You can also invest in specific and targeted projects that we can develop together. For example, we are always looking for sponsors for our critical emergency package for survivors of violence against women.

And we are not only looking at philanthropy. We are looking at a broad partnership with the private sector, through the Women's Empowerment Principles and other mechanisms, such as leveraging your particular expertise in a specific area, to improve the lives of women and girls and make gender equality a reality. Private sector partners can help drive solutions that would not be possible for organizations like UN Women to achieve on its own.

We also hope to develop a special relationship with women entrepreneurs and CEOs at the global, regional and country levels, to build a network of leaders and champions for gender equality within the private sector.

I invite you to join us in this journey and become a champion for equality and inclusion in your business, your community and your home. With that kind of commitment, the promise of UN-Women will be reached.

Thank you.