The role of business to realize gender equality and sustainability—securing the future


UN Women Executive Director Michelle Bachelet Keynote Speech at Rio + 20 Corporate Sustainability Forum CEO Luncheon Session : “Women and Sustainable Development - the Role of Business Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, 18 June 2012.

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Thank you. It is so wonderful to be here today with you. I thank you for coming. And I thank the UN Global Compact Brazilian Network and the UN Women Brazil office for organizing this CEO luncheon. Our focus is right where it should be-on Women and Sustainable Development and the Role of Business.

I'd like to pay tribute to the business leaders in this room. I know that many of you are working with UN Women and the UN Global Compact through our partnership on the Women's Empowerment Principles—Equality Means Business. I thank you for making your business equality. This is both the smart and right thing to do.

Amidst all the challenges and opportunities in our world today, one fact is unassailable: countries and companies with higher gender equality enjoy higher levels of growth and performance.

Investing in women, in their training and leadership, and equal opportunity, brings high returns, a “gender dividend as Deloitte likes to call it. Levi Strauss & Company, one of the first companies to sign on to the Women's Empowerment Principles, puts it another way.

They said: “We partner with women around the world to shape what's to come: a more equitable workplace, healthier families and communities, and a more sustainable planet.

Today, you will discuss the business community's vital interests in sustainable practices and operations and the role of women in making these practices successful.

In 2008, PricewaterhouseCoopers released its report, “What is Success in a Connected World? Empowering Women to Empower the Earth.

The report said, “Women must be empowered as ambassadors of natural resources and the environment, and as contributors to socio-economic progress if the earth is to be sustainably developed. The report goes on to say that sustainability efforts require partnership across sectors, with the private sector being a key actor and an important part of the solution.

As business leaders, I know that you take care of business now and also look to the future. As our global population grows from the current 7 billion to almost 9 billion by 2040, and the number of middle-class consumers increases by an anticipated 3 billion over the next 20 years, the demand for resources will rise exponentially. By 2030, it is estimated that the world will need at least 50 percent more food, 45 percent more energy and 30 percent more water.

People are asking: How much can stress can our societies, our Earth absorb, and what cost to us and to future generations?

Today I will make the case that bringing our world into greater balance requires greater balance between women and men. Sustainable development requires all of us. It is built on a foundation of equal rights, opportunity and participation. We can no longer afford to leave women behind.

When women are empowered and can 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, which is good for all of us.

Let's take a tour of what is at stake and how business and women make a difference.

We come home in the evening and switch on the lights. Yet, one in five people on our planet, more than 1.3 billion, still lack access to electricity.

Today countries have the opportunity to leap-frog directly to clean energy sources, such as solar and wind. In Brazil, our host country, the share of renewable energy in power generation is over 80 percent. This is leadership in action!

Sustainable energy can power our future and better lives for women and their families. That is why Enel Green Power (EGP) became the first private sector donor of the Barefoot College of India.

This programme brings African and Latin American women to India to get hands-on training in solar panels. When they return home, they install and maintain solar lighting for approximately 60 households in their communities. They also pass along their knowledge by training others.

I am so pleased that UN Women is working with the Barefoot College to expand this initiative to more women, families and communities.

All over the world, the depletion of natural resources concerns us all, but women, particularly rural women, are deeply affected. They bear primary responsibility for supplying their household's needs for energy, food and water. They are overworked and under-paid, if paid at all.

These women are among the 2.7 billion people who rely on open fires and the traditional use of biomass for cooking. Of the two million deaths each year from indoor air pollution from smoke generated by these fuels, 85 percent are women and children. So this is a matter of life and death and in response, there is good work being done.

One of the key partnerships is the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves, a public-private partnership of Dow Corning and the UN Foundation. They are working with others to save lives, improve livelihoods, empower women and combat climate change. They are doing this by creating a thriving global market for clean and efficient household cooking solutions. They have set an ambitious target that calls for 100 million homes to adopt clean and efficient stoves and fuels by 2020.

But my friends, this effort and others like it must be scaled up by at least 10-fold to meet current needs. Therefore, I urge the business community and all of you here to bring your expertise and solutions to this challenge. We need your innovation, expertise and your investment.

And we need to unleash the potential of women. In developing countries, 43 percent of the agricultural workforce is women. Yet, despite their major role in providing food security, women do not enjoy equal access to productive inputs, and this limits output for their tables and markets. This is not only hurting women. It is hurting all of us!

The Food and Agriculture Organization finds that if women were provided the same access as men to fertilizers, seeds and tools, national agricultural yields would rise by between 2.5 and 4 percent and there would be 100 to 150 million fewer hungry people.

So we need to remove the barriers that limit women's opportunity and participation. Women need equal access to finance and new technology.

Businesses can contribute in so many ways. One example is the Dell Social Innovation Challenge launched in 2007. Through this initiative, Dell is funding social entrepreneurs who promote women's empowerment and sustainability.

We also need to promote women's leadership. We need to remove the glass ceiling and the leaky pipelines that prevent women from rising to the top. Companies are taking this forward in many ways. Some are setting gender diversity targets to increase representation of women at management levels and establish equal pay agreements. Others are advocating equal representation of women on boards of directors. Still more are investing in local activities to support girls' education in science and technology.

As business leaders you know that increasing the talent pool is essential. That is why companies such as Cisco, Alcatel-Lucent, Symantec, Tag Heuer, Microsoft and others are reaching out to youth -girls and boys—to nurture interest in science and engineering.

Others offer ‘networking academies' to attract and retain young women. Others are making workplaces more flexible to meet the needs of parents.

Ladies and gentlemen,

We hold our grandchildren's future in our hands.

In this room, there is no shortage of goodwill, innovation and commitment.

To build a sustainable future, all of us need to work together .

Once again, I thank companies whose business means equality.

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