By Sazini Mojapelo, Managing Executive: Absa Corporate Citizenship and Community Investments

International Women’s Day 2020: Empowering women changes the world

Last year I attended the talk by Melinda Gates, on her book “The moment of lift” when she visited Johannesburg. For the last twenty years, Melinda Gates has been on a mission. Her goal, as co-chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, has been to find solutions for people with the most urgent needs, wherever they live. Throughout this journey, one thing became increasingly clear to her: If you want to lift a society, you need to stop keeping it’s women down.

Gender equality is not only a matter of human rights, it’s also crucial to achieving all of the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)…with their central pledge to leave no one behind. Globally there has been tremendous progress on gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls, with increased visibility for women’s movements, from the global #MeToo and #TimesUp movements to the #NiUnaMenos uprising of women in Argentina.

Large gender gaps still remain

However, despite this progress, large gender gaps still remain. I recently came across the following alarming gender parity statistics: 

  • In terms of parliamentary representation, globally women have secured just 25% of available positions, a figure that slips to 21% at a ministerial level.
  • There are 72 countries where women are still barred from opening bank accounts or obtaining credit.
  • Globally, 12 million girls each year get married before the age of 18 - roughly 33,000 every day, or one every two seconds.
  • Women in rural parts of Africa spend 40 billion hours a year collecting water.
  • There is no country anywhere in the world where men spend the same amount of time on unpaid work as women. In countries where the ratio is lowest, it is still 2:1.

The 2020 Global Gender Gap Report

The most sobering however are the findings of the 2020 Global Gender Gap Report. Now in its 14th year, the 2020 Global Gender Gap Report was released at the Annual Meeting of the World Economic Forum (WEF), held in Davos earlier this year. The Report benchmarks 153 countries on their progress towards gender parity in four dimensions, namely Economic Participation and Opportunity; Educational Attainment; Health and Survival; and Political Empowerment. The Report revealed that gender parity will not be attained for 99.5 years at the current rate of global progress. What this essentially means is that my 8-year-old daughter will not see it in her life time as the global life expectancy currently sits at 72 years.

Accelerating gender parity in the 4IR

In addition to measuring progress towards gender parity, this year’s Report also examined gender gap prospects in the professions of the future - i.e. how we can accelerate gender parity in the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR).

It is estimated that 73% of companies are set to adopt machine learning into their business models, and 85% are set to adopt big data analytics in the period up to 2022. Yet the new professions at the forefront of those technologies are set to be unequal from the start. As it stands most students studying in these disciplines is predominantly male, with a small percentage being women. It has to start at the most basic education level to shift the tide.

As detailed in the 2020 Global Gender Gap Report, women form only 23% of current artificial intelligence (AI) talent, and gender gaps across all industries are three times wider among AI professionals. Left unchecked, such trends will widen rather than narrow today’s gender gaps.

However, globally, some progress is being made as we embrace the Fourth Industrial Revolution and examples include:

1. Companies commit to hardwire gender parity into the future of work

At the recent Davos gathering, the World Economic Forum announced the public launch of the Hardwiring Gender Parity into the Future of Work initiative. Driven by a founding group of companies, a broad coalition of global corporates were companies identified five roles that are strategic or high-growth in their respective sectors. They then committed to parity in recruitment and reward across those positions by 2022.

To complement these efforts, a new toolkit on gender parity 4.0 was also released – outlining the next-generation technologies that can address gender bias in the workplace. The focus for Companies on the African continent is to look at such tools as an opportunity for us to leapfrog this gap by adopting these tools in our practices. Given the fact that Africa is a predominantly youth population, the adaptation of these tools allows us to narrow the gender gap and bias. A social compact is required in this regard.

2. Towards common metrics and consistent reporting

Globally, stakeholder capitalism is fast gaining momentum. Pure capitalism does not pay enough attention to the impact of business on society and on the environment and we have witnessed customers using their purchasing power to protest against companies who do not have sustainable business practices. 

Last year I wrote an article in the Mail and Guardian about how Conscious capital is critical to future proofing Africa. Here I wrote how future generations will demand that conscious leaders are at the helm of companies, they will expect nothing less. Brian Moynihan, American businessman and the Chairman and CEO of Bank of America is behind a move, endorsed by Schwab, to bring about a set of metrics against which companies will measure their impact on the communities and environments in which they operate, or impact. These metrics will combine financial as well as non-financial criteria such as gender equality and are set to be available by August this year, allowing companies to measure sustainability, in a way that all stakeholders – from investors to communities – can agree upon.

What the new set of measures also do is trim the number of metrics against which a company can be measured. The previous 650 measurements were far too weighty and complex to allow anyone to draw meaningful comparisons. Now, there are 22 metrics, which are clearer and more concise. Perhaps best of all as we have seen with Black rock, investors will use these metrics when deciding where to place their funds. They will now easily be able to see which companies are sustainable and will contribute towards the long-term future of the planet, and all those who live here, including women.

Doing well by doing good - placing impact at the heart of investment

Which brings me to impact investing and creating shared value. In a meeting held at the Johannesburg Stock Exchange by the Shared Value Africa Initiative, the importance of companies contributing to meeting the SDG’s was underscored, with SDG 5 “Gender Equality” being central to achieving them.  Meeting the SDGs to achieve gender equality and women's empowerment is a societal imperative which requires adequate, predictable and sustainable investment for its achievement.

It has however become clear that private sector involvement and private finance, resources and expertise will be required to achieve these SDGs and as the debate about the role of business in society is getting louder, an ‘impact economy’ is on the rise.

Now retired Unilever CEO, Paul Polman, called the Sustainable Development Goals “the greatest economic opportunity of a lifetime” and achieving them at home and around the world is going to require new ideas, innovative finance and large-scale investments with impact, far beyond the current capacity of governments. The Bertha Centre for Social Innovation and Entrepreneurship defines this way of innovative, impact financing as “an approach to funding enterprises and interventions that optimizes positive social, environmental and financial impact”.

In essence, it is an approach whereby the investors’ goal is to create a measurable social or environmental impact whilst generating an attractive financial return. This simple idea - that you can do well by doing good - has created exciting new opportunities and given businesses a certain competitive advantage. Yet, if we do not effectively link gender equality with all the Sustainable Development Goals, they will remain 'ink on paper'. One of the groups leading this way of thinking globally, is the Business & Sustainable Development Commission.

Their WomenRising2030 initiative aims to inspire women in business to understand the power they have to make a difference in the world, and to push for change and a chance to lead, and for our male colleagues to join us. One thing is clear: Women leadership cannot continue to be a ‘nice-to-have’ for business or a compliance objective.Women leaders are accelerators and companies that continue to have only male-dominated leadership will miss out on business opportunities unlocked by gender-balanced teams. Gender equality in the workplace can help unlock up to 380 million jobs and more than US$12 trillion in new market value by 2030 using the lens of the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

Empowering women is a MUST

President Cyril Ramaphosa promised to bring peace to Africa and silence the guns as he recently assumed his role as African Union chairperson. He also plans to use his chairship of the continental organisation to promote the economic empowerment of the women of Africa, stating that “empowering women was not a favour and not an option,  but a basic principle cherished by any society founded on human rights.”

Absa shares this vision of inclusion, anchored on our purpose to ‘bring possibility to life”. We recognize the need to play our part in moving the dial from “why” to “why not” as more investors recognize Environmental Social Governance (ESG) factors as drivers of sustainable value. This includes deciding how, and what, we fund – and the role we play in building supporting frameworks within our communities.

Addressing structural issues that continue to have a significant long-term detrimental impact on women and girls should remain an important objective at the center of this vision. Yet, as I said earlier, if we do not effectively link financing with the gender equality goal - and indeed with all the Sustainable Development Goals - they will remain “ink on paper”. If, as this year’s African Union chair, South Africa can lead to achieve this goal of promoting Gender equality and the economic empowerment of women in Africa, it will be by far our greatest achievement as a key player on the continent.

Women and girls deserve nothing less.