For companies, investing in women can mean better health, education — and business

Nepalese farmer Meena Maharjan works in a field in the village of Khokana on the outskirts of Kathmandu on March 3, 2014. Thirty-five year old Meena who has one daughter spends the majority of her time in the fields with her husband also a farmer. Waking up at 5am preparing food for the family then either working on the farm or selling her produce in the market, she averages a monthly income of Nepalese Rupees 5000 (USD 50).</p>

Nepalese farmer Meena Maharjan works in a field in the village of Khokana on the outskirts of Kathmandu on March 3, 2014. Thirty-five year old Meena who has one daughter spends the majority of her time in the fields with her husband also a farmer. Waking up at 5am preparing food for the family then either working on the farm or selling her produce in the market, she averages a monthly income of Nepalese Rupees 5000 (USD 50).

Ishrat Hussain’s decision to enroll in a Nestle job-training program that would kick-start a career in the dairy industry set her neighbors in rural Pakistan talking. For one month, the 20-year-old learned how to increase milk production through proper livestock feeding and care before Nestle helped her launch a veterinary business to service many of the company’s local milk producers. Such dirty work, people in Hussain’s conservative village said, wasn’t “good” for a young woman. But she carried on, she later told Nestle, because “I knew it would help me and my family out of poverty.”

Hussain’s new business could accomplish much more than that. A growing body of research from leading global institutions, including UNICEF and the World Bank, suggests economically empowering women not only lifts families out of poverty and stimulates the economy, but also leads to better community education and health.

Fueled, in part, by such data, experts say women’s empowerment has emerged as one of the more popular areas for corporate philanthropic investments. The benefits of women’s economic participation have seized America’s heart and imagination to an extent that, “any consumer-facing brand would be foolish to ignore,” said Racheal Meiers, a gender expert at the corporate responsibility consultancy BSR.

Government aid organizations and NGOs, elated to have such deep-pocketed, well-networked partners join their women’s rights campaigns, are scrambling to leverage the swell in corporate interest. But, experts say, the sector is still figuring out the best way to translate good theories into results.

An attractive investment opportunity
The promise of women’s empowerment programs is rooted in one basic concept: when a woman gets a paycheck she reinvests, on average, 90 percent of her income into her family. A man, by comparison, reinvests 30 to 40 percent. 

Hussain, for example, uses the monthly income from her new vet business – about 5,000 Pakistani rupees ($51 dollars) – to send her five siblings to school. After 22-year-old Rahat Parveen completed the same program in 2012, she said her family of 14 was able to eat two meals a day for the first time since her father had fallen ill years earlier. She depends on her business to purchase his medicine.

The benefits of such spending decisions are far reaching. Educate women, and child mortality rates fall, studies say. Increase the share of household income women control, and children eat better. Boost women’s economic and political participation, and boost the health of the whole community. 

Women’s empowerment is, as a result, “kind of sexy,” said Nancy Glass, associate director of Johns Hopkins Center for Global Health.

But designing a program that translates glittering promises into real-life results is no easy task.

“This isn’t the magic bullet,” Glass said. “You can’t expect that in a year, everyone is going to be super duper. It’s about development — and development takes time.”

Bineta Mbacke, regional public affairs manager for Nestle Central and West Africa, is open about the fact that the company is just starting to address gender issues in its supply chains. Although Nestle has 18 programs that directly or indirectly support women (some of which have been around for a decade), the company only began exploring the issue in earnest last year after a stakeholder survey showed rising interest.

“We care about the issues our customers care about,” Mbacke said, which is why the company has since signed on to the Women’s Empowerment Principles, a seven-point pledge initiated by the UN to make corporate supply chains more female friendly. “But it also makes a lot of sense for our business,” Mbacke added.

Many companies that invest in women’s empowerment programs hope to advance their bottom line by improving talent pools, boosting productivity and expanding markets, a recent McKinsey & Company survey found. Among the more than 2,300 companies surveyed, more than 70 percent said they expected to see profits increase as a result of women’s empowerment initiatives. But in practice, such revenue increases were more modest; only 34 percent of the companies reported actual gains.

Still, it’s easy to see why women-centered programs are attractive, Mbacke said. In developing countries, for example, women dominate employment in the agricultural sector. “Most of the work on the coffee plantations where we get our beans is done by women,” she said.

Measuring what works and what doesn’t
Programs like Nestle’s that seek to teach female farmers technical skills in order to boost dairy and crop yields are popular in the corporate responsibility sector. The idea is to counter the fact that poor access to education and resources cause women farmers to produce, on average, 20 to 30 percent less than their male counterparts.

Anecdotally, the approach seems to be working.

After visiting Pakistan last year, Alex Thier, assistant administrator for policy, planning and learning at the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) reported that women dairy farmers working with Nestle mentors had tripled or quadrupled the amount of milk they were producing. Not only did the women have milk to sell, he said during a panel discussion on development, but they also had milk left over to feed their children — a significant win in a country where malnutrition rates are so high that more than half of children are affected by stunting.  

Still, there is little concrete analysis of such efforts. In a report released last year, the UN Foundation concluded agricultural training programs for family farmers, similar to Nestle’s, were “promising,” but had not yet been broadly “proven.”

The study, a joint effort of the UN Foundation and the ExxonMobil Foundation, sought to close the “evidence gap” between principle and practice by identifying which women’s empowerment programs delivered the best results and lay out a roadmap for future corporate social responsibility initiatives. To generate the evaluation, UN researchers looked at 136 programs and policies.

After analyzing the data, UN Foundation researchers gave top marks to nine “proven” interventions, including savings programs, targeted management training for small business owners, and land titling programs that include women farmers as individual owners or as co-owners with men.

Nine other interventions were labeled “promising,” such as giving women mobile phones to help them manage their finances — an idea that has gained traction with financial giants like MasterCard and Visa in recent years.

Business management training alone, though a popular intervention, just doesn’t work, according to the report. Similarly, micro loans or grants for entrepreneurs without ongoing support led to disappointing results.

Teaming up for best results
The UN Foundation roadmap for effective interventions is just a “first step” in figuring out the best way corporations can empower women, said Kristin Hetle, director of strategic partnerships at UN Women, a relatively new arm of the United Nations charged with advancing women’s rights which contributed to the report. But she is still glad to see corporate interest in the issue rising. “Achieving gender equality is the business of everybody,” she said.

UN Women is trying to accelerate work with the private sector, not only as an excuse to dig into deep corporate pockets, she said, but also because teaming up is better for women. “As major players in the fabric of our society, they have a huge influence on women’s lives as employers and as providers of services and goods,” she said, adding with a chuckle, “Although, it’s true, we do very much like getting their money.”

The benefits of partnership are mutual, said Georgette Tan, head of communications for the Asia/Pacific, Middle East and Africa region at MasterCard. For example, to design and implement a successful female empowerment program, she said, “you have to adapt to local customs and social constraints.” Some programs work well in low-income neighborhoods, for instance, but perform poorly in middle-income neighborhoods.

“We are a technology company, fundamentally,” she said. “We don’t know any of that. By partnering with the likes of USAID and UN Women, we are able to use their networks, their programs, their expertise to deliver the most impact for women.”

More from GlobalPost: Oxfam challenges brands like Coca-Cola, Pepsico and Nestle to help fix global food system