More women leaders in business “the best way” to boost recovery from the pandemic

Date: Monday, March 8, 2021

[Press release]

Bangkok, Thailand – Economies in Asia and the Pacific will recover faster from the COVID-19 pandemic if more women are appointed at the top of supply chains, and women’s opportunities are prioritized throughout the workplace. 

This was the conclusion of a high-level meeting including UN gender-equality leaders and business executives from across the region on the occasion of International Women’s Day, including chief executives and representatives of Coca-Cola (Philippines), IKEA (China), LeadWomen (Malaysia), Reckitt Benckiser (India) and Unilever (Viet Nam).

The move comes days ahead of the first anniversary of the declaration of the COVID-19 pandemic by the World Health organization, on 11 March. As of March 8, more than 4,500 companies and organizations across 141 countries have committed to the Women’s Empowerment Principles (WEPs), which marked its 10th anniversary last year. Ensuring a diverse leadership and gender equality throughout the value chain is not only essential to empowering women but also key to rebuilding the economy more equitably in the wake of the pandemic.

Businesses must take more visible steps to open opportunities for women in the workplace and inspire others to do the same, from building a pipeline of female leaders and keeping them in the workforce, to prioritizing the gender rebalancing of managerial and technical roles, as well as using transparency and accountability frameworks to enhance and tailor their gender-related values and performance in reporting.

Anne Abraham, Founder and Chairperson of LeadWomen (Malaysia), a social enterprise with a mission to increase women representation on the boards of corporate Malaysia, said: “Research has shown that having more women leaders across the entire supply chain results in tangible benefits for businesses and economies. Throughout the pandemic, women leaders have shown that when they are empowered, women can achieve great things for the nation.”

Coca-Cola has helped more than 200,000 women micro-retailers since 2011 through skills trainings and access to capital. Jonah De Lumen-Pernia, Director of Philippines Franchise Operations, said: “Women play an important role in all functions and in all levels of our organization. We want to increase women's opportunities for leadership positions. We also aspire to mirror this in our value chain which is why we support the mom-and-pop stores, which are 90-per-cent led by women.”

IKEA China prioritizes addressing the unpaid care work for more inclusive labour markets and gender equality. Karolina Horoszczak, Vice President of Corporate Communication and Public Affairs, noted: “We believe that a better everyday should also be an equal everyday. Gender equality at home [and in the workplace] is a crucial part in creating gender equality in society. Together with our cooperative partners, we are calling for a greater recognition, reduction and redistribution of unpaid care work to create a more inclusive and balanced everyday life for women.”

Ravi Bhatnagar, Director of External Affairs and Partnerships (AMESA), Reckitt Benckiser (India), which ensures pay parity and equal opportunities in its business and purpose portfolios, said: “Studies[1][2][3] have demonstrated that gender parity in education, employment and leadership boosts key health indicators, such as maternal mortality, infant mortality and higher life expectancy across genders. The empowerment of women and girls will lead to faster economic and social recovery in the COVID era.”

Trinh Mai Phuong, Vice President, Human Resources, Unilever Viet Nam, explains that building the business case for female leadership has been a challenge in markets and companies must put their gender equality commitments into practice. “At Unilever, we embrace employee-friendly policies and programs that create an enabling workplace environment, is responsive to individual needs, and encourages our talented senior-level women and employees to grow and rise to the top.”

The high-level virtual meeting titled Women in Leadership - What Does It Take? was held aligned to the theme of this year’s International Women’s Day on women’s leadership. The event was organized by WeEmpowerAsia, the UN Women programme, with the European Union as partner and donor, that is helping companies to carry out the WEPs.

Across the region, women have suffered more job cuts and hour reductions than men since COVID-19 hit the economy. Asia is the only continent in the world where female labour force participation rates are decreasing. Women also continue to be underrepresented in management.

Research shows that putting women into top leadership roles is good for business. The female workforce remains a critical yet largely untapped resource, whose unique talents and perspectives could unlock massive economic gains for firms and help restore economic growth for the region. A study from S&P Global Market Intelligence in 2019 found that public companies with female CEOs or CFOs often were more profitable and had better stock price performance. According to the McKinsey Global Institute, women’s equality in the workplace could add as much as US$28 trillion to global annual gross domestic product by 2025, and US$4.5 trillion to the Asia-Pacific.

As the EU and UN Women highlight their commitment to helping more women in business and women entrepreneurs on the occasion of International Women’s Day this year, they recognize that the coronavirus crisis is an opportunity to close the gap with innovation, employment, training and financing for women, and that the WEPs provide guidance and tools for companies committed to this agenda.

Hilde Hardeman, Head of the European Commission's Service for Foreign Policy Instruments (FPI), said: “Gender equality is in the EU’s DNA. To have impact, we need all hands on deck: together with the private sector, civil society, and through close partnerships such as our partnership with UN Women, we can tackle the issue from all sides. This is crucial in our response to the COVID-19 pandemic and to build our economies and societies forward better. We all must do our part to transform policies and attitudes, to change the world.”

Mohammad Naciri, Regional Director of UN Women for Asia and the Pacific, reiterated that businesses have a critical role in enacting policies that support women’s economic empowerment and ensuring that these efforts are measured, reported and aligned to areas having the greatest impact. “Our partnerships across the globe, and especially the joint efforts with the EU and the private sector, demonstrate that we can make a difference for gender equality together. Achieving women’s full and effective economic participation and equal opportunities for leadership means more inclusive solutions and enhanced bottom-lines for everyone as we rebuild better societies.”

The Asia-Pacific has a total of 1,084 WEPs signatories registered and to date, 613 companies are from the WeEmpowerAsia region. This figure almost doubled from 588 in Asia-Pacific and 172 in WeEmpowerAsia countries in 2019, representing the growing recognition from stakeholders from the business world of this global need.


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[1] Adva Gadoth, Jody Heymann, Gender parity at scale: Examining correlations of country-level female participation in education and work with measures of men's and women's survival, EClinicalMedicine, Volume 20, 2020, 100299, ISSN 2589-5370, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.eclinm.2020.100299.

[2] Lan, CW., Tavrow, P. Composite measures of women’s empowerment and their association with maternal mortality in low-income countries. BMC Pregnancy Childbirth 17, 337 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12884-017-1492-4

[3] Seung-Ah Choe, Sung-il Cho & Hongsoo Kim (2017) Gender gap matters in maternal mortality in low and lower-middle-income countries: A study of the global Gender Gap Index, Global Public Health, 12:9, 1065-1076, DOI: 10.1080/17441692.2016.1162318