Human side

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 22 December, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 22 December, 2011, 12:00am


Gender equality is smart economics. From global think tanks to world leaders, management consultants to top business schools, the consistent message is that a higher representation of women on boards and in decision-making roles makes for better performance, whether in terms of return on equity, stock price or new markets and products. Diversity has many benefits for business, and more women on boards and in the executive suite tends to lead to better governance.

In a capitalist-driven culture, recasting social issues as business drivers with a positive impact on the bottom line may also give more companies incentives to take gender equality more seriously. However, we are in danger of overemphasising the message that gender equality is (just) about good business, and smart economics. We seem to have moved away from talking about pursuing social changes to make a fairer world; instead, we increasingly focus on measurable goals to justify why women should have equal access to opportunities.

The danger in this is that female empowerment concerns complex intangibles. The Women's Foundation's work involves transforming traditional and cultural attitudes and perceptions among men and women, and improving the confidence levels of women and girls. In forgoing the traditional rights-based argument for an economic-based one, these intangibles - inherent in the struggle for achieving empowerment - are being marginalised because they are harder to measure. Simply put, social change is messy, non-linear and unpredictable, but it is only through fundamental social change that the lot of women will truly improve.

Today, many donors only want to fund projects for which the exact outcome of their support can be attributed back and determined in advance. Impact measurement is important, but it is also essential to understand the potentially adverse effects of the audit culture increasingly imposed on non-governmental organisations.

As former Ford Foundation president Susan Berresford argues, insisting that donor recipients demonstrate measurable, short-term impact can 'miniaturise ambition for justice and for progress on deeply entrenched problems'. Accomplishing fundamental societal change may require innovative and risky solutions that are less easy to measure. Engaging in a dynamic, long-term, and open-ended consultative process with recipient organisations is key. Conversely, NGOs need to remember that accurate measurement and thorough data collection benefit their objectives. Together, donors and aid organisations need a transparent partnership that balances quantifiable and unquantifiable elements.

A major change is needed to allow the full and equal participation of women in society. Analysing this problem using a more objective economic and business framework can potentially serve this goal more effectively than arguments based on fairness and justice. However, let's not forget the human element in women's empowerment and ensure that our efforts translate into more - not less - change.

Su-Mei Thompson is CEO and Lisa Moore is research associate at The Women's Foundation. This article is part of a monthly series on women and gender issues, developed in collaboration with the foundation