BSR Conference 2013

The Power of Networks

November 5-8 / San Francisco

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Breaking Down the Barriers: The Role of Business and Networks for Global Women’s Empowerment

One-Hour Conversation Session / November 5, 2013


  • Cathleen Tobin, Manager, Financial Education and Social Communications, Women's World Banking
  • Chloe O'Gara, Program Officer, Global Development and Population Program, William and Flora Hewlett Foundation
  • Racheal Meiers, Director, HERproject, BSR (Moderator)


  • Women continue to face significant barriers to participation in the global economy. As such it is crucial to examine and address the barriers related to reproductive health and violence against women, along with legal and policy restrictions that continue to hold them back.

  • While experts often discuss the business and development benefits of investing in women, it is equally important to keep in mind the risks of not investing in them.

  • No one organization or sector will be able to address the issue of women’s empowerment on its own. Companies, foundations, governments, and civil society organizations must partner with one another and leverage their networks to address these issues in a systematic way.

  • It is crucial to engage men and boys in efforts to empower women. Progress cannot be made if women work alone on this issue.

Memorable Quotes

“Without access to financial products and services, women are more vulnerable [than men] to setbacks. Without a place to save, one setback can wipe out everything a woman has. And when she goes down, the family goes with her.” —Cathleen Tobin, Women’s World Banking

“Around the world, women are responsible for taking care of their families. This has a tremendous impact on their day-to-day earnings and ability to exert agency on their lives.” —Chloe O’Gara, William and Flora Hewlett Foundation

“If companies are working to reduce violence against women, they are creating the workforce of the future—a workforce that will be confident, comfortable, smart, and capable of delivering for your business.” —Aldijana Sisic, UN Trust Fund to End Violence against Women

“Women’s economic empowerment is a topic that we take very seriously … This comes from top-level recognition that if you are going to be in business, you need to find the intersection between your business and the major issues [such as women’s empowerment] that affect your business.” —Beth Keck, Walmart Stores, Inc.


Meiers began the session by introducing the issue of women’s empowerment and emphasizing that while we hear a lot about the business benefits and development benefits of investing in women, we do not hear as much about the risks of not investing in them. She asked each speaker to describe what she is doing to address women’s empowerment in her organization.

Sisic introduced the UN Trust Fund for Violence against Women. She said that while we often think about violence against women as physical violence, it is also about psychological and emotional violence. She went on to say that businesses should care about this issue because it affects women regardless of race, socioeconomic status, geography, and education level. It can pose serious social responsibility and public relations risks to companies that do not address it in their operations and value chains.

Tobin then spoke about Women’s World Banking, a global microfinance network committed to connecting low-income women with the financial resources they need to thrive. She explained that at minimum 1.5 billion women around the world lack access to basic financial resources, such as savings accounts, life insurance, small business loans, and other services. This statistic is particularly troubling given that women often manage the finances of their households.

O’Gara described the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation’s long history of investing in women’s reproductive health in both developed and developing countries. The Hewlett Foundation has recognized that it is difficult for women to exercise control over their reproductive health if they are not economically empowered. As a result, the foundation will support research on women’s economic empowerment that emphasizes how their family care responsibilities affect their economic empowerment.

Finally Keck spoke about Walmart’s commitment to women’s economic empowerment, given that women make up more than half of the 200 million shoppers in Walmart stores every week. She said that Walmart has based its approach to women’s empowerment on its successful environmental sustainability efforts and that their CEO endorses this work. Walmart has goals for women’s empowerment around sourcing, training, and diversity and inclusion.

Meiers then asked each speaker to talk about their most effective collaboration around women’s empowerment. Keck started by speaking about initiatives, such as Empowering Women Together, a website launched on last March that features products made by women entrepreneurs. She also mentioned Walmart’s retail collaboration with U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) in El Salvador and the company’s work to encourage major service firms to ensure that the teams leading Walmart accounts include women. Sisic then described a partnership between the UN Trust Fund to End Violence against Women and the beer industry in Cambodia that focuses on ensuring that the women who promote and market beer in Cambodia are no longer harassed or hurt on the job.

O’Gara said that the Hewlett Foundation has given several grants to UN Women, the International Labour Organization, and UNICEF to add family care to the data they are collecting about economic activity by women. She spoke about their work with the private sector, including with Pearson, the largest distributor of textbooks in developing countries. Tobin then described an initiative led by Women’s World Banking in partnership with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, two network members, and an additional partner to help low-income women in Kenya learn more about financial products and services by embedding messages into a popular television show in Kenya. Four million people watched the show every week. Studies showed that more than 140,000 new bank accounts were opened in the three-and-a-half months after the show aired and that women who watched the show were more knowledgeable about basic financial services than those who did not.

Meiers then opened up the Q&A part of the session. One participant asked whether the panelists were engaging men in their efforts to promote women’s economic empowerment. Sisic and O’Gara both chimed in, saying that they were working to engage men and boys and that they see their participation as critical to moving the needle on women’s empowerment. Another attendee asked about instances when men may face discrimination due to efforts to recruit more women for leadership positions in companies. Sisic replied by saying that we want to get to a point where there are enough equally qualified men and women. A third participant asked about how to make the business case to address violence against women. The speakers replied that investing in this issue will improve the workplaces of today and tomorrow.

Meiers asked each speaker to make a final comment about how her company or organization would like to collaborate with companies and partners in the room. Each one spoke about her company’s or organization’s desire to partner with companies and other stakeholders to advance their work.

Thank You Sponsors

Presenting Sponsor

Target Corporation logo

Premium Sponsor

GE logo

Executive Sponsor

Adobe logo

Convening Media Sponsor

Bloomberg Business Week logo

Participating Sponsors
Renewable Energy and Carbon Reduction Sponsor

Bonneville Environmental Foundation logo

Contributing Sponsors
Hackathon Sponsor

Qualcomm logo

Marketing and Media Sponsors