Women's Empowerment at Heart of Sustainable Development

The room was packed at the UN Global Compact/UN Women's 'Equality Means Business' conference on Tuesday. Representatives from companies and NGOs around the world gathered to discuss the United Nations Women's Empowerment Principles, a seven-step blueprint to empower women in the workplace to create a sustainable economy with strong economic return.

We were warmly welcomed by Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and by Georg Kell, Executive Director of the UN Global Compact Office. Joe Keefe, CEO of Pax World Managers, was a key-note speaker and Finnish Ambassador Jarmo Viinanen hosted a reception following the conference.

The rest of us - presenters and attendees – were mostly women – some heavy hitters, including Michelle Bachelet, Under-Secretary and Executive Director-UN Women, Guler Sabanci, Chairman and Managing Director, Sabanci Holdings, AS, the Honorable Elizabeth Thompson, UN Assistant Secretary General and Executive Coordinator of the 2012 Rio+20 Conference, and the Honorable Linda Tarr-Whelan, an expert on women's leadership in the US and internationally. It was a room full of women with a handful of men - what you'd expect from a conference about women’s empowerment.

The early discussions focused on the need for more women in leadership positions, in the executive suites and boardrooms of global companies (Principle 1: Establish high-level corporate leadership for gender equality). But that discussion paled when a presenter discussed the social and economic plight of women in Pakistan, India and Afghanistan, who have been disfigured beyond recognition by jealous husbands and suitors who throw acid at them when their sexual advances are shunned. A new program provides medical care and training to help these women get on their feet and become participating members of their communities. (Principle 3: Ensure the health, safety and well-being of all women and men workers).

We heard about the plight of girls in Africa, who are forbidden to use the bathrooms at school when they are menstruating. Forced to stay at home, these girls miss countless days of school and fall farther and farther behind male students until they are so woefully behind that they are forced to withdraw, uneducated and unemployable, just for the want of a toilet. (Principle 2: Treat all women and men fairly at work - respect and support human rights and non-discrimination.)

One wonders and hopes that our work, increasing the number of women who serve on corporate boards, will ultimately support women’s empowerment and the creation of healthy and sustainable communities. This is not women’s work. We need men and women at the table, working together to make a better and brighter future for us all. We hope that more men will join the discussion and be part of the solution.