Investors Put Gender on the Agenda

This article was originally published in Businesswire. Whatever works . . .

A coalition of global investors, managing over US $73 billion in assets, called on companies across the world today to increase representation of qualified women on boards of directors and in senior management. The call from Pax World, Calvert and Walden Asset Management, comes in response to a survey of 4,200 global companies that found only 9.4 percent of directors on corporate boards were women.

These findings have led a number of mainstream investors to identify gender balance and diversity as a strategic issue in their investment activity. The investors in this new coalition have asked 54 selected companies from across the business spectrum for greater clarity about gender balance within their organizations.

“We view gender equality and women’s empowerment as strategic business and investment issues,” said Joe Keefe, President and CEO of Pax World. “When women are at the table, the discussion is richer, the decision-making process is better, management is more innovative and collaborative and the organization is stronger. Because companies that advance and empower women are, in our view, better long-term investments, we are encouraging companies in our portfolios to enhance their performance on gender issues.”

The investor initiative is a response to the Women’s Empowerment Principles1 recently developed by the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM) and the United Nations Global Compact. The Women’s Empowerment Principles are designed to help companies take specific steps to advance and empower women in the workplace, marketplace and community.

“For Calvert, gender equality is an important aspiration for our own business as well as the companies in which we invest,” said Barbara J. Krumsiek, President & CEO, Calvert Group, Ltd. “In order for companies to reach their full potential, they must create an environment in which women are treated equally, where they hold key leadership positions, and are full participants in decision making. For this reason we created the Calvert Women’s Principles, on which the Women’s Empowerment Principles are based, and welcome this opportunity to work with other institutional investors to advance gender equality.”

The members of the coalition are all also signatories to the UN-backed Principles for Responsible Investment (PRI). “This engagement shows that gender balance within senior corporate management is not just a social issue but also a shareholder issue,” said James Gifford, Executive Director of the PRI Initiative. “In an increasingly complex global marketplace, companies that effectively attract, hire, retain, and promote women are often better equipped to capitalize on competitive opportunities than those who do not.”

The PRI coalition also reports increasing recognition of the value of board diversity by regulatory bodies worldwide. Three European countries have passed legislation requiring that either 30 percent or 40 percent of board members be women (the Netherlands, Norway and Spain), with four other countries considering similar legislation (Belgium, France, Germany and Sweden). In the United States the Securities and Exchange Commission adopted new rules for proxy disclosure, beginning this year, that include a requirement for companies to disclose how their nominating committees consider diversity in identifying board nominees. With its establishment of the Office of Minority and Women Inclusion, the recently passed Wall Street Reform also acknowledges the benefits of diversity in management, employment and business activities.

“Simply put, in the U.S. and globally, we believe that equitable and inclusive work environments are good for society, good for the economy and good for business,” stated Heidi Soumerai, Senior Vice President and Director of ESG Research at Walden Asset Management in Boston.

The Yanks Are Coming–Back–Now What?

The road to the international agreements forged in Cairo and Beijing was long and fraught with cultural potholes, but nothing like the challenges that our own government placed in the path of women’s reproductive self-determination. Now, there’s been a 180 degree turn back to the future, and the world is relieved. But other countries have moved forward, so what’s the next step for the U.S.?

Linda Hirshman, author of Get to Work and columnist for Slate’s new XX among many other accomplishments, and I wrote this commentary. After we were rejected by the New York Times and the Washington Post (what else is new?), we decided it was too important an issue not to see the light of day. So we’re publishing it on RHREalityCheck, Huffington Post, and here on good ol’ Heartfeldt.

At the very moment the Obama administration’s decision to seek a U.S. seat on the U.N. Human Rights Council grabbed headlines, the United States quietly took the reins on the most important human rights issue for humanity’s future: sexual and reproductive rights. On March 31, State Department Acting Assistant Secretary for Population, Refugees, and Migration, Margaret Pollack, told delegates to the United Nations Commission on Population and Development, meeting in New York, that America was back.

Marking a 180 degree turnaround from Bush administration policies that fought international efforts to enable people to control their own reproductive fate, the U.S. will once again defend the “human rights and fundamental freedoms of women” and support “universal access to sexual and reproductive health.” Abstinence-only sex education, the bête noir of health providers attempting to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS, was Kung-Fu kicked aside. Human rights apply to all regardless of sexual orientation. The U.S. commits to ratify CEDAW, the women’s rights treaty already signed by 185 nations, and even endorses “equal partnerships and sharing of responsibilities in all areas of family life, including in sexual and reproductive life.”

The global sigh of relief was palpable. For with all its money and diplomatic resources, the U.S. is the 10,000 gorilla in international reproductive policy. Now the question is, while this is certainly change we can believe in, is it all the change we need?

U.S. foreign policy since the 1970’s has included funding for international family planning programs. We’ve been the largest contributor to these preventive reproductive health services (by U.S. law, abortions aren’t funded) globally. The U.S. led the march to the groundbreaking 1994 Cairo International Conference on Population and Development agreement that women’s rights and health, including reproductive rights and health, are central to development and poverty-reduction, environmental sustainability, and the strength and security of democracy itself.

Since the Reagan administration, though, cultural and religious conservatives have fought U.N. commitment to women’s reproductive rights. Reagan issued the first global gag rule denying U.S. funding to organizations that perform or even discuss abortion.

President Bill Clinton rescinded the gag rule; George W. Bush’s first official act was to reinstate it. In the last eight years, the United States government, in alignment with fundamentalist Islamic nations as well as Christian fundamentalists and Catholics, used U.N. meetings aggressively to push abstinence education and faith-based institutions as the source of guidance on sexuality and reproductive matters. And U.S. staff on the ground enforced the strictures on the ground with increasing zeal.

Women’s right to safe abortions were the sharp point of this wedge issue, but preventive family planning, comprehensive sex education, and HIV/AIDS prevention programs were opposed equally. The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) estimates that—ironically–each year Bush denied them the $34 million funding Congress authorized, it led to 2 million preventable unintended pregnancies, 800,000 induced abortions, 4,700 maternal deaths, and 77,000 deaths of both mother and child.

European countries took up some slack; UNFPA’s largest supporter is now tiny Netherlands for example. And many of the nations in the developing world have contributed more than their fair share commitment stated in the Cairo agreement. But U.S. legitimacy suffered. After euphoria in Cairo, followed by the 1995 Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing where then-First Lady Hillary Clinton declared, “human rights are women’s rights and women’s rights are human rights,” reproductive rights advocates struggled to hold land they had gained while the largest richest country in the world aided the sexual conservatives.

Now all that has changed again. Not only did Obama rescind the global gag rule, UNFPA’s funding was reinstated and increased to $50 million. USAID’s 2009 budget for international family planning assistance increased to $545 million from $457 million in 2008. All great news. The 10,000 pound gorilla has pivoted back to the future.

But much of the world has advanced since Cairo to a more ambitious agenda for women’s full social and economic equality. And what does that mean for the U.S. vision for its own leadership role for women, population, and development globally?

Domestically, five former directors of USAID’s Population and Reproductive Health Program are calling for immediate doubling of U.S. funding for family planning overseas, to $1.2 billion and increasing to $1.5 billion over the next few years, if global anti-poverty and development goals are to be achieved amid the worldwide economic downturn.

And it is essential that the U.S. address the legitimate place of safe and legal abortion within women’s reproductive health and human rights; after all, in meanwhile, groups opposed to women’s rights and abortion are redoubling their efforts to push back. That is why the Center for Reproductive Rights and other organizations are working to establish legal theories regarding why reproductive rights are indeed human rights , and we can see in countries such as Mexico how these perspectives are advancing women’s access to safe, legal abortion based on human rights  rather than the right to privacy as in the U.S.

Michelle Goldberg argued persuasively in her recent book, “The Means of Reproduction: Sex, Power and the Future of the World,” that the absence of women’s reproductive rights contributes to overpopulation, environmental disaster, family instability, HIV/AIDS, and sex-ratio imbalances that threaten global stability. Other matters may make more news, but nothing will make more difference. Whatever the next steps in this continuing struggle, U.S. policy will lead the way.

Gloria Feldt is the author of No Excuses: 9 Ways Women Can Change How We Think About Power. Buy the book here. Engage Gloria for a Speech or Workshop. Tweet @GloriaFeldt and connect on Facebook, LinkedIn, and Google+ Gloria is the co-founder (with Amy Litzenberger) of Take the Lead, a new initiative to prepare and propel women to leadership parity by 2025. Find them @takeleadwomen and on Facebook.

Goosebumps Over Dipnotes

I was over at the UN last week. Staffers from a variety of countries mentioned how great it feels to the international community to know that the US is back–resuming its rightful place in among the member countries of the United Nations. One woman said to me that she goes around these days smiling and saying “Yes, we can!”

What gave me goose bumps? Being reminded what a profound impact Hillary Clinton is making as Secretary of State–and a SOS who understands and prioritizes women in her approach to the rest of the world at that– when I signed onto my Twitter account (I’m Heartfeldt if you want to follow me) a moment ago and saw the following tweet from Dipnotes, the Department of State’s blog name and Twitter handle.

Question of the Week: How Best Can Women’s Rights Be Expanded Internationally?

The world recognizes March 8 as International Women’s Day. During her recent travel to the Middle East, Secretary Clinton met with women who are developing their own businesses through a microcredit program. Promoting women’s economic and political participation is an important element of U.S. foreign policy and a key component of democratic development.

Yes, indeed we can! Check out the Dipnotes website and leave your opinion there. And please tell us what you said here at Heartfeldt also.

Gloria Feldt is the author of No Excuses: 9 Ways Women Can Change How We Think About Power. Buy the book here. Engage Gloria for a Speech or Workshop. Tweet @GloriaFeldt and connect on Facebook, LinkedIn, and Google+ Gloria is the co-founder (with Amy Litzenberger) of Take the Lead, a new initiative to prepare and propel women to leadership parity by 2025. Find them @takeleadwomen and on Facebook.