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Gender equality: Private sector must recognise its crucial role

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The UN Women's deputy executive director highlighted the importance of CEO buy-in and of training

The private sector has a pivotal role to play in achieving gender equality at a global, societal level, according to deputy executive director UN Women and co-chair of the policy strategy group World We Want 2030, Ravi Karkara.

Karkara, who is also senior advisor on strategic partnerships and advocacy to the UN's assistant secretary general and is listed in BNP Paribas and The Telegraph’s top 10 global diversity experts, was speaking at the first People Space Leaders event (the membership-based learning and development network of The People Space).

“The private sector is one of the biggest influencers in society; [they] are the biggest employers so it’s how do [they] really leverage [their] influence?” he said.

He added the danger of businesses seeing themselves as separate from society, instead of recognising their impact on the political and social climates they operate in. “Business has to walk on that same street, you have to go to that school…” Karkara mused.

Karkara made his comments in relation to his organisation's Women’s Empowerment Principles (WEPs), which encourage firms to identify strengths, gaps, and opportunities to improve their performance on gender equality. Currently 1,400 companies have signed up to this. This is a good start but “should be 1.4 million” commented Karkara, who added though that it is still early days for involving the private sector in UN Women initiatives.

“[Before] the private sector was only being approached for funding,” he said. “It’s actually going to the private sector and saying: we need to call on you for your accountability to join as partners. It’s businesses first taking that step internally, but also through clients and customers, and then also with society at large.”

Karkara said CEO buy-in is crucial. “This should not be HR activity, it should be in the CEO’s office,” he said, adding that despite the business case for gender diversity, achieving senior buy-in is often tough.

“Getting women on boards completely changes how you’re looking at priorities; it expands horizons and adds to the bottom line,” he said, adding though that the current stronghold patriarchal attitudes exert means some leaders still aren’t persuaded even when the profit case is made. That’s “patriarchy at it’s best!” Karkara quipped.

Training is also important, said Karkara. “With a lot of firms we’ve seen very clearly that even when parental leave is introduced it doesn’t come with training,” he said, explaining that this means men still don’t feel they’ve been given permission to become caregivers and so don’t feel empowered to leave on time to attend to caregiving responsibilities, for instance. “[It’s] ensuring women’s initiatives are not just women talking to themselves but bringing men into the debate,” he added.

Karkara also spoke on the importance of framing D&I as going beyond inclusion to integration, and on the challenge of children being socialised into gendered behaviours at an early age. “How do you work with girls to enable attributes of leadership from the very beginning?” he said. “Girls and women have to do unlearning because they’ve been trained to be submissive.”