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Five Challenges, One Solution: Women

A set of research and policy recommendations to face five of today’s most pressing challenges

The world is experiencing multiple transformations. Demographic, societal, political, economic and environmental trends have created critical challenges with profound implications for many facets of human life. From unprecedented population ageing to burgeoning unemployment, from global leadership imbalances to persisting conflicts, from resource scarcity to volatile global food supplies: one-size-fits-all solutions do not apply to this new context of interconnected change.

Within this context the Global Agenda Council on Women’s Empowerment aims to highlight how women’s empowerment is a part of the solution to these challenges.

In its previous work the Council has focused on how women’s empowerment is important from both an equity and efficiency perspective. The Council also outlined two broad approaches to maximizing the messaging around gender issues – taking a targeted issue-specific approach with traditional groups and mainstreaming the issue across non-traditional groups. In relation to the first approach the Council helped to conceive the idea of a respository of successful interventions in the area of gender parity – a project that was subsequently developed and launched by the World Economic Forum.

During 2011-2012, the Council has shifted its efforts to furthering the second stream of work. Mainstreaming the message that empowering women and girls may help address multiple global challenges, has been key to the past year’s work. Specifically, the Council has developed a compendium outlining how women‘s advancement may impact and provide solutions for addressing five global challenges.

The compendium consists of five concise issue descriptions, linking each specific challenge to the women’s empowerment and gender parity dimension, with an emphasis on action items and recommendations. The identified challenges are:

  • Demography
  • Leadership
  • Food security & agriculture
  • Sustainability and resource scarcity
  • Conflict

The compendium is primarily targeting the business sector, particularly large corporations such as Fortune 500 and Global 500 companies, Forbes Global 2000, FTSE 100 as well as FTSE BRIC 50 companies. In consideration of their global operations, these companies are highly exposed to several of the identified challenges and may be seeking to address them through innovative and efficient means. The Council’s objective is therefore to provide businesses with new insights on and specific recommendations for the role that women’s empowerment could play in helping them overcome defined challenges.

The compendium aims to be unique in comparison to existing research material and tools. True to its mainstreaming goal, it is not a document for gender specialists. It aims to target key stakeholders that might not be aware of how to include the gender perspective in their work. By shedding light on the link between women’s empowerment and a specific challenge, the compendium provides the target audience with key recommendations that could help non-experts gain a stronger understanding of the impact empowering women and girls could have within their domain of interest. It is a concise, user-friendly document that frames insights and recommendations in a catchy and easy-to-read format, serving as an ideal “pocket tool” for a quick grasp of concepts and recommendations.

While business organizations are the core target audience that the compendium aims to influence, the Council considers the Global Agenda Council network and other stakeholders (such as policymakers working on the specific challenge area but without a gender focus) as a wider dissemination group.

The Council on Women’s Empowerment aims to mainstream the importance of gender issues across five key global challenges, by synthesizing the latest research and recommendations for tackling these specific threats in a pioneering way through women’s empowerment.


Issue Description

Women determine population trends by deciding how many children to have and when to have them. Currently, a majority of married women of reproductive age (55%) have the capacity to plan their pregnancies by using modern contraception. Yet there are still 210 million women who would like to postpone their next pregnancy or stop childbearing altogether but are not using modern contraception. Most of these women either live in low income countries or belong to the poorer segments of middle income or high-income countries, and often live in rural areas where their access to services is poor. Providing family planning is a cost-effective means of improving the lives of women and children, especially in poorer countries. Use of contraception to lengthen the interval between births is an effective strategy to reduce maternal mortality and increase child survival.

Having children too early in life, particularly before age 18, is detrimental to both mother and child, not only because of the higher risks associated with adolescent pregnancies but also because early childbearing usually deprives young women of the opportunity to pursue other activities, such as schooling or employment, which are strong determinants of their empowerment. Early childbearing is particularly common in Sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean, and a few countries in Asia, and is often the result of early marriage. In some societies, early childbearing occurs before marriage largely because adolescents who are sexually active face considerable barriers in obtaining information, guidance and services related to contraception. Reducing adolescent fertility is a target in the Millennium Development Goals that will likely not be met by 2015 in several regions.

Normally, girls have higher chances of surviving childhood than boys; yet excess female child mortality has historically been common in societies that value boys more than girls. These disparities have disappeared in most countries with development but they are still present in the population giants, China and India. In addition, the availability of methods to detect the sex of a child in utero has made sex selection possible for important segments of the population of countries where son preference is widespread. As a result, particularly in low-fertility countries where son preference is strong, the ratio of male to female births has increased beyond the biological norm and is leading to major sex imbalances in the population.


Significant gender imbalances persist at the leadership level. Women enter the professional and managerial ranks of many corporations at about the same rate as men, yet remain underrepresented at senior levels. As of 1 March 2012, only 3.4% of Fortune 500 CEOs are women, and women hold about 15% of Fortune 500 board seats and corporate executive positions. This is a global trend with some exceptions including countries with a legal mandate for diversity, most notably Norway. Even among recent graduates from leading business schools worldwide, women’s career progress lags relative to men’s, and the gap grows over time. While women have reversed the gender gap in education, and are now better educated than men in many countries, the leadership gap shows that the best talent is not making its way to the top of most organizational and political structures.

The Council highlights four core areas that could help business leaders increase the percentage of women in leadership positions:

  • overcoming gender stereotypes in hiring and promotion processes
  • revamping talent identification processes to eradicate subtle but pervasive gender bias in expectations of what makes a leader
  • overhauling assignments processes so that women get on the path that leads to the top
  • re-engineering mentoring programs so that they create sponsors for women into strategic roles


Agriculture is key for the global food production and it accounts for the livelihoods of the majority of the population in developing countries. More than 3 billion of the world’s 7 billion people rely on agriculture for their livelihood. Global food production needs to double by 2050 to feed a projected population of 9 billion. Shortfalls and volatility in global food supplies and costs will likely continue and potentially be exacerbated due to rising demand for food and increasing costs of production mainly due to fluctuating fuel prices. In addition, in the longer term, intensified climate change poses a significant threat to people and businesses that rely on agriculture. Increased crop failures, new patterns of pests and diseases, lack of appropriate seeds and planting material, and loss of livestock contribute to a lack of security.

Women are the foundation of agriculture and food security: they are responsible for 60% to 80% of food production in most developing countries, as well as half of the world’s food production. Women also make up two-thirds of the world’s livestock keepers. Research shows that by increasing women’s participation in smallholder sourcing and support programs, international food companies can improve crop productivity and quality, grow the smallholder supply base and improve access to high-value markets.

It is, therefore, crucial to enhance the voice and participation of women in inventive solutions in three main areas:

  • building women’s assets through credit mechanisms, infrastructure programmes and innovation-driven agriculture research
  • reducing women’s vulnerability through the diversification of livelihood options and the development of appropriate crops specifically tailored to women
  • transforming structures and policies to create an enabling and equitable environment through the strengthening of agriculture extension services for women (i.e: recruiting more female extension workers) and the promotion of gender parity in contracts, services and resources focusing on agriculture


Population growth and improved living standards for a growing portion of the global population are together placing significant pressures on the global environment. Resource scarcity (associated with overuse or the outstripping of local “carrying capacity”), and the unintended consequences of the scale of resource use (such as climate change linkages to the combustion of fossil fuels strike) can have a negative impact.

Women play an important part of the business formula for addressing sustainable development, and sustainability issues are increasingly making it on to the agenda of global companies as they seek to strike the right balance between profit and environmental concerns. Evidence shows that in developing countries women are good resource stewards and bear most of the responsibility and impacts associated with procuring and using resources. By better understanding their existing resource inputs and better resource alternatives available to them, women can make more informed decisions on how to effectively consume those inputs. These critical decisions play a significant impact in the household across: i) the use of lighting, heating, air-conditioning etc; ii) the purchase of goods and services; iii) management of habits (i.e. recycling and composting); and iv) the use of household transport and choices.

If businesses aim to make women part of the sustainability solution, education may be the transformative tool that women need to become change agents. Education can encourage women to meet key sustainability challenges as well as ensure their participation in the development process.

Evidence shows that the main constraints to involving women effectively at various levels in the energy sector are lack of education, lack of participation, and lack of consultation. Therefore, a comprehensive educational platform involving not only the private sector, but all key stakeholders (public authorities, NGOs, international organizations) should be adopted in four essential ways:

  • Research & development
  • Capacity building and technical expertise
  • Leadership advancement
  • Household shaping for a change in habits


Conflicts can subvert the socioeconomic stability of nations, thereby making it riskier and more difficult for companies to function in conflict zones in an effective and competitive way. Multinationals operating in fragile economies also bear critical responsibilities for respecting basic human rights. In the past decade increasing attention has, quite rightly, been put on code of conducts and on the development of innovative strategies involving coalitions of government, business and NGOs.

Conflicts have a devastating impact on women. Women have sometimes become specific targets or deliberate instruments of war, through which they suffer traumatic experiences, lose their families and their livelihoods. Statistics show that during and post war in conflict states, the majority of displaced persons are women and children. Post war women end up with no source of income and no skills to secure jobs. Nevertheless, research recognizes the tremendous potential of women to form part of efforts to prevent and manage conflicts around the world. When they are not active participants in prevention and conflict resolution efforts, the views, needs and interests of half of the population are not represented, and therefore interventions will not be as appropriate or enduring. Women play decisive roles in negotiating the peace process. To do so effectively, they must be empowered politically and economically, and must be adequately represented at all levels of decision-making.

The following approaches are recommended to support women across the globe to ensure that they are active in decision making and peace processes in their perspective countries. These approaches have been tested and successfully implemented in several nations.

  • Improve the education system and level of literacy of women
  • Improve the livelihoods of women
  • Promote female entrepreneurship
  • Facilitate vocational training courses
  • Support women’s legal organizations
  • Put women on the front line of law enforcement

 Going Forward

The full Compendium will be publicly available via the Forum’s website and the Toplink platform. In the coming months, the Council will work intensively on the targeted dissemination of the document to make it available to key corporate players worldwide. The Council will also leverage the Global Agenda Council network and connections with other stakeholders to amplify the scope and impact of this important publication.

As this report has shown, the world faces many challenges: it’s time to start engaging women in the search for solutions.


The opinions expressed here are those of the individual Members of the Council and not of the World Economic Forum or any institutions to which they are affiliated.