Feature Story

Women are at the heart of making business – and the world – sustainable

March 8, 2018

Two women walk home from market in late afternoon through the Avenue des Baobabs in Madagascar.
If every woman in sub-Saharan Africa and south and west Asia had access to a secondary education, child marriage would be reduced by two thirds. Photo: Shutterstock.com

By Cecily Joseph, vice president, corporate responsibility, Symantec

Over 25 years ago I began my career as a black female working in technology in Silicon Valley and, ever since, my professional path has continually been shaped and enhanced by my being different. Women comprise only 26% of computing professionals - black women 3% (pdf).

I learned very early on that being outside the norm can be a positive differentiator and bring a unique perspective. I was able to collaborate openly and effectively, and my particular mix of competencies balanced well with those of others. As my role expanded into sustainability, these became the qualities I would use to shape the way our business generated value – through its ability to impact the world positively. I quickly understood that corporate responsibility and sustainability support long-term value, yet also challenge us to demonstrate and articulate how this is played out against short-term business objectives.

I also learned that I am in no way alone. The Better Leadership, Better World: Women Leading for the Global Goals (pdf) report launched by the Business and Sustainable Development Commission earlier this week highlights the unique strengths of female professionals and how they can help business harness what research argues is the greatest economic opportunity of our time, the 17 UN sustainable development goals (SDGs or global goals). 

Women tend to exhibit long-term thinking, innovation, collaboration, transparency, environmental management, and social inclusiveness. As the report highlights, “There is considerable evidence of women identifying new technologies, business models, products, and services that are critical to meeting consumer needs while also solving societal problems. For example, a 2017 joint study from the UN Foundation and BNY Mellon identified a US$300 billion market opportunity that could be attained by closing the gender gap in access to products and services in the water, contraception, telecommunications, energy, and childcare sectors.”

Women are bringing something different to companies and they are using the global goals as a tool to think about innovation differently, to bring new ideas to the table and thus strengthen companies.

Additionally, the global goals themselves shine a light on the unique role that gender plays in reaching a sustainable future and protecting the global commons. It can break down barriers and unlock opportunity in many ways.

SDG1: no poverty

Women and girls are over-represented among the world’s poor: 330 million live on less than $1.90 a day – 4.4 million more than men (pdf).

SDG4: quality education

As of 2015, two thirds of the approximately 781 million illiterate people aged 15 and older, were women, a proportion that has remained unchanged for two decades. If every woman in sub-Saharan Africa and south and west Asia had access to a secondary education, child marriage would be reduced by two thirds (pdf).

SDG5: gender equality

71% of victims of human trafficking, the third largest global criminal industry, are women and girls. The International Labour Organization estimates that they also comprise most forced labour victims.

SDG6: clean water and sanitation

Women and girls are responsible for water collection in 80% of households (pdf) without access to it.

SDG8: decent work and economic growth

Globally, the labour force participation rate among prime working-age women (aged 25–54) stands at 63% compared to 94% (pdf) among their male counterparts. The global gender pay gap is 23%.

SDG13: climate action

Climate change has a disproportionate impact on women and children, who are 14 times as likely as men to die during a disaster.

At Symantec we recognised early on our responsibility to protect basic human dignity and human rights, and the role of gender equity as a strength and differentiating factor:

  • We have a zero-tolerance policy (pdf) on any aspect of human-trafficking, which we maintain through policies, training and awareness, auditing and confidential/anonymous reporting via our ethics line, managed by an independent third party. Reporting and transparency (pdf) is required by law in the US (and requested by stakeholders across the world).
  • We adhere to the Responsible Business Alliance, which establishes standards in treating workers with respect and dignity, and prohibits the use of forced, bonded, and indentured labour and involuntary prison labor. All our suppliers have completed a self-assessment questionnaire, and 48% have these requirements included in their contracts. We are also incorporating human rights questions as part of the procurement process.

Lastly, we continue to leverage sustainability holistically, addressing gender equity through a multifaceted and strategic approach aligned to our business. Through our policies, initiatives, philanthropy, community engagement, and advocacy we aim to break down some of the fundamental barriers mentioned earlier by, for example: opening doors to science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) education and the growing number of cybersecurity jobs; enabling nonprofits to serve their missions more effectively through our software donation program; and improving infrastructure – such as access to water – that hinders women’s ability to educate themselves or start a career.

For example, to date, Symantec has supported over 150 organisations addressing domestic violence and human trafficking through employee volunteering, cash grants and our software donation program with TechSoup.

Across the world – from all industries, income levels, backgrounds – there are many remarkable advocates for gender equality, and the momentum is tangible. We can now see its essential role and that to meet the global goals both halves of the population must be fully engaged. The moral and business cases are clear. Now it’s time to figure out how we move forward to best harness this momentum.

Corporate leaders – whether females, males, engineers, human resources, or management – must recognise that equity is our joint responsibility. When we view this balance of diverse talents, strengths and perspectives as a true driver of value, investing in it makes perfect sense - to create businesses, and more importantly a world – of which we can be proud to be part.