Over the last several decades, it has become accepted wisdom that improving the status of women is one of the most critical levers of international development. When women are educated and can earn and control income, a number of good results follow: infant mortality declines, child health and nutrition improve, agricultural productivity rises, population growth slows, economies expand, and cycles of poverty are broken.
But the challenges remain dauntingly large. In the Middle East, South Asia, and sub-Saharan Africa, in particular, large and persistent gender gaps in access to education, health care, technology, and income -- plus a lack of basic rights and pervasive violence against women -- keep women from being fully productive members of society. Entrenched gender discrimination remains a defining characteristic of life for the majority of the world's bottom two billion people, helping sustain the gulf between the most destitute and everyone else who shares this planet.
Narrowing that gulf demands more than the interest of the foreign aid and human rights communities, which, to date, have carried out the heavy lifting of women's empowerment in developing countries, funding projects such as schools for girls and microfinance for female entrepreneurs. It requires the involvement of the world's largest companies. Not only does the global private sector have vastly more money than governments and nongovernmental organizations, but it can wield significant leverage with its powerful brands and by extending promises of investment and employment. Some companies already promote initiatives focused on women as part of their corporate social-responsibility programs -- in other words, to burnish their images as good corporate citizens. But the truly transformative shift -- both for global corporations and for women worldwide -- will occur when companies understand that empowering women in developing economies affects their bottom lines.
ISOBEL COLEMAN is Senior Fellow for U.S. Foreign Policy and Director of the Women and Foreign Policy Program at the Council on Foreign Relations. She is the author of Paradise Beneath Her Feet: How Women Are Transforming the Middle East.