Driving women’s economic empowerment - an interview with Christine Svarer, Director HERproject

10th Aug 2016

In the UK, from 1 October this year new regulations come into force that will require all organisations in England, Scotland and Wales with over 250 employees to collect, and later publish, their gender pay gap data. The aim is to close the gap between what women earn compared to their male counterparts.

According to figures from the World Bank, women in most countries earn on average only 60 to 75 per cent of men’s wages. Gender disparity in the workplace is a global problem, but its effects are probably most apparent in developing countries where some people are already on low incomes.

Considered to be an essential part of the sustainable development equation, women’s empowerment is also an issue very close to the heart of Christine Svarer, who’s recently been appointed to lead BSR’s flagship,  HERproject. Acre caught up with Christine three months into the new role to find out more.

Acre: Christine, can you tell us a little more about BSR and HERproject?

Christine: BSR is a global non-profit business network dedicated to sustainability. More than 250 member companies and other partners are part of BSR and we develop sustainable business strategies and solutions through consulting, research, and cross-sector collaboration.

HERproject is a global public-private partnership to empower low-income women working in global supply chains through workplace programs promoting health, financial inclusion, and positive gender relationships.

Active in 14 countries, the power of HERproject is that 57 international companies, the HERteam, more than 20 local civil society organisations come together to work with management of over 400 factories and farms to empower their female workforce. To date, it’s reached more than 500,000 low-income working women.

Acre: Why is women’s economic empowerment so important?

Christine: It’s about human rights, but it’s also because women are a fundamental part of the solution to poverty. The World Bank Group takes as its starting point the fact that ‘no country, community, or economy can achieve its potential or meet the challenges of the 21st century without the full and equal participation of women and men, girls and boys.’

They go on to say that the ‘failure to fully unleash women’s productive potential represents a major missed opportunity with significant consequences for individuals, families, and economies.’ So if we’re really serious about overcoming poverty, then women simply have to be part of the economic equation. Business has a massive role to play in that and also I firmly believe that for business to be successful in the long run they must invest in and protect their female workforce at an equal level to their male workforce.

Acre: Can you give us some examples of the impact HERproject is having?

Christine: The project has achieved so much, but to give you some examples, in terms of health, the project has increased knowledge of HIV prevention from 51% to 89% for the women who participated in the training. We’re improving financial literacy to the point where 91% of women and men are saving a greater proportion of their salary. There a positive ripple effects outside of the work place too and workers are three times more likely to say that they feel they can meet their families’ future needs. Equally important to the positive changes it makes to the women is how we help transform business behaviour. It is critical to me that companies participating in HERproject – from the global brands to local factories or farms – gain a greater understanding of the specific needs, barriers and opportunities for their female workforce and that they realise that their actions can be an important lever to improve the situation. There are immediate positive results for the local factory or farm owners too such as increase in productivity through reduced absenteeism and better workforce retention rates.

Acre: What part do companies play in HERproject?

Christine: When we think about the empowerment of women in their productive roles and business as the main engine of the economy then it’s obvious that business needs to drive much of this. That said, women’s empowerment is too huge an issue for any one organisation or company, which is why a collaborative approach is needed.

The brands that are involved first and foremost open their supply chain to HER project activities. They give us access to the women at work. As the issues the women workers face are similar and many of the companies source from the same factories or farms collaboration makes sense. It’s important to remember that women’s empowerment is a precompetitive issue.

The HERproject team and our local NGO partners offer subject matter expertise that participating brands rarely have in-house - i.e. health, gender based violence or financial inclusion - as well the experience of facilitating the change process that is at the core of HERproject. Talking to companies involved it is clear that they hugely appreciate sharing and learning from each other. After all, figuring out how best to use your business muscle to overcome deep rooted social norms and practices that hold women back is not exactly straight-forward. You’re certain to be needing the support of others.

Acre: What does business gain from it?

Christine: It makes complete business sense to empower women – after all, they’re half of the workforce and drive something like 70% of all consumer decisions but not enough companies truly understand where the women are and what specific contribution they make to their supply chains.

If you buy a t-shirt in a department store in the UK, you’re likely to be served by a woman, but what about the farmer who grew the cotton? Who picked and processed it? Who stitched and packed it?

Projects like this help women to become more visible within the supply chain and that knowledge is valuable to both the workers and the companies that rely on them.

Acre: You’ve spent much of your career in international development, first at United National Development Program and then at CARE International, what attracted you to the role at BSR?

Christine: As I said earlier, this is too big an issue for any one organisation to tackle alone, so we have to tackle it collectively. I saw this role as a great opportunity to work at scale and that’s incredibly exciting. For now 57 BSR member companies form the core of the HERproject. But I have lots of idea of how we involve others to achieve systemic change/change at a greater scale. Pharmaceuticals and insurance companies can play a key role in ensuring that the women’s increased health knowledge is met with access to an inclusive health system. And we clearly need the telecoms and financial service providers to help us turn current cash based salaries into modern day digital wages. Switching that wad of crumpled notes at the end of the month into a salary paid into a bank or mobile phone account is a passport to the formal economy for those women.

Acre: Was it a conscious decision to leave the international development sector?

Christine: Quite a few people have asked me that question, but to me it didn’t feel like I was making this big decision to leave one sector to join another. I’ve been in international development for 15 years and I wanted to look at how we tackle the issues from another perspective.

As I said, I don’t believe that one corporation or development organisation can tackle this issue alone, which is why I was drawn to this role - here I get to work with 57 brands, with donors, with local NGOs and I’m hugely excited by the potential in that. Not only the potential for the women and communities in the supply chain, but by the opportunities to also help those businesses fulfil their potential. So to me this has all felt like a very natural trajectory.

Acre: What do you think BSR was looking for in terms of skills when they recruited you?

Christine: That’s a good question and I can’t speak for them, but what I would say is that in general, variety of experience matters. If everyone who comes at this comes from the same angle, if we all have the same mental models, the same backgrounds, similar CVs, then we’ll never change things.

Acre: Did you always have a clear purpose for your career?

Christine: Not at all. I knew I wanted to do a job where I could travel a lot, where I could do some good in the world, but I didn’t have a well-defined sense of purpose when I was studying.

Women’s economic empowerment just wasn’t on the agenda at the business school I attended. My interest developed as I met women in communities and saw the challenges that they were facing and the opportunity they represent. I really couldn’t have predicted this.

Acre: What do you see happening in the sustainability profession at the moment?

Christine: I think some businesses are being bold in this space. They’re hiring non-traditional-business people who have in-depth knowledge on issues like climate change and social movements, people who really want to work with businesses to drive change.

However, I also see a lot of chair swapping – so similar types of people just moving around the profession. There’s definitely scope for mixing things up and bringing in people from other backgrounds or sectors, e.g. from NGOs, people who have a completely different approach. The risk there of course is that they after a while may get lost in the conformity of a large organisation, but risk and change go hand in hand.

Acre: Finally, what advice would you give to other people working in this space or aspiring to?

Christine: Learn to be a great listener. I can be sitting under a mango tree in a rural village in Ghana one day talking to women about how they’re planning to invest in their businesses and the next day I’ll be having almost that exact same conversation in a board room in Canary Wharf.

The key to both conversations is to really hear what’s being said, to be able to translate between the two, and to do that you have to remain open to first understanding.

Christine Svarer was speaking exclusively to Catherine Harris, Principal Consultant of  Acre's Executive & Non-Executive Search team. Acre has built an extensive network of senior executives operating at, or near board level who have a contemporary understanding of sustainability. We focus on people who are passionate about tackling social and environmental issues, and can identify the commercial benefits of purposeful leadership. For more information on how Acre can assist your next senior hire, please contact Catherine directly at catherine.harris@acre.com.