Editor's Note: This post originally appeared on the Business Fights Poverty website as part of its Challenge on Women’s Economic Empowerment Challenge blog series.

Global value chains can be a powerful lever for empowering women, but companies must identify where women work, must develop a clear gender strategy and must articulate the business case for supporting women.

As the UN High Level Panel on Women’s Economic Empowerment continues to develop its thinking over the next few months, they should be thinking seriously about the role that global value chains can play in empowering women.  This was an important theme in the recent online discussion which forms part of the CARE/DFID/Diageo/Business Fights Poverty Challenge. This blog highlights some of the key points made by the many contributors to that discussion.

The world increasingly works through Global Value Chains, which link firms across all stages of production, distribution and retail. OECD, WTO and UNCTAD estimate that approximately 70% of world trade now passes through Global Value Chains, in which women play key roles in many segments. Global Value Chains therefore can be a powerful lever for change and companies which play key roles, such as retailers and brand owners in the global north, must look closely at how the value chain engages with women, to ensure women’s rights are respected, to optimise the broader development benefits which come with investment in women, but also to pursue the clear business benefits which progressive organisations are beginning to achieve.

The first step then is to actually understand where women are in the value chain and what role they are playing. A growing number of businesses are working to further gender equality in their value chains, but gender sensitive value chain analysis is not yet part of mainstream analytical thinking on agriculture.  However, it is key to the future of many commodities to overcome the shocking underrepresentation of women in those who have access to extension services, inputs and finance. This lack of access by women to key enablers weakens the entire value chain. 

Secondly, enabling poor people to successfully participate in value chains requires a systemic approach that addresses the range of obstacles holding them back. This is particularly true for empowering women since many of the obstacles may sit outside the immediate workplace. For instance, in cocoa female farmers have levels of income and productivity 25-30% below those of male counterparts. Major sources of these gaps in outcomes are also clear: compared with male cocoa farmers, female farmers are 25% less likely to have received training in the past year, they are 20% less likely to have received a loan in the past year, almost 40% less likely to have a bank account, and they are 30-40% less likely than men to have used crucial farm inputs such as fertilizer. Many of these differences are related to the view that men are farmers, since they often have the legal ownership of the land, but the reality is that many of the key roles in the cocoa processing are actually done by women. So any company endeavouring to change this situation needs to be willing to engage in detail with communities, but also with input suppliers, cooperatives and government. The development of Women’s Extension Volunteers in Ghana has helped to promote good agricultural practice, and also to promote community mobilisation and informal financial inclusion. Such innovation is key:  overcoming the age old barriers that women face requires something new.

Third, this requirement to think broadly about how to empower women then reinforces the need to have a robust business case: the necessary long term investments will only be maintained if stakeholders in the business can see some benefits. Targeting training and inputs correctly at the women who play a key role in production can significantly improve productivity and quality. And there are likely to be benefits in sustainability of supply through making agriculture a more attractive option for women and younger people. And increasingly, a company’s engagement with gender in its value chain will play a role in that company’s licence to operate.

The Development Benefits

As well as being key to women realising their rights, women’s economic empowerment has been shown to trigger a host of other positive changes. Women’s control of productive resources leading to increased income, improved self-reliance and a greater say in family and community decision making, increases investment in children’s education, health and nutrition. Women often have greater concern for the social viability of their communities, so women’s economic empowerment can be a key factor in helping communities to thrive.

Supporting gender equality and women’s empowerment not only helps women to better support their families and contribute to the development of their communities, but ultimately secures the future supply of agricultural products (like cocoa) by improving its productivity and quality. Business leaders need to appreciate that everybody wins when you invest in women.

Gerry Boyle is CARE International UK's Senior Policy Adviser on Private Sector Engagement.