The Crossroads of Gender and Corporate Social Responsibility

By Pamela Babcock Apr 3, 2012
NEW YORK--Companies with a significant number of women at the top are better practitioners of corporate social responsibility (CSR) and sustainability than other firms and are delivering big wins for business and society, experts said recently.

Having more female leaders “is associated with higher levels of corporate social responsibility, including philanthropy, and likely leads to higher quality CSR initiatives,” Serena Fong, director of government affairs at Catalyst, told attendees March 28, 2012, at the annual Catalyst Awards Conference here. “Gender-inclusive leadership delivers benefits that are sustainable to both companies and to society,” she said.

There’s some evidence to back this up. A November 2011 report, Gender and Corporate Social Responsibility: It’s A Matter of Sustainability,written by researchers at Catalyst and Harvard Business School, suggests that gender-inclusive leadership and CSR are linked.

Researchers found that companies with several female board directors and corporate officers contributed significantly more charitable funds, on average, than companies with fewer or no women in senior roles. In 2007, companies with three or more female directors made donations that were 28 times higher than companies with no female directors.

This study indicates that companies with numerous female leaders not only are more committed to CSR, they also might be better at it and develop higher-quality initiatives. During the session, speakers talked about the business rewards of CSR and how they’re leveraging sustainability to change workplaces and lives.

Empowering Female Entrepreneurs

In September 2010, The Coca-Cola Co. launched “5 by 20,” a program designed to empower 5 million female entrepreneurs throughout the company’s global business system by 2020.

The company hopes the program will transform lives and contribute to community development while driving business success.

The pledge built on a commitment made in 2008 to the United Nations’ “Business Call to Action” to grow the company’s Micro Distribution Centers, or independent network of entrepreneurs who distribute drinks to retailers, often by bicycle or pushcart, in Africa.

Charlotte Oades, global director of Women’s Economic Empowerment for Coca-Cola, said the company has a presence in more than 200 countries but its business model relies on millions of small-scale distributors and retailers, many of whom are women.

Oades said global research indicated that women face three main barriers to success: They lack access to financing, lack business skills training and lack access to mentors and peer networks. The company is focused on four pilot markets: India, South Africa, Brazil and the Philippines.

“In those four pilots, we have already enabled 171,000 women-owned businesses, which I think is great, and we’re really proud of that.” Oades said. But, she added, “One of the real challenges is making sure that the difference is sustainable.”

Tackling Childhood Obesity

Campbell’s Soup Co. has a plan to reduce childhood obesity and hunger in Camden, N.J., where the company is based. In February 2011, Campbell’s announced that it will invest $10 million over 10 years to reduce childhood obesity and hunger in Camden’s 23,000 children by 50 percent.

“We truly believe that the intersection of business good and societal good can only make us better all around,” said Irene Chang Britt, senior vice president and chief strategy officer at Campbell’s.

Nearly 40 percent of children ages 3 to 19 in the city are obese, compared to the national average of 32 percent. The program increases access to affordable, healthy food, expands availability of and participation in physical activity and physical education, and has a nutrition and health education component.

“It’s about making real, meaningful and measurable change in the neighborhood we live in and less about spreading the doing of good broadly” but potentially in a way that can’t be measured, Chang noted.

Kim Fortunato, who is Campbell’s director of childhood obesity and hunger, manages the program. Chang said the position is unique to a U.S. food company and that appointing a female leader for the initiative brings “a diverse voice into that whole conversation” with project partners, including local government and health care officials.

Chang said Campbell’s is fortunate to have five women on its board of directors and three women in the C-suite, including CEO Denise Morrison.

“We’ve grown into a culture where we really embrace gender diversity at the decision-making table,” Chang said. “What that does for corporate social responsibility is it really bakes into our DNA the ability to ask the question, ‘How do we look at the intersection of gender diversity and CSR?’ ”

Rooftop Vegetable Gardens

BrightFarms Inc., a New York City-based company that designs, finances, builds and operates hydroponic greenhouse farms at and near supermarkets, is looking to boost the women on its board. The company eliminates time, distance and cost from the food supply chain.

Paul Lightfoot, CEO of BrightFarms, started the company in 2008 after working in supply chain software.

“I’m now doing something that combines what I care most about personally with my career and that turns out making everything better,” Lightfoot said. “I’m a happier, more productive person, and all of my workforce came here for similar reasons.”

Lightfoot said that having more female leaders would only enhance his company’s sustainability mission, particularly because the majority of produce purchasers are “disproportionately women—it’s moms.”

Three years ago, the company was largely “a handful of all-white men, and I started realizing this would not be the best mix of people to understand moms.” Lightfoot is looking for a new board member.

“We are looking for fabulous women who understand the retail produce business,” he said.

Pamela Babcock is a freelance writer based in the New York City area.

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