It’s Inclusion, stupid

As so to Singapore, fleetingly, to speak yesterday at Diageo’s inaugural “Women in Hospitality and Tourism in Asia” Conference.

As an $80bn turnover corporation, Diageo were not satisfied with only launching a daytime event, comprising of a range of speeches and panel sessions looking at the women’s empowerment agenda within their own industry, no, they also pulled together the first ever women’s empowerment “Journalist Awards” the very same evening.

Hats off to them for a well organised – and at times, genuinely inspiring – watershed day for a company such as theirs, the largest alcohol beverage company in the world, who have spent the past 18 months recasting their aspirations in society around “empowering women through learning.”

CARE have been supporting these efforts, through skills training and micro-finance initiatives in Nepal and Sri Lanka, and we are also discussing how to use our own experiences over the past 10 years in Cambodia, where we have successfully lobbied the government and the private sector to implement a more responsible Code of Conduct for brewers and drinks companies who distribute their products at a local level, largely employing women as beer sellers.

This Code of Conduct respects the rights and vulnerabilities of beer sellers, whilst offering skills training courses for them, in order to advance their own careers.  More scoop on that here.

Other large corporations – Coke and Wal-Mart are notable examples here in Asia – are embracing an agenda for women, and using the phrase “women’s empowerment” to describe this.

Whilst Diageo is focusing on education and learning as a specific intervention to bring about empowerment outcomes in society, they are also holding up the mirror to their own practices and behaviors.  As with Coke and their supply chain distributors, or Wal-Mart and the factory workers from whom the company procures, big business, not before time, has begun to publicaly recognise the responsibilities towards people for which its operations have an impact, both directly and indirectly.

The delineation within this process of highlighting the corresponding inequalities which exist – in the workplace and in society – between men and women, has not only become a more central part of international discourse, but is also winging its way up the corporate board room’s list of priorities.

In the hospitality and tourism sector, women are over-represented in the informal economies of the world in unskilled and semi-skilled jobs, and are woefully under-represented at the senior management level.  Norway can lay claim to employing the highest percentage of women at the “C-suite” (around 40%) where Japan lies guiltily at the foot of that particular corporate table with an unacceptable 1%.

That the private sector is more proactively addressing women’s empowerment as being the “right thing to do” and increasingly recognising that it makes good business sense not to ignore over half the world’s population when it comes to the future prosperity of your corporation, are both equally well overdue shifts in attitude and commitment.

That women only own 1% of the planet’s real estate and earn 10% of world income, when they do 66% of the total work and produce 50% of the total food in the world, are statistics that have to balance in future.

No one would stand to suggest that the private sector comes not without its fair share of potential for negative practices and a historically pervading culture of putting profit before that of people and planet. However, without big business on the side of rectifying these appalling gender statistics, there would surely be a much harder hill to climb in the future.

I have written before about women’s empowerment and it is true, the issue of the definition of “empowerment” remains misleading (if a woman has access to dignified employment, does this equate to being ’empowered’? – probably not).  However, yesterday, whilst the definitions of empowerment and the ramifications of whether or not large corporations could justifiably empower women (or men) were acknowledged, one man, Viajay Sharma from the company Sodexo, held the attention of all 200+ delegates when he said that “listening to all the discussions today, I could be a woman.”

With the audience in his hands, Vijay then explained how a 27 year career in the industry had taken him from his native India, and middle-class upbringing, to start up employment as a young man in the US, washing dishes.  The colour of his skin, back then, presented a permanent barrier to him being accepted into the industry and into a society which, civil rights movements having been in play for many years, still displayed the kind of fear, hate and exclusion tendencies which alienate and prejudice those who are not in the “majority”.

Subtle, and for sure not exactly original, as the point Vijay eloquently put forward yesterday was – which is that colour, creed, sexuality, gender, age, shape, religion should each be be treated the same – it was impossible not to get taken by his idea that it is “Inclusion” which sits above all other things, in any kind of global hierarchy of values and well-being.

The continued pursuit to find harmony and equity between how men and women are valued in society will run and run and run.  My two daughters, I continue to hope, are growing up in a world where these debates and pursuits are now widely shared and public.  Everyone has a much better chance to participate and shape this narrative than ever before.

Today is “International Women’s Day.”  Celebrate this, but celebrate too a world where legitimate inclusion, for everyone, for won’t need to be structured around reminder days such as these, nor require the fanfare of large conference style events to mark its importance and place in society.

Let inclusion, one day, be our business as usual.


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