UN Sustainable Development Goal #5: Why gender equality matters

Kelly Dawson
January 9, 2019
8 min read
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“If you invest in a woman, she invests in everyone else around her,” Melinda Gates said to New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof in a public conversation last fall. “But what do we actually know? What tools can we bring to bear? What levers do we have to help women get empowered?”

Asking these questions, and finding ways to produce viable answers, is the cornerstone of Melinda Gates’ philanthropic career. It’s been the recent undercurrent of her namesake foundation, which she shares with her equally famous husband Bill, and a public mindset that has only grown more prominent in recent years. And that’s why it’s no surprise that of all the Sustainable Development Goals that the United Nations aims to reach by 2030, the fifth goal is the one she’s described as near her heart: to achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls.

Gates and the United Nations share similar reasons for wanting to focus on this mission, namely because education and opportunity are still widely gendered throughout the world. In its report, the UN found that 750 million women and girls were married before the age of 18 and that only 52 percent of women in marriages or unions have a say in reproductive planning and health care.

Furthermore, on a wider scale, women make up about 24 percent of national parliaments, and only 13 percent of women are agricultural landowners globally. Without individual agency and governmental representation, women are not part of the major decisions that run households and determine world affairs. These statistics provide a necessary but nevertheless quick glimpse into experiences devoid of freedom. By making it possible for women to get twofold seats at the dinner and negotiation tables, the United Nations and its supporters, like Melinda Gates, are striving toward a more just, autonomous, prosperous, and overall egalitarian world.

These are the targets that the fifth sustainable development goal, or “SDG 5,” as it is more commonly known, hopes to accomplish:

  • End all forms of discrimination against all women and girls everywhere
  • Eliminate all forms of violence against all women and girls in the public and private spheres, including trafficking and other types of exploitation
  • Eliminate all harmful practices, such as child, early, and forced marriages and genital mutilation
  • Recognize and value unpaid care and domestic work through the provision of public services, infrastructure, and social protection policies through the promotion of shared responsibility
  • Ensure women’s full and effective participation and equal opportunities for leadership at all levels of decision making in political, economic, and public life
  • Ensure universal access to sexual and reproductive health and reproductive rights as agreed in accordance with the Programme of Action of the International Conference on Population and Development and the Beijing Platform for Action and the outcome documents of their review conferences
  • Undertake reforms to give women equal rights to economic resources, as well as access to ownership and control over land and other forms of property, financial services, inheritance, and natural resources
  • Enhance the use of enabling technology, in particular information and communications technology, to promote the empowerment of women
  • Adopt and strengthen sound policies and enforceable legislation for the promotion of gender equality and the empowerment of all women and girls at all levels

At Swell, every company we include in each of our seven thematic portfolios must have revenues in alignment with at least 1 of the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals. As a matter of course, every company in Swell’s Impact 400 portfolio has at least one woman on the board or in the C-Suite. Furthermore, we have included several companies that are specifically working on SDG 5 as part of their future goals.

Unilever, for instance, is working toward a world “where women are economically empowered”—a big statement for a corporation that employs 170,000 people worldwide and whose consumer base is 70 percent women. By 2020, the company hopes to provide opportunities for five million women through job advancement, training, and safety. In 2017, the company’s managerial staff was made up of 47 percent women, and it granted about one million women access to those skills and jobs.

The same goes for MSD, the global biopharmaceutical company, as it works to advance more women into leadership positions. In 2017, women made up 48 percent of its overall workforce, 32 percent of its executives, and 23 percent of its board. It should be noted, too, that about half of its new hires were women at 49 percent, and the company actively works with outside programs to find talent from underrepresented backgrounds—working with organizations like Black Girls Code and the Society of Women Engineers. Similarly, MasTec, an infrastructure, engineering, and construction company, has a management roster that’s made up of about 22 percent women, and it hopes to continue to increase this number with a mandatory diversity and anti-discrimination program. And last but not least, the clinical laboratory Quest Diagnostics is part of the Human Rights Campaign Corporate Equality Index, and its Women & Leadership Initiative provided the push for a workforce that’s now 70 percent women.

These are only a few examples that are directly correlated to female empowerment, and it’s true that they have a Western lean. At the same time, these changes are partnered with the complementary goals for cleaner water and energy that directly impact the unpaid labor of millions of women in homes throughout the world.

Collectively, these steps work to accomplish the multifaceted mission of SDG 5. “Providing women and girls with equal access to education, health care, decent work, and representation in political and economic decision-making processes will fuel sustainable economies and benefit societies and humanity at large,” the UN outlined. “Implementing new legal frameworks regarding female equality in the workplace and the eradication of harmful practices targeted at women is crucial to ending the gender-based discrimination prevalent in many countries around the world.”

Melinda Gates refers to SDG 5 as an “ambitious, essential goal.” It sets out to shift generations of societal norms in private and public settings, and in doing so, envisions a future that the world has never seen. It’s hard work that needs to be done. And not just because investing in women is a sound financial move, which it is, but because, simply, it’s about time.

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