innovation | ethics | impact

How can startups better integrate SDG 5 into their work?

By Ophelie Namiech

Today, for international women day, I was asked to give a presentation at Google on how start-ups can better integrate SDG 5 into their work.

 SDG 5 aims at achieving gender equality and empowering all women and girls.

 Gender equality has been widely recognized as a driver of social and economic development and progress. As such, companies and organizations have developed good practices contributing to the SDG journey:

  • Some are working to improve services and information for women and girls by leveraging technologies. For example, UNICEF establishes virtual safe places for women and girls to provide remote services in war-torn settings.[1]
  • Others work on transforming norms and behaviors that fuel violence and inequalities. For instance, the initiative Right to Play challenges, through sport, the acceptability of violence against women and girls by encouraging boys to adopt positive masculinity while supporting girls to develop leadership skills.[2]
  • Some companies focus on quality disaggregated data to improve decision-making. For example, Primero offers an open-source software standardizing data collection on incidents of violence against women.

Efforts to advance gender equality are showing positive results in various areas[3]. Yet, much remains to be done to fulfill the promise of a world in which every woman and girl enjoy full equality and rights.

Startups can play a crucial role in accelerating progress and tackling the persistent barriers to the full realization of SDG 5.

New business innovations often face constraints within the wider ecosystem that are beyond their control.[4] For example, poor access of women to education or technologies will reduce user segment expansion, limit business growth, and ultimately curb social and economic development. There is an imperative for businesses to identify and address these structural vulnerabilities that will affect growth.

 How can startups better integrate SDG 5 into their work?

Recommendation 1: Mainstreaming gender into startups’ objectives and impact strategies.

Gender mainstreaming is an approach that considers both women’s and men’s interests and concerns.

It provides a good opportunity to measure the impact of a startup, not only by identifying the number of women/men/girls/boys reached, but also by assessing how a specific solution positively impacts gender roles. Additionally, if a startup wants to partner with international organizations, like the UN, it will need to demonstrate how gender is genuinely mainstreamed into its work.

A thorough gender mainstreaming strategy will undoubtedly broaden the scope of understanding of the users and context, and help expand user segments. 

Startups are therefore advised to adopt a gender transformative mindsetthat integratesthe structural causes of gender inequalities and the barriers that prevent women from accessing, using, and controlling social and economic resources.

As such, startups’ objectives and activities should address, when relevant, the specific needs of women, men, girls, and boys. This is particularly important for start-ups working at community-level, for example, a startup working with small-holder farmers to improve their resilience to climate change.

Mainstreaming gender is not merely about allocating a percentage target for women. It is also about helping startups reflect on how their solutions affect, positively or negatively, women’s lives.

For example, a mobile financial platform should explore the possible consequences of women using the tool in a specific context: do women own phones? Who is really in control? How will the women using the platform be perceived? Will it change the power relationship at home, at the community level? Will this solution further exacerbate existing/inequalities? 

Many technologies can be harmful if the social norms and gender roles are not fully considered and translated into the startup’s strategy,

In sum, startups should integrate a gender analysis into their work. Such a tool[5] includes questions on power dynamics, ownership, division of labor, control and decision-making in the household and the community that startups must carefully consider.

Recommendation 2: Promoting gender equality & diversity within our teams.

In addition to showcasing diverse and gender-balanced C-teams, startups must develop an organizational identity that is transparently inclusive and diverse with a strong gender policy integrated into the HR, procurement/supply chain and other organizational mechanisms. Demonstrating a strong female-represented board of directors or board of advisors and identifying female champions who can promote the start-ups in global circles are two additional solid directions.

Not all gender biases are conscious, and start-ups must have proper check and balances mechanisms to allow fair inclusion and representation.

By doing so, startups will send strong value-oriented messages to their customers, partners, suppliers, staff, investors, and donors, and contribute to building a global collective narrative around these values.

Recommendation 3: Promoting and embracing inclusive sourcing.

SDG 5 encourages companies to expand their business relationships with women-owned enterprises. Supply chains offer a unique opportunity for companies to have a positive impact on economic development by offering underserved groups, including women, an equal opportunity to compete for business.[6] 

Inclusive sourcing broadens startups’ opportunities. Diversity generates innovation. Women business owners often are “at the cutting edge of designing more sustainable products and services.”[7]  Finally, inclusive sourcing contributes to women’s economic resilience, which contributes to sustainable development.

Recommendation 4: Requiring gender balance and diversity in panels.

Even in the humanitarian-development sector, leadership and decision-making roles are still largely dominated by men from the Global North.[8] And panels often reflect that trend.

We should recognize the importance of diversity in knowledge-sharing for intellectual, professional and societal advancement, and pledge to only participate in panels, conferences and other public events that can genuinely guarantee gender balance and diversity.

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[1] UNICEF, https://www.unicef.org/media/83381/file/Innovative-GBV-Service-Provision-Emergencies%20.pdf

[2] The International Development Innovation Alliance, https://r4d.org/wp-content/uploads/Innovating-to-Address-GBV.pdf.

[3] Fewer girls are forced into marriages, Female Genital Mutilation is becoming less common. More women are in leadership positions, Laws & regulations for full and equal access of SRHR services are in place in many countries.

[4] SDG Fund, https://www.sdgfund.org/business-and-un.

[5] Ophelie Namiech, “Women’s Livelihoods and Resilience in Complex and Volatile Environments,” The Joint, 2020, https://www.thejoint.org.il/en/digital-library/womens-livelihoods-and-resilience-in-complex-and-volatile-environments/.

[6] The Global Compact, Inclusive Sourcing, 2013, https://www.unglobalcompact.org/library/3231.

[7] Ibid.

[8] UN Women, report on the Status of Women at the UN, 2016.

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