Day 6: Stop Talking About Equality

Tinna C. Nielsen

Blog post by Tinna C. Nielsen

Senior Diversity & Inclusion consultant for Arla Foods Amba
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Business leaders change behavior when something is in it for them and their companies. If we want them to change the way they do business, we need to stop talking about justice and gender equality, and instead show how a fairer food system means sustainable profits.

By Tinna Nielsen, senior diversity and inclusion consultant

Business leaders change behavior when something is in it for them and their businesses. If we want them to change the way they do business, we need to stop talking about justice and gender equality, and instead show how a fairer food system means sustainable profits.

In my work as a business anthropologist in a private sector dairy and food company, I have seen how a change in discourse can lead to behavioral change among business leaders, which in turn leads to greater gender equality. Interestingly, shifting the focus away from ‘justice’, ‘women’ and ‘social responsibility’ and towards ‘profit’ is what has worked. If we expect private sector corporations to contribute to the development of ‘a just food system for women’, we need to empower the privileged to work in new ways.

From “equality” to “performance”

All discourses have connotations, and in the corporate world the discourses on gender equality and corporate social responsibility unfortunately imply helping the minority for the good of the minority. Over decades, this approach has not made any appreciable difference for women or people living in poverty, nor has it changed the mindset and behavior of corporate leaders.

"The discourse on gender equality and corporate social responsibility has not made any appreciable difference for women or people living in poverty."

Research from 2011 reveals that women currently hold 20% of senior management positions globally, down from 24% in 2009, and up just 1% from 2004. Worldwide women hold only 9% of CEO positions, even as the proportion of women in the labor market and middle management positions continuously increases. In recent years there has been no real progress in achieving gender diversity in the highest corporate decision-making bodies despite an increasing amount of companies implementing gender equality and diversity & inclusion initiatives.

My experience is that by emphasizing business benefits (higher performance, reduced costs, new market shares, and sustainable profits) we can change the mindset and behavior of business leaders. When equality and diversity are perceived as business enablers – as levers to performance rather than end goals – they matter to business leaders.

Such a counter-discourse has worked in the global company where I work. Instead of setting goals for equality or diversity, we have set a strategic objective for team composition:

All teams at all levels in all functions must contain no more than seventy per cent of the same gender, generation, national/ethnic background, and educational/disciplinary background. The business rationale is that reducing homogeneity in outlook and perspectives improves performance.

Research and best practices have proven that the inclusion of a diversity of perspectives and backgrounds makes for more sustainable and innovative solutions and decisions, because diverse teams process more information, make better predictions and adopt a longer-term perspective. This can have profound impacts for businesses, producers and consumers.

Over many years I have seen that the first movers in such a change process are those for whom diversity connotes synergy, innovation and performance. As laudable as concerns of fairness and justice may be, they do not appear to create the proper expectations for benefits of diversity to materialize. The business case for diversity and the inclusion of women, on the other hand, does.

Diversity benefits women’s access to food

While diversity in the workforce is important, it alone is not sufficient to bring about meaningful change. Corporations must seek to bring diversity into their supply chains and target more diverse consumers as part of their innovation process and business model. This can have a meaningful impact on food security and the empowerment of women in poverty.

"Corporations must seek to bring diversity into their supply chains and target more diverse consumers."

For example, in the global food company where I work, consulting poor non-consumers in Africa as part of the business innovation process has paid off for both the company and poor women. Because company leaders learned that poor women could not afford baby formula, the company began producing small day-to-day packages that mothers could afford, instead of the large packages that they could not. Not only did their babies then have more reliable access to food, these female non-consumers suddenly acquired the status of important consumers in the company’s eyes.

Another example is how collaboration with small cocoa bean producers in Africa gave business leaders new insights into how to keep prices and costs stable. Since the cocoa bean industry is volatile, farmers tended to change industry to survive, which indirectly led cocoa bean prices to rise. The company realized that by contributing to high living standards in terms of food security and education for the families of coco bean farmers, it could help prevent these farmers from moving over to the palm oil industry. There was clearly a business case for keeping supply prices stable in a volatile market.

Some companies engage in this kind of inclusive collaboration with small food producers as part of their corporate social responsibility commitments, but I would argue that more companies would do so if the business case was made.

Empower the privileged

The powerful corporate leaders who are one of many blockers to a just food system do not wake up in the morning thinking about how they and their actions are connected to the poor or to women farmers in developing countries. For business leaders to change behavior, the case needs to be made for profit and market shares, not social responsibility. So we need to refocus our discourse: A just food system is one in which all people have access to food, because this will mean more consumers and more sustainable profits for corporations.

"For business leaders to change behavior, the case needs to be made for profit and market shares, not social responsibility."

We have to change the tools the privileged use to ‘govern’ their actions. This begins with personal development, where business leaders and employees gain a new kind of awareness of the world. They will not fundamentally transform their organizations and ways of doing business until they realize the value in consulting and working with people different from themselves in the global marketplace.

Moving forward

I am convinced that empowering business decision-makers to create inclusive business models will have a multiplier effect. When a few powerful people start moving, they all move eventually.

We have not yet seen more women involved in decision-making processes despite the increasing support of business leaders and all the effort made to empower women. Empowering women does little good when women are part of a power system where profit and personal agendas are the true dictators of behavior.

"Empowering women does little good when women are part of a power system where profit and personal agendas are the true dictators of behavior."

It is time to stop launching actions for more justice, and start lobbying all leaders in public and private industry to commit to reducing homogeneity in decision-making and to building diverse stakeholder collaboration as a natural ’need-to-have’ element in their business models. This I believe will create a fundamental transformation that will contribute to a more ‘just food system’ for women…and everyone.

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