By Melissa J. Anderson

Last week Evolved Employer featured an article on the importance of top-level support for corporations working toward social progress, given the trends and uncertainties expected to characterize the next decade. McKinsey and CECP showed why CEOs need to strongly lead their companies’ CSR efforts moving forward, and more importantly those efforts must become integral to the company’s business strategy for them to be successful.

Today, we feature several CEOs who are doing just that, regarding the sphere of gender equality. These CEOs, founding signatories of the UN’s Women’s Empowerment Principles [PDF] understand the importance of bold leadership for affecting real change.

During the June 21 release of the first 39 signers, UNIFEM Executive Director Inés Alberdi said:

“These initial signers of the CEO Statement are practicing the very first Women’s Empowerment Principle that leadership promotes gender equality. These executives are affirming the high-level support necessary for the Women’s Empowerment Principles to gain traction in individual companies and their cultures.”

These CEOs serve not just as leaders for their individual companies, but as leaders on the gender equality issue amongst the CEO community as well.

The Empowerment Principles

Released in March as a partnership between the UN Global Compact and UNIFEM, the principles “offer practical guidance to business and the private sector on how to empower women in the workplace, marketplace and community,” according to UNIFEM.

Additionally, the principles, subtitled Equality Means Business, focus on the business case for gender equality and are “informed by real-life business practices and input gathered from across the globe.”

The principles are:

1. Establish high-level corporate leadership for gender equality.

2. Treat all women and men fairly at work – respect and support human rights and nondiscrimination.

3. Ensure the health, safety and well-being of all women and men workers.

4. Promote education, training and professional development for women.

5. Implement enterprise development, supply chain and marketing practices that empower women.

6. Promote equality through community initiatives and advocacy.

7. Measure and publicly report on progress to achieve gender equality.

Support from the Top – Five CEOs Who See Gender Equality as Talent Management

But the question remains: Why should corporations publicize their support for the issue, when governments and NGOs are already taking it seriously? One reason is that employees (and not just female ones) expect their companies to work toward these issues.

Says Ben Verwaayen [PDF], CEO, Alcatel-Lucent, “We need to embrace new thinking, new ways of rebuilding our societies, economies and businesses. This takes innovation and the energy of all people.” He continued, “We endorse these principles and are committed to living up to them. Our employees – women and men – expect it, and our customers and investors depend on it.”

At Deloitte, diversity is seen as a tool for talent management. According to James H. Quigley, CEO of Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu, “Harnessing strength from a variety of backgrounds, experiences, and perspectives allows Deloitte member firm professionals to bring a more diverse perspective to their client engagements, as well as create a culture that is a magnet for talent.”

John Anderson, President and CEO, Levi Strauss & Co. said, “By investing in access to proper health care, a safe, nondiscriminatory work environment and opportunities for asset building targeted to women, we’re not only investing in our workers, we’re investing in a healthy and sustainable workplace for all.”

Helmy Abouleish, Chief Executive Officer, SEKEM Group sees gender diversity as a means for attracting and retaining top talent. He said, “…To compete in the global economy, we need to develop the best talents both male and female. If we continue to neglect the potential of [Egypt’s] 49% female population, this means we miss out on 49% of our nation’s best people.”

Finally, Barbara J. Krumsiek, President, CEO and Chair, Calvert Group, Ltd. highlighted the business case for gender equality at work. She said, “For Calvert, gender equality is an important aspiration for our own business as well as the companies in which we invest. In order for companies to reach their full potential, they must create an environment in which women are treated equally, where they hold key leadership positions, and are full participants in decision making.”

These five CEOs see gender equality as a means not just for impressing shareholders or customers, but as a way to attract, retain, and motivate high-performing employees in an an ever more competitive personnel market.