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Advancing gender equality in the food sector boosts sustainability and makes business sense

In recent years, UNECE’s Working Party on Agricultural Quality Standards (WP.7) has worked on gender equality and diversity, with advances and tangible results achieved in many areas including the dried fruit industry in Central Asia, inclusion of more women in standardization and implementation work, and new initiatives on food loss driven and led by women.

The recent UNECE meeting on “Meat Quality for a Sustainable Future” went one step further, by highlighting the link between businesses’ ability to build a sustainable future and encouraging diversity and inclusiveness. This connection is essential for achieving Sustainable Development Goal 5 (on gender equality and women’s empowerment).  

The founder and Chair of Meat Business Women, United Kingdom, Ms Laura Ryan, stressed that diversity and gender balance should be at the heart of any sustainable and profitable business.

Greater gender balance in businesses opens untapped talent sources, makes companies more innovative, more responsive to new markets and trends and, ultimately, more profitable, which can be especially important in the thin profit-margin food sector. In the quickly-changing environment of food production and trade, being a fast responder and knowing the trends offers an edge. And, it opens new possibilities for employment and sustainable growth.

Today, in most sectors and leadership positions, women are under-represented. UN Women’s February 2019 figures show that the global participation rate of women in national-level parliaments is 24.3%. In industry, the picture is even bleaker with an average of 8% female leaders. Women in the food industry are not rare in entry-level positions; however, corporate decisions are rarely made by women. In fact, only around 20% attain senior leadership positions.

Group think, i.e. when people decide to go along with a decision just because of their group’s desire for harmony, presents another real problem for most organizations and businesses, including the food industry. The result is conformity triumphing over debate when the latter, particularly, among diverse groups, can produce better decisions and more sustainable and longer-term solutions. Going from “group-think” to “diverse think” can ensure a more innovative, pro-active and sustainable future – also for the food sector.

In most other agricultural sectors, data on female leadership or diversity is mostly lacking. Therefore, benchmarking inclusion is difficult and changing established processes remains complicated. The food industry, like many others, has so far not been able to establish continuous channels and training for female talent. Such support would not only help boost and maintain female talent at all stages and positions but bring the targets of SDG 5 a bit closer. 

The UK-based and internationally operating “Meat Business Women” network, reviewed at the UNECE meeting, constitutes an example of inclusive thinking, measuring, networking, and mentoring. UNECE’s Agricultural Quality Standards Working Party will consider applying lessons learnt from such models to its other groups and develop guidance for countries in the UNECE region to follow.  Implementing SDG 5’s gender equality and diversity target will not only help increase the participation of women in company and organizational hierarchies in all relevant sectors, but also boost sustainable business and growth.  

Progress in achieving gender equality in political decision-making, education, and in the economy will all be key issues in focus as countries and stakeholders come together for the upcoming Beijing+25 Regional Review Meeting for the UNECE region (29-30 October 2019).

Learn more about UNECE’s work to advance women’s economic empowerment as a driver of sustainable development: http://www.unece.org/gender.html