The makeup of the workforce has changed worldwide. Increasingly, women have become a driving force in our global economy particularly in developing economies. Many institutions, including multinational companies – from Nike to Walmart to KPMG – have recognized the need to proactively expand economic opportunities for women by fostering entrepreneurship, strengthening financial literacy, and promoting women into management positions. Yet, for all the emphasis on empowering women in business, there is a danger of undermining these vital efforts by ignoring a key enabling factor for women to take advantage of these opportunities – access to safe, voluntary family planning and reproductive health education and services. Such services remain largely ignored when business designs women’s empowerment programs and initiatives.
The demographics of today’s global workforce make the case: participation in the formal workplace by women sharply increases between ages 20-24 and peaks between ages 25-35, the years in which family planning and reproductive health services are most essential[i]. A woman's ability to enter the job market, hold a job and get promoted depends on her ability to control when she wants to have children and how many[ii]. Entrepreneurship, fair pay, board and management representation are important issues, but such programs can be little more than distant dreams for hundreds of millions of women in the bottom portion of the economic pyramid who still struggle to control their family size while seeking and maintaining basic employment.
The goals of corporate women’s empowerment programs, which include improving gender equality, independent decision-making, confidence, and economic potential are closely aligned to the goals of expanding access and utilization of family planning and reproductive health services. Access to contraception and family planning education empowers women to make informed decisions about whether and when to have children, reducing unintended pregnancies as well as maternal and newborn deaths[iii]. There are a number of studies that have established a connection between a woman’s ability to choose whether and when to conceive with participation in educational and economic opportunities, including the formal workforce[iv]. Ultimately, increased access to safe and effective contraception can save lives and ensure a better economic future for families - countries where women can control the size of their families also enjoy better economic futures.
But make no mistake this is good for the bottom line too. Women workers who have unintended and unwanted pregnancies have business costs – turnover, absenteeism, lower productivity. Corporations through their value chain have enormous opportunities to reach these women in simple, inexpensive ways. To be clear ensuring access to services and information does not mean workplaces need to become primary care facilities. Companies can support and promote family planning and reproductive health is many ways – establishing a strong referral system, providing health information through peer educators, ensuring women workers have access to services (ex. mobile clinics), and addressing menstrual hygiene (ex. provision of sanitary napkins).
The business community should move beyond an economic focus of empowerment initiatives to tackling health and wellbeing. Improving access to high quality family planning and reproductive health services will further improve women’s ability to climb the ladder in the formal economy.