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We can’t let the coronavirus slow the march toward gender equality

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Speaking with business leaders recently, the conversation about the post-coronavirus path forward has shifted. There is now a greater focus on how to safely reopen economies, get people back to work, and repair the financial and cultural havoc this virus has wrought. In particular, there is a desire to ensure that we use this pandemic as an opportunity to rebuild society in a way that heals long-standing social inequities.

The theme of the World Economic Forum in Davos this year—held before the outbreak of COVID-19—was stakeholder capitalism, the notion that companies must look beyond shareholders and also consider the interests of customers, suppliers, employees, and the communities where they operate. Now that we are in a global crisis, it is all too easy to set aside one of the tenets of stakeholder capitalism—gender equality—as a “nice to have” rather than a “need to have.” Let’s not make that mistake.

The future of the workforce hinges on the success of major stakeholders notably absent from much of the conversation in Davos: women. A recent report from Boston Consulting Group found that closing the entrepreneurship gender gap could boost global GDP by up to $5 trillion, or 6%. There is tremendous opportunity to unlock this economic growth—but if gender issues were overlooked pre-coronavirus, there is even greater risk that they will be forgotten today. 

It’s true that women are part of all stakeholder groups. Yet if we don’t explicitly include this underrepresented half of our population in the stakeholder model as we build more responsible companies, the status quo is unlikely to change. While gender equality is improving in some countries, globally only a little over half of all women participate in the workforce, versus nearly 80% of men, according to a World Economic Forum report. And pay equity still lags far behind: Women’s average income worldwide is nearly half of men’s. 

And the statistics only tell half the story. Once in the workplace, women are still not regarded equally by their colleagues. This is something I know from experience. Even as the founder of a major e-commerce company, I still experience what it means to be treated differently, to be the only woman in the room. Women earlier in their careers or who haven’t had the opportunities I’ve had face this challenge even more acutely.

You’d be hard-pressed to find any corporate leader who thinks the status quo is acceptable, yet we’re not seeing many willing to act boldly or take the risks that are necessary to make real progress. That needs to change.

Achieving target numbers for board diversity—as companies like Goldman Sachs have done—is important, but not enough. Every company has an opportunity—and an obligation—to use its resources to empower female-owned small businesses and entrepreneurs. 

The company I founded, Hepsiburada, has launched a companywide program that helps women entrepreneurs open virtual stores at no cost while receiving a range of benefits such as lower commissions, free cargo shipping for six months, and training in e-commerce. We even design our search results to place women-owned businesses at the top. In just three years, we have increased female merchant participation from 4% of Hepsiburada’s sellers to 20%. 

We are not alone. Some companies, like S&P Global, support women entrepreneurs through mentoring and connecting women to financial services. In April, Accenture and Springboard Enterprises announced a collaboration to increase opportunities for female health tech entrepreneurs by giving them access to relevant experts and helping them secure funding. Yet examples like this are surprisingly hard to find.

The largest e-commerce companies have the scale and influence to make this a priority. I want to offer a friendly challenge to my colleagues at the other big e-commerce companies: Leverage the scale of your platforms to put opportunity for women at your core. The impact will likely be measurable and immediate.

As businesses focus on their fundamentals during the coronavirus crisis, we can’t risk putting gender equality aside. It’s not a “nice to have”; it’s a social and financial imperative.

Hanzade Dogan Boyner is the founder and chairwoman of Istanbul-based Hepsiburada, the largest privately held e-commerce company in the world.

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Lyron Foster is a Hawaii based African American Musician, Author, Actor, Blogger, Filmmaker, Philanthropist and Multinational Serial Tech Entrepreneur.

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