There is growing global momentum in the amplification of women’s voices, across sectors, cultures and regions of the world. Pro-women and gender equality discourse has emerged in the form of:

• social movements such as #MeToo and #TimesUp

• journalism highlighting gender pay gaps worldwide

• policy agendas that prioritize gender mainstreaming and the girl child

• sex-disaggregated scientific data across sectors

• a tipping point in the business world through an increased understanding of the economic value that women bring.

Light is being shed on the untapped power of women in society and business

In 2015, McKinsey Global Institute Report stated that “$12 trillion could be added to global GDP by 2025 by advancing women’s equality”, while a 2016 University of California Davis study revealed that “big California companies with at least some women at the top performed considerably better than ones with mostly male boards and executives”. Fortune echoed these sentiments by stating that “women CEOs in the Fortune 1000 drive three times the returns as S&P 500 enterprises run predominantly by men”. However, according to a 2017 Harvard Business Review study, only 6.4% of Fortune 500 companies are run by female CEOs, and despite their potential, women do not often see themselves as future CEOs. Historically, there has been a clear representation gap and sub-optimal pipeline to encourage and equip the female business leaders of tomorrow.

Those women who comprise the 6.4% are hallmark leaders such as General Motors’ CEO, Mary Barra, who transformed the company by cutting unprofitable ventures and investing in the future; and Virginie Morgon, CEO of the top-performing private equity firm Eurazeo, who “helped steward [the company] to stock market returns of about 20% annually over the past five years, trouncing both the S&P 500 and bigger players like Apollo, Blackstone and KKR”.

However, with the recent news that Pepsi Co’s CEO, Indra Nooyi, is stepping down in October, there are “only 24 women leading Fortune 500 companies, after Beth Ford became the CEO of Land O'Lakes”. This information has catalyzed a new wave of discourse around women leaders in business, which poses questions such as “Why are so few women are heading major companies?” and “Why are so many female CEOs leaving?

 Jasmine Burton speaks at the Stockholm International World Water Week in 2017.
Jasmine Burton speaks at the Stockholm International World Water Week in 2017.
Image: SIWI

Beyond the scope of Fortune 500 are the entrepreneurs – the Sara Blakelys and Arianna Huffingtons of the world – working in various sectors across the globe. Forbes reported in 2017 that female entrepreneurship was on the rise.

A slow movement from awareness to action

Unlocking the potential of the world’s women can transform society and develop new markets. This critical mass in support of women in business was felt in my sector (water, sanitation and hygiene sector, or WASH) at the 2018 World Economic Forum’s CEO convening in Davos, Switzerland. This year, there was not only a notable rise in female CEO representation, but also a unified consensus in the need for investing in and empowering more female business leaders, which resulted in gender equality being placed at the top of the globlal agenda.

At the same time, Paul Polman, the CEO of Unilever, stated that “smart businesses will recognize that Sustainable Development Goal 6 [‘Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all’] needs to be a key part of their growth strategy”, in support of the Toilet Board Coalition’s attempts to activate the sanitation economy – a robust marketplace of sanitation products, services and data.

 An infographic representing the sanitation economy.
An infographic representing the sanitation economy.
Image: Toilet Board Coalition

As the founder/president of Wish for WASH, communications manager of the Toilet Board Coalition, and communications co-manager of the Atlanta Global Shapers Hub, I have greatly benefited from these two outcomes from Davos earlier this year – as has the WASH sector at large.

Women and WASH

Integrating women’s preferences and perspectives is particularly important in the WASH sector, as noted in the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goal 6, which states the need for “special attention [to] the needs of women and girls and those in vulnerable situations”. This is because the global sanitation crisis – due to which 2.3 billion people today do not have access to a safe and hygienic toilet – disproportionately hinders the livelihoods and advancement of women. However, a number of notable entrepreneurial outfits are in operation worldwide – many of which feature high-ranking women. These include:

SOIL, in Haiti, which transforms human waste into organic fertilizer via ecological container-based sanitation.

XRunner, in Peru, which provides hygienic in-home sanitation by combining a portable dry toilet, a weekly pick-up system and high-quality customer care.

Loowatt, in England, which has designed an innovative toilet that locks in odour without water or chemicals

Toilet Integration, in India, which modifies old municipal buses into mobile public toilet facilities for women.

Sanergy, in Kenya, which installs and services a network of cartridge-based sanitation units called Fresh Life Toilets, safely collects the waste from the toilets within the communities and converts it into useful end-products for use as organic fertiliser.

Sanivation, in Kenya, which operates as a household toilet and waste-to-energy biofuel business to provide high-quality fuel sources commercially.

Mosan, in Guatemala, which provides a transportable dry toilet and ecological sanitation service to densely populated settlements

 The circular sanitation economy.
The circular sanitation economy.
Image: Toilet Board Coalition

The UN recently declared that the world is not on target to meet its water and sanitation goals. Perhaps the inclusion of more women’s voices and the nurturing of more female entrepreneurs and business leaders will help put us back on track. Women in the WASH sector are just some of the many individuals who could be supported by our current wave of gender equality discourse to drive innovation, create new markets and devise new sustainable revenue streams, all while solving the grand challenge of universal access to improved sanitation for all.

The key is to create better enabling environments – through continued social movements, gender parity in journalism, pro-women policy agendas both globally and in the workplace, and sex-disaggregated data collection – in which women business leaders and entrepreneurs in the sanitation sector and at large not only thrive but transform the world by fully maximizing the opportunities afforded by the fourth industrial revolution. As a sanitation entrepreneur myself, the thought of this makes me smile.