Opinion: How cross-sector collaborations can accelerate progress toward gender equality

Chefsache — which translates as CEO priority — is a group of more than 20 German leaders from industry, science, the public sector, and the media who are committed to making gender balance a top management priority. Photo by: IBM DACH / CC BY-NC

It is increasingly acknowledged that the global gender gap is severe, with major negative economic and social consequences, and that accelerating progress toward gender parity has enormous benefits. Yet progress has been slow. One answer is collaborations — partnerships for parity — but they have to be put together carefully if they are to be effective.

Research by the McKinsey Global Institute found that $12 trillion could be added to global GDP growth each year to 2025 if all countries were to match the progress toward gender parity of the country in their region with the most rapid improvement. This is equivalent to the current GDPs of Japan, Germany, and the United Kingdom combined.

Making progress in bridging pervasive gender gaps and achieving this potential for inclusive growth will require changing our current approach. Take progress toward equality for women in the workplace: on the current trajectory, the World Economic Forum reckons it will take 81 years to close the gap completely. Similarly, MGI notes that the average maternal mortality rate fell from 276 deaths per 100,000 live births in 1995 to 135 in 2013; at this rate of decline, the rate will still be as high as 84 deaths in 2025.

Unmet need for family planning fell only marginally from 12.7 percent to 11.7 percent between 2004 and 2014. At that rate, unmet need would still be 10.6 percent in 2025.  

Partnerships may be the answer to turbo-charging progress. Indeed, this approach is increasingly central to economic development. The 17th Sustainable Development Goal focuses explicitly on increasing the number of multi-stakeholder partnerships and increasing their effectiveness.

Gender inequality lends itself to a collaborative approach given its complex nature, cutting across sectors. Many actors need to pull together to solve issues as broad-ranging as violence against women, access to contraception, and women’s labor-force participation—and not only governments and NGOs, but companies.

Experience tells us that there are many pitfalls when different players start working together on major societal issues. Partnerships need to give all partners a voice, while still functioning effectively, which is not easy. By definition, no single organization or person is responsible for the success of a partnership, which means that there can be significant diffusion of responsibility and a lack of ownership. Many partnerships struggle to secure sufficient resources to ensure that people devote themselves full-time to the issue; when resourcing is ad hoc, progress tends to be slow. All too often, these collaborations start off with good intentions and a big bang of activity only to find energy dissipating. A final common failure is that each partner does what they would have done independently, and partnerships fail to become more than the sum of their parts.

Many partnerships have undertaken steps to overcome such weaknesses and are proving to be effective. The question is how? The first ingredient they have in common, in our experience, is that they have robust leadership from the very top. Chefsache — which translates as CEO priority — is a group of more than 20 German leaders from industry, science, the public sector, and the media who are committed to making gender balance a top management priority (McKinsey & Company is a member of this initiative). Each organization has chosen a top executive or board representative who participates in internal meetings and represents the initiative at external events, thereby serving as a strong role model within their organization and beyond.

Another ingredient of successful partnerships is keeping it simple, with a single measurable goal on which all players can focus, rather than a laundry list of objectives. FP2020, a collaboration among governments, civil-society and multinational organizations, donors, the private sector, and the R&D community all interested in the issue of family planning, has one simple, quantified goal: to give 120 million women and girls access to contraception by 2020 in the world’s 69 poorest countries. At the start of 2016, 30 million additional women and girls had gained access to contraception. Another partnership with a clear goal is DREAMS, which aims to achieve a 40 percent reduction in new HIV/AIDS infections among adolescent girls and young women by 2017 in the 10 countries in Sub-Saharan Africa that accounted for more than half of all new infections among these groups globally in 2015.

Partners do not need to contribute identically — nor should they. The strongest partnerships mobilize a range of distinctive strengths, types of expertise, and resources that unlock the power of the collaboration. Next 3B, a partnership whose initial membership includes Mastercard, Brightstar, Trickle Up, Tata Group companies, Waka Waka, and mobiActivation, aims to realize the economic and social potential of the next three billion people gaining access to the internet. The partnership deliberately utilizes the skills of different partners, each of whom makes a tailored contribution (McKinsey & Company is a member of this initiative). Some fund the effort, some develop apps, some provide training, advice and mentorship, and some are responsible for the last mile “entry point” into communities.

Other features of successful partnerships we have observed include having a clear value proposition for members with early conversations about what each partner is likely to derive from being involved in a particular role; clearly defining the operating model for the partnership, ideally with a small group of people or dedicated secretariat working fulltime on managing and mobilizing activities; and, finally, rigorously monitoring and evaluating progress so that partners know what works and when strategic course corrections are necessary.  

No one type of institution will be able to tackle the highly complex issues of gender inequality.

Only cross-sector partnerships can achieve the step change in progress that is needed. The challenge is to ensure that partnerships for parity are designed and developed in ways that are proven to support sustained, long-term impact.  

Read more Devex coverage on partnerships.

The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the authors

  • Kweilin Ellingrud

    Kweilin Ellingrud is a partner in McKinsey’s Minneapolis office and leads McKinsey’s Closing the Global Gender Gap initiative.
  • Mekala Krishnan

    Mekala Krishnan is a partner in McKinsey’s Mumbai office, a partner of the McKinsey Global Institute, and co-author of McKinsey’s The Power of Parity.
  • Anu Madgavkar

    Anu Madgavkar is a partner with the McKinsey Global Institute, McKinsey’s business and economics research arm. Anu joined MGI in 2011 and leads teams based in India, working on global as well as India-focused research.
  • Tracy Nowski

    Tracy Nowski is an associate partner in McKinsey’s Washington, D.C., office whose work focuses on women's economic empowerment and women's health.