Don’t “Empower” Women To Achieve the Sustainable Development Goals. Do This Instead

While the political activities at the United Nations take center-stage during this General Assembly week in New York, a little farther uptown from the UN headquarters, Columbia University is hosting the International Conference on Sustainable Development for its fifth year. Focusing on development policy and practice, the conference kicked off on Monday with panels and dialogue around key issues related to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

One of the discussions held on day one of ICSD was a conversation around the role of women in achieving the SDGs, with an all-star panel composed of Kathy Calvin, President & CEO of the UN Foundation;
Fiona Dawson, Global President at Mars Foods, Drinks, and Multisales, Mary-Ann Etiebet, Executive Director at Merck for Mothers, Mary Ellen Iskenderian, President and CEO of Women’s World Banking, and Amy Jadesimi, Managing Director and CEO of LADOL.

Gail Klintworth from the Business & Sustainable Development Commission kicked off the discussion talking about how gender-balanced leadership is absolutely essential to achieving the global goals. Women are already engaged and “strongly leading” towards the SDGs she explained, and it’s about recognizing that fact and giving women the place they deserve as part of the monumental task of reaching the SDGs by 2030.

All the women participating in the panel agreed on one, very surprising thing: stop empowering women.

Instead, listen to them.

The work and the leadership is already happening, and we need to go beyond tokenism. One central, practical way in which this needs to happen is to shift our perspective from women as recipients of aid to women as drivers of development. This shift implies an evolution in how we think about women and development. Some years ago, gender mainstreaming — meaning to bring a gender lens to every development effort and to include a gender aspect to programming — became popular, to the benefit of many. Indeed, maternal mortality rates have been decreasing globally, and overall, while progress is uneven, the condition of women is improving.

But the improvement of the condition of women also doesn’t show the full picture, and the women on the panel felt that there was still a long way  to go to achieve meaningful equality for women globally.


The degree to which we talk about women as “recipients” of aid, needing empowerment, and not agents or drivers of development deprives them of opportunities for leadership, for work, for change. Mary-Ann Etiebet from Merck spoke about working with Ugandan midwives, whose challenges tend to center around business resources and access to capital, and how in turn, supporting them through a practical business approach is leading to more room for leadership. One midwife, she explained, was now advocating for the inclusion of midwives into the national healthcare system in Uganda. 

It was particularly fascinating to watch the discussion on the (non-) empowerment of women with an exclusively female panel composed of true powerhouses, who all forged their way despite challenges, despite sexism and the pitfalls of being a successful woman. Amy Jademisi, CEO of Lagos Deep Offshore Logistics Base (LADOL) in Nigeria, spoke with a twang of emotion about having to “exceed expectations” in order to be perceived as “OK.” To the women in the audience, she spoke of having to “play the game”: moderate your words, understand the mindset of the audience you’re playing to, and develop strategies, Jademisi said, clearly striking a chord with those in attendance. 

These women leaders, present on stage to deliver thoughts on the role of women in achieving the SDGs, each gave their perspective on how women can advance their own goals, which is not just a development issue but much deeper than that – this was felt by all those in the auditorium, who during the panel were whistling, clapping in support, and generally much more engaged than most other similar panels. When was the last time a panel on the role of women in development ended with a standing ovation? Jademisi spoke about how just being a woman in business, today, inevitably means being a disruptor. “When I walk in the room, my interlocutors know it’s not going to be the same meeting they already had 10 times today,” she said. And being a disruptor is good in the context of having to achieve very ambitious goals by 2030, where whole sectors – like finance or manufacturing – will “need to be revolutionized”.

Kathy Calvin, from the UN Foundation, also spoke in a personal way about the need for women to go beyond “empowerment”. Calvin, who enraptured the auditorium, reminded the audience that there are more CEOs of Fortune 500 companies named “John” than Fortune 500 CEOs who are women, and that the dynamics around women in business, in power – everywhere in the world – can be difficult to navigate. She brought down the house when, concluding the panel, she told the women in the audience “Challenge yourselves, but don’t worry if it’s not perfect. Men don’t do that.”

The conversation which took place at Columbia is essential. To truly attain gender equality, we must go beyond the perception of women as passive recipients of aid, as needing to be “empowered” by outsiders. Women are already leading, changing, disrupting – just as men are. To achieve the SDGs – not just in poor countries, as Kathy Calvin observed, but all over the world, including in the richest countries – women need to be given their seat at the table, on an equal footing with men – not out of tokenism, but because they should already be there.