Women play critical roles in food systems—as producers, processors, traders, consumers, scientists, and policy makers. Women represent on average 43% of the agricultural labor force globally and are essential agents of change in ensuring the shift to more efficient and climate-resilient food systems. The empowerment of women is associated with improved food security, better management of climate change impacts and better nutrition for women and their households and communities.
However, women’s voices are often not often heard in processes related to food systems transformation. Not only are women poorly represented in food systems organizations from farmers’ groups to global food companies, but they are also underrepresented in the policy setting and political arena. This lack of voice and representation is a human rights issue, and often leads to subpar policies, investments and programs that do not address women’s specific priorities and constraints or advance the goal of gender equality.
The September UN Food Systems Summit is a critical inflection point for setting a new path towards women’s empowerment and gender equality. Hundreds of policymakers, development practitioners, and agribusiness leaders will gather to commit to bold actions for transforming food systems. To drive this change and generate accountability for these commitments, the summit’s Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment Cross Cutting Lever is proposing the Global Food Systems 5050 initiative.
While previous gender equality efforts have focused on the empowerment of women as producers, as entrepreneurs, or as consumers, this new initiative shifts the focus to organizations—where the potential for impact is even greater in terms of empowering large numbers of women. It shifts the focus from “fixing women” to fixing the inequalities in the systems in which women operate, including organizational systems.
The initiative seeks to rally hundreds of organizations working in food systems to make commitments to elevating women’s voices and representation, achieving gender parity in leadership, and gender equality both in their organizational cultures and policies and their programs. Central to these efforts will be an index that measures organizational performance on gender equality.
The voices of women’s rights organizations and feminists must be amplified in food systems. Organizations now have a huge opportunity to step up, commit, and act on women’s empowerment and gender equality to make food systems equitable. Food systems can benefit women in many ways: Through their participation in various system nodes, including production, processing, and trading; and by providing much needed jobs, increasing women’s incomes, and providing nutritious and healthy foods.
Food Systems 5050 is inspired by Global Health 5050, an independent research initiative that informs, inspires, and incites action and accountability for gender equality and health equity. The Global Health 5050 publishes an annual index that evaluates more than 200 organizations operating in global health, including private sector companies, non-profits, and research organizations. The index covers four key areas: Commitments to equity; existence of workplace gender equality and diversity policies; gender and geographical balance in global health leadership positions; and whether gender is addressed in health policies and programs.
The 2021 index shows that although there still a long way to go, surveyed organizations have an increased commitment to gender equality, and are becoming more transparent about their policies on shaping diverse, inclusive, and equitable working environments. Compared to 2018, in 2020 24% more organizations had workplace gender equality plans, 15% more had senior leadership teams and 11% more had governing bodies composed of at least one third women members. The public nature of the index allows for sharing best practices and for motivating organizations to make improvements.
The Global Food Systems 5050 Index aims to work with more than 200 food systems organizations—producer organizations, food companies, global non-profits, and research institutions—to assess annually their commitment and performance in three key areas of gender equality and women’s empowerment:
- A commitment to enhanced women’s representation, voice, and leadership. Women’s representation in leadership has an impact on organizational performance. Fortune 500 companies with three or more women on their boards significantly outperformed those with low representation, by 84% on return on sales, by 60% on return on invested capital, and by 46% on return on equity.
- A commitment to gender equality in objectives and activities. Food systems and gender equality are closely interconnected. Women’s agency, differences in access to and control over resources, gendered social norms, and existing policies and governance all influence how men and women participate in and benefit from food systems, leading to differences in overall outcomes. To ensure food systems are just and equitable, organizations should have a focus on gender equality and on empowering women and girls. Evidence shows that when women are empowered, agricultural productivity increases and food and nutrition security improve. Yet gender is not always included in food systems interventions. For example, a recent analysis by CARE showed that of 73 global organizational reports proposing solutions to address hunger crises amid the COVID-19 pandemic, nearly half—46%—did not refer to women and girls at all; none consistently analyzed or reflected the gendered effects of the pandemic and hunger crises; and less than 7% proposed concrete actions to resolve the gender inequalities crippling food systems—the rest overlooked or ignored women and girls.
- A commitment to pursue gender equality within the culture and policies of the organization. Addressing and improving organizational culture and climate in science and food systems is essential if women are to feel welcome, safe, supported, successful, and respected. Effective strategies include workplace policies aimed at diverse groups, developing core competencies in all staff on equity principles, and inclusive leadership.
Addressing these three aspects of gender equality is important for empowering women and for ensuring they benefit, but can also improve the performance of organizations in terms of their bottom line, expanding their market base, and making a greater impact in the communities and markets where they work.
The Global Food Systems 5050 Index can be a important tool for building gender equity around the world. But we are just beginning to develop the project. At the moment, two key things are needed: Funders to support the index’s development, and a critical mass of food systems organizations (or first adopters) willing to use it.
Jemimah Njuki is IFPRI’s Director for Africa and Custodian of the UN Food Systems Summit Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment Cross-Cutting Change Lever.
The Global Food Systems 5050 Initiative: Tracking and promoting progress on gender equality amid food systems transformation
May 3, 2021