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Big firms join forces for women's equality

Britain's Oxford University has teamed up with nine of the world's biggest companies, including Walmart and Coca-Cola, to increase women's financial clout by sharing success stories.

The Global Business Coalition for Women's Economic Empowerment (GBC4WEE) initiative, launched on Thursday, is the brainchild of Linda Scott, one of the world's top thinkers on women's entrepreneurship.

"The whole agenda would move more quickly if these players were sharing with each other what they were learning," Scott, of Oxford University's Said Business School, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

"These companies are far more than the people they employ or their supply chains. They are huge global systems that include everything from production to transportation, they go from farms to laboratories, from offices to factories.

"If we don't learn to work within those systems, we have really missed a bet on making the best use of our resources in solving an important global problem," she said.

Data shows that about half of the world's women are in the labour force compared with about 75 per cent of men, hold less senior roles and earn on average 60 to 75 per cent of what men make.

But studies repeatedly show that more women working accelerates economic growth, while women also invest more of their income into families to educate children and end poverty.

"If women have the money and freedom to choose how to spend money, they will spend it on the health, nutrition and schooling of their children - and this has implications for long-term economic prosperity," Scott said.

Investment bank Goldman Sachs, food giant Mondelez International, auditor PricewaterhouseCoopers, retailer Marks & Spencer and the ExxonMobil Foundation also joined the coalition.

Their flagship initiatives include bringing women-owned businesses into their supply chains, boosting their access to finance and technology and improving female farmers' yields.

One success story is Goldman Sachs' decade-old 10,000 Women program, that aims to help some 100,000 women entrepreneurs in emerging markets get more capital, as well as business education and mentoring.

It said women who graduated from the program doubled the size of their workforce and increased revenues almost fivefold within 18 months.

Sam Smethers, who heads the Fawcett Society, a British women's rights group, welcomed the news.

"It needs to be meaningful and lasting so that women's lives are genuinely transformed," she added in emailed comments.