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Belinda Stronach gives the opening address at the inaugural G(irls)20 Summit in Toronto, June 16, 2010. More corporate sponsors have signed on for this year's event in Mexico.

Adrien Veczan/The Canadian Press/Adrien Veczan/The Canadian Press

For the third year in a row, the Canadian-born initiative G(irls)20 is creating a shadow summit before the meeting of the G20 leaders – this time in Mexico. The summit gathers young female delegates from around the world to focus on how empowering girls and women can lead to significant public good.

But the private sector is paying attention, too. Since the first G(irls)20 summit was held in Toronto, the list of big-name business sponsors has doubled: from seven in 2010 to 14 this year.

"When you have companies of this calibre join in the momentum, it sends a very strong message that this is something that is increasing," said founder Farah Mohamed.

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Businesses have good reason to pay attention: Among Fortune 500 companies, those with the most female board members financially outperform those with the fewest, according to research group Catalyst. The top quartile of those companies in terms of number of women on the board, enjoyed 16-per-cent higher return on sales (ROS) and 26-per-cent higher return on invested capital (ROIC) numbers on average over a five-year period than the bottom quartile with the fewest women on the board. Those with no women on the board at all fell even further behind. Their return on sales was 84-per-cent lower than companies with three or more women on the board; their return on invested capital was 60-per-cent lower; and their return on equity was 46-per-cent lower.

Businesses are recognizing the need to invest in girls and women. The Globe spoke to three of the summit's big sponsors to find out their business case for focusing on this cause.

THE INDUSTRY: Technology

THE ISSUE: Recruitment

Traditionally, the tech industry has had a hard time finding as many women as men to fill jobs, said Sabrina Geremia, a sales leader at Google Canada.

In order to address this, the company launched the Women@Google program, which includes 4,000 employees in Asia, Europe and the Americas. It focuses on leadership and career development for women, both through in-house mentoring programs and sponsoring "high-potential female talent" to take courses outside the workplace to develop their skills. Feeling that the summit was a good fit with this existing initiative, Ms. Geremia brought the company's attention to G(irls)20 in 2009, and it has been a sponsor ever since.

"Especially because we're a technology-related company, women are less likely to join … It's getting better. We have a representation of women in our work force. We want to encourage them to get into technology and then to stay and be successful."

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That's important for the business, Ms. Geremia said, because a diverse work force leads to better product development and different sales strategies that have an impact on profits in the long term.


THE ISSUE: Retention

With women making up more than 50 per cent of law school graduates, the legal profession has had no trouble attracting female employees. The bigger problem is keeping them, said Ava Yaskiel, a partner in the Toronto office of Norton Rose, who is on the summit's advisory board.

A presence in 40 countries and Canada's third-biggest law firm, more than half of Norton Rose's hires are women – but across the firm globally, only 44 per cent of employees are female because women don't always stay. There are a variety of factors, including that child-bearing years generally come when they are on partnership track.

The firm has joined programs across Canada, including Ontario's Justicia project, that address retention of female lawyers. Among other initiatives, the firm has also started mentorship programs for women and revised its maternity and parental leave policies to give better benefits.

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"It's not good to invest time and energy and training and client relationships, in having smart people around who don't ultimately stay for the long term," Ms. Yaskiel said. "It's a cost to the business. We lose a big benefit from people leaving too early who would otherwise be good partners. … More and more women in the business world are taking on senior positions. There will be more demand to work with women professionals, or at least to question if a team is presented, why there isn't more of a balance there with women. I know I would, if I was on the outside. This is an issue in the industry. Clients are looking for diversity."

THE INDUSTRY: Automotive

THE ISSUE: Marketing

Nissan is sponsoring the summit for the first time this year. It sees a direct link between the money it spends on this type of initiative and the company's bottom line, said Mayra Gonzalez, customer quality and dealer network development director for Nissan in Latin America, and president of Nissan's diversity committee in Mexico.

It is particularly important from a marketing perspective. In Mexico, according to the company's research, 70 per cent of the car-buying decisions are made by women, and they notice when their purchasing power is not reflected in the companies that sell to them.

"Companies that leverage diversity enjoy a competitive advantage over other companies that don't. The payoff is really big," she said. "… You increase brand loyalty and trust among customers, and sustain market share … It is not [just]the right thing to do, to bring more women into the car industry. It's the smart thing to do."

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The company has been focused on this issue. It has diversity councils, in which executives in each region participate.

While women hold positions of power at the company, there are still areas where Nissan struggles with recruitment and retention. Nissan is far from the number it wants to achieve in terms of women on its factory floors, Ms. Gonzalez said, but it is making progress.

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