CEO and board member, Organon.

Women’s health and empowerment as a driver of economic stability and growth were critical agenda items at this week’s Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) CEO Summit in San Francisco, where I was the co-chair of the private sector host committee. And the reasons were compelling.

According to APEC, its 21 member economies represent approximately 62% of the world’s GDP. A 2023 report by Asia Matters for America notes that “nearly 58% of women aged 15 and older” who live in the APEC region “participate in the labor force.” That means women in the region are responsible for a substantial amount of the global economy. In this way, women are a powerful economic engine—and improving their health and wellbeing can significantly contribute to their economy and the world as a whole.

Data reinforces that improving women’s health creates an incredible multiplier effect. A 2016 report from the McKinsey Global Institute explained that if women “were to participate in the economy identically to men, they could add as much as $28 trillion or 26 percent to annual global GDP in 2025.” This is roughly the size of the U.S. economy today and serves as further proof that strengthening women’s health provides an economic benefit.

Many of my conversations at the event this week centered on the role the private sector plays in working with the public sector, civil society and others to address the collective priorities of APEC economies. This includes advancing the health of all women and further integrating women in the workforce—because no one entity or sector can advance the health of our 21 economies or the health of our people alone.

Below are a few of the approaches I shared at the CEO Summit on how the private sector can partner with key stakeholders to address the unmet health needs of women and, in turn, build more resilient, prosperous and inclusive economies.

1. Investment In (And Innovation For) Women Must Be A Top Priority

Innovation from the private sector can drive advances for the public good. Yet for too long, innovation in women’s health has not benefited from the resources or investment it deserves.

It is hard to ignore the numbers. One woman dies every two minutes around the world from preventable causes related to pregnancy and childbirth. In the U.S. alone—an APEC economy—women are dying from pregnancy-related causes before, during and after childbirth at a higher rate than other developed nations. Despite these shocking statistics,

the herpes simplex 2 virus received almost double the amount of global R&D funding than post-partum hemorrhage, pre-eclampsia and eclampsia combined.

This is just one example. There are many areas of unmet need and opportunities for impact. The private sector can lead the charge by investing and developing solutions that can significantly improve care, diagnoses and health outcomes for women.

It’s important to develop innovations, but they must exist within a rich ecosystem to unlock their value. In that ecosystem, the private sector, regulators, governments and civil society should be focused on ensuring that innovations are accessible to all. Ultimately, innovation is meaningless if it doesn’t reach people where and when they need it.

2. The Private Sector Can Bring New Solutions To Solve Demographic Challenges

The power of public-private partnership was on display throughout the Summit. The APEC Smart Families Menu of Policy Options for Demographic Resilience is a great example of how the private sector can collaborate with governments and NGOs to bring meaningful new solutions forward and support public health goals.

The Menu is the result of a year-long collaboration among APEC economies, the private sector (including my company) civil society and academia to help health and economic policymakers address demographic trends and the drag these forces exert on their respective economies.

Two trends that pose significant challenges for 17 of the APEC’s 21 economies are falling birth rates, some of which are below the level needed to maintain the population, as well as high rates of unintended pregnancy. These two trends can, and often do, exist in the same economy, reflecting the complexity of reproductive health conditions.

The Menu includes policy recommendations to increase access to fertility planning and contraceptive options. In doing so, more women can participate in the economy, enabling markets to become more inclusive and in the process, grow and thrive.

Our aim is for the private sector to continue working with stakeholders from across the ecosystem to come up with real-world, practical options that demand adoption and that improve the health of and advance economic prosperity for the world’s women.

3. Enabling Change From Within Through Workplace Policies And Culture

Finally, at the CEO Summit, there was much discussion about how businesses can lead through progressive workplace policies. This includes leave and benefits and implementing flexible work arrangements that promote equality and work-life balance.

For example, one in six people globally are impacted by infertility. Yet a 2023 report by Carrot, a global fertility care platform, revealed that only “32% of respondents seeking to grow their families say they are able to afford” fertility treatments. By offering comprehensive fertility benefits and services, such as egg freezing, in-vitro fertilization and time off for treatments, companies can support their employees with family planning priorities while also benefiting their recruitment and retention efforts, as well as overall societal goals. And there has been some progress. In 2022, the number of employers providing fertility benefits increased to 40% (compared to 30% in 2020).

Equally important is creating an environment where both women and men feel comfortable utilizing the benefits offered to them. Many parents cut their parental leave short due to concerns about the consequences for their careers and incomes, despite the health benefits of leave. By adopting family-friendly policies and pairing them with women-friendly corporate cultures, business leaders can help support these larger goals.

A Transformational Societal Opportunity

When policies that empower women to take control of their fertility and family planning decisions are put at the heart of population and development-related programs, the possibilities are endless.

I’m looking forward to seeing how governments adapt and implement new policies—to not only reverse the demographic challenges that are afflicting so many economies, but to help drive innovation and address the unmet health needs for roughly one-third of the world’s women who call the APEC region home.


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