Why investing in women in the workplace matters 

Women account for almost 50% of the global workforce (47.7%), yet less than one third (27.1%) occupy managerial or leadership roles, while 48% occupy entry level positions and 23% work part-time compared to almost 30% of men. It is also well documented that, on average, women experience the adverse impacts of business activities disproportionately, are paid less than men, and are more likely to experience abuse or discrimination than their male counterparts. 

On International Women’s Day, as the United Nations urges us to consider how best to invest in women and accelerate progress towards achieving the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal for gender equality by 2030, we look at the issues and examine the role businesses can and should be playing in protecting and respecting the rights of women in the workplace.  

Gender equality is one of the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), established in 2012 in a bid to push the world onto a more sustainable path. Goal 5, describes gender equality not only as a fundamental human right, but as a ‘necessary foundation for a prosperous and sustainable world’. According to the International Monetary Fund, economic empowerment for women boosts productivity, increases economic diversification and improves income inequality. Despite these obvious benefits, according to a World Bank study in 2018, over 2.7 billion women worldwide are legally prevented from having the same jobs as men, 104 economies still have laws preventing women from working in specific jobs and in 18 economies, husbands can still legally prevent their wives from working.  

This study came some seven years after the United Nations published its Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs), setting out global standards for the prevention, mitigation and remediation of adverse human rights impacts. Included in these principles is the call for businesses to “consider effectively issues of gender, vulnerability and/or marginalisation”. Building on this further, the UN published its Gender Dimensions booklet in 2019, urging business of the need to adopt a “gender lens to the UNGPs”, and providing practical measures to adopt applied to each of its guiding principles. 

Despite the many historic and systematic barriers to gender equality, studies show that women’s economic equality is good for business. Organisations providing employment and leadership opportunities for women have seen improvements in organisational effectiveness and growth. 

So, what can companies do to ensure they are doing all that they can to avoid infringing women’s human rights and promote more gender equality? 

Establish policies, processes and programmes to support women 

Companies should start with a review of policies, practices and procedures to determine whether there are any risks of gender bias, discrimination, harassment or negative human rights impacts on women throughout their activities. 

Such a review should evaluate systems and processes carefully to ensure that what is laid out goes beyond box-ticking and symbolic gestures. The growing pressure to report on DEI and gender issues can lead companies to put a few simple measures in place, such as gender quotas, to fulfil these perceived requirements. However, awareness of gender tokenism is high among many stakeholder groups, so care should be taken to avoid taking an overly simplistic approach. A good first step would be to evaluate all areas of the business to assess actual or potential risks of harm or discrimination towards women and make the necessary adjustments to mitigate these risks. 

Best practice recommends that policies and mechanisms should be in place to address gender-specific risks such as sexual harassment, gender-based violence, pregnancy and maternity/paternity-based discrimination, the gender pay gap, and the underrepresentation of women in leadership and management positions. These policies and mechanisms should be underpinned by a corporate commitment to respecting women’s human rights specifically, and to contributing to achieving substantive gender equality. Ideally this should be developed from the bottom-up, while being explicitly supported at management level. Companies can consider a stand-alone document on gender equality or ensure that prominence to such commitments is made clear in a published human rights policy. This can be supplemented by practical support activities for women, for instance regarding their health and maternity, including provisions for menopause, breastfeeding and pregnancy. 

It will also be necessary to allocate sufficient resources and personnel ensuring responsibility for implementation sits at management level, with measurable targets and indicators to make expectations clear and enable progress to be monitored. 

The UN’s Women’s Empowerment Principles (WEPs) is a key resource to help organisations establish high-level corporate leadership for gender equality. The WEPs provide a clear pathway for promoting non-discrimination, ensuring the health, safety and wellbeing of women, promoting professional development, implementing practices that empower women, promoting equality through community initiatives and publicly reporting on progress to achieve gender equality. 

2. Evaluate specific human rights risks for women 

When it comes to human rights, taking a gender-perspective is not an ‘add-on’, it is an integral part of building, embedding and assessing human rights programmes effectively.  This is particularly important for enterprises with global supply chains involving high-risk human rights areas such as agriculture, forestry, fishing, apparel and extractives. Almost one third of women globally are employed in agriculture, exposed to risks of insecure incomes, exploitation, poor working and living conditions and health and safety risks, many of which apply equally to these other high-risk sectors. 

Environmental degradation and climate change also have disproportionate impacts on women and children. Globally women are 14 percent more likely to die during a disaster than men. They also bear the brunt of negative climate impacts, including pollution, as they carry the care burden for children and older family members. 

It is also worth noting that women constitute approximately half of the 250 million migrant workers who live and work outside of their country of birth, with migrant women and girls outnumber men and boys in all regions except Africa and Asia. 

When identifying and assessing adverse human rights impacts, including how impacts are experienced differently by women, businesses should draw on internal and/ or independent external DEI or human rights expertise, as well as consulting potentially affected groups as appropriate. Frameworks such as GoodCorporation’s Human Rights and DEI frameworks can provide a useful guideline for developing and embedding effective DEI and gender equality policies. 

3 .  Mitigate human rights risks for women in the supply chain 

Moving from the procedural to the practical, it is also important to consider the financial investment as a means of tackling gender disparity, particularly when it comes to the supply chain. Across the globe, although 1 in 3 businesses are owned by women, statistics show that women only win an estimated 1% of the procurement spend of large corporations. Moreover, women who do attain work within supply chains are disproportionately represented at the supply chain’s lowest tiers, carrying out lower skilled, lower-paid jobs and operating in smaller businesses.  

One way for businesses to tackle this ongoing issue is by adopting gender-responsive procurement: procurement that improves social and economic outcomes for women by creating more opportunities for women’s businesses and encouraging business practices that contribute to gender equality. Key features of gender-responsive procurement strategies include: – 

  • nurturing open information, 
  • streamlining the contracting process, 
  • simplifying the application process for workers, 
  • limiting contract sizes, 
  • establishing affirmative award criteria, and   
  • paying workers promptly. 

Implementing measures to address the unique social and economic challenges that women encounter is another crucial means of instigating progress. This may involve implementing programmes aimed at improving literacy rates among women in areas with low levels of education or providing training initiatives designed to enhance  female financial independence and promote entrepreneurship.  

However, for businesses to mitigate human rights risks for women in this way, they must first identify what these risks are and the extent to which they are impacting women in their supply chains. Conducting thorough gender sensitive human rights due diligence is an effective way of achieving this. When done correctly, this process will help businesses to accurately identify, assess and prioritise the risks at hand so that a mitigation strategy can be put in place.  

Human rights risks towards women are rarely static, which is why once an initial due diligence assessment has been completed, businesses should continue to monitor and review gender specific trends and patterns throughout their supply chain to account for any further developments.  

4. Ensure grievance mechanisms take the needs and concerns of women into consideration 

Although many businesses are likely to have sound grievance mechanisms in place, there are many issues specific to women that these more ‘general’ grievance mechanisms may fail to address. That is why, to ensure organisations are avoiding the infringement of women’s human rights, it is essential to prioritise the development and implementation of grievance mechanisms that specifically cater to the needs and concerns of women. 

In order to achieve this as effectively as possible, businesses should engage potentially affected women, women’s organisations and women human rights defenders in the design and administration of operational-level grievance mechanisms. Including these women at every stage will ensure that their concerns are covered and effectively handled once the mechanism is rolled out, rather than relying on ‘guess work’ from those who lack the real-life experiences for the situations they are being asked to address.  

The process of development and assessing the effectiveness of grievance mechanisms should identify and address any barriers that hinder women’s accessibility to these channels.  

Independent and gender-sensitive investigations into any grievances should be provided for, with a commitment to addressing power imbalances based on gender during dispute resolution processes. Moreover, gender balance within the bodies responsible for processing complaints is crucial, as it ensures diverse perspectives and fair treatment for those implicated by the complaints made. 

Once these mechanisms and controls are established, businesses should also seek to monitor any trends that appear in the grievances they receive, utilising gender-disaggregated data to identify patterns and address gender-specific issues effectively.  A similar method should also be applied when reviewing the effectiveness of the mechanisms themselves. 

Lastly, it is essential for companies to consider the risk of retaliation against whistleblowers or complainants, especially in patriarchal cultures or environments where women hold less societal power, and take actions to mitigate such risks. Studies have demonstrated that female whistleblowers often face greater backlash than their male counterparts due to the societal belief that ‘women are expected to be compliant, unassertive and not particularly vocal,’ traits that can contradict the core actions of a whistleblower. 

GoodCorporation regularly advises clients on establishing effective grievance mechanisms that can address gender- specific issues. This can include ensuring female representation at the primary point of contact for sharing grievances, or developing an anonymous means of submitting concerns to ensure women feel safe and able to speak up. In addition, organisations should also prioritise regular consultation with women on the grievance mechanism process, making sure their voices are heard, especially regarding topics and risks that are relevant to them. 

5. Take account of business impacts on women in local communities 

A further step that businesses can take to bolster gender-based human rights throughout their organisation is to focus on the empowerment and support of women in their local communities. GoodCorporation’s Community Rights Framework, recommends a number of specific steps to ensure that community engagement is carried out in a gender-sensitive manner and prioritises the participation of women in the consultation process. This is especially important when conducting discussions on land acquisitions and resettlements in local communities, to ensure that women’s voices are heard and their needs incorporated into any resulting agreements.  

When providing advice on this process, we also encourage businesses to look at their social investment strategies. With one article from earlier this year reporting that ‘all-female-founded businesses in the UK receive only 2% of equity investment,’ investing in women owned enterprises is a great way to address this imbalance and prioritise gender inclusivity. 

Finally, organisations should consider implementing local content policies that promote the employment of women from local communities or support development of women-owned businesses over foreign goods and services providers.

GoodCorporation’s Community Rights Framework can aid organisations in the development of such steps, providing strategic and practical advice on best practice for deploying community engagement policies and practices. 

How GoodCorporation can help 

With over 20 years of experience, GoodCorporation has honed a comprehensive approach to assisting companies in implementing gender-inclusive human rights strategies, policies and processes. Our Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) Framework is central to this effort. In addition to aiding the implementation of gender-based human rights within organisations, this framework also supports the development of management policies, strategies, and processes applicable to all protected characteristics, including race, ethnicity and social origin, acting as a one-stop-shop for companies looking to implement DEI related responsible management practices.

Furthermore, our various frameworks on human rights provide companies with a robust starting point when seeking to develop, embed or assess their approach to this vital topic. Get in touch to find out more about our approach and learn how we can support your organisation with gender-inclusive human rights today.