Tag Archives: gender

Why does business still undervalue women?


By Rachel Noble and John Morrison

(kindly reproduced from www.ihrb.org)

A new report by ActionAid UK, Close the Gap!, finds that women’s wages and labour market participation relative to men’s cost women in developing countries an astounding US$9 trillion every year. This despite unprecedented economic opportunities opening up for many women as a result of expanding global supply chains, equal rights for women in many countries’ constitutions, and widespread ratification of international labour standards including equal pay for work of equal value.

It would be unfair to blame business alone for this state of affairs: discrimination reflects the norms prevalent in wider society. The scale and persistence of women’s economic inequality starkly illustrate the power of prevailing social norms, which discriminate against women. Such norms place inherently lesser value on the work women undertake, denigrate and deny women’s role in decision-making, and curtail women’s opportunities to fulfil their potential and realise their rights throughout their lives.

Discrimination against women occurs at every level of society, from institutions at local to global level, and within the social, cultural, political and economic spheres. It has led to an economic order that systematically exploits women, and one that is further confounded by flawed economic policies and corporate practices that depend upon the subsidy of women’s cheap labour to boost profits, economies and GDP. This labour includes the hugely disproportionate amount of care work women are expected to undertake – caring for children, the sick and the elderly, preparing food and fetching water – so vital to our social fabric and for healthy workforces. Such care work is all the more demanding in contexts of poverty, while further curtailing women’s opportunities to secure regular, decent work.

As a result, women constitute some 60% of the world’s poor. They are vastly over-represented in the lowest paid, precarious jobs, enduring degrading working and living conditions, with little access to social protection or to justice where rights violations occur. Such a system is both unjust and socially and economically unsustainable, not least because businesses are missing a huge pool of potential talent by under-employing and underinvesting in half of their workers. The ILO estimates that an additional $1.6 trillion could be generated in global output by reducing the employment gap between women and men, which could help eradicate poverty and drive prosperity for all.

Businesses, whether small companies or multinationals with supply chains spanning continents – do not operate in a vacuum. They are situated within societies and, as such, tend to reflect and reinforce prevailing social norms, which combine with harmful economic policies and further drive women to the bottom of the pile.

So what should business do? Following national laws is the first step and most countries (but by certainly not all – around 90% still have at least one law restricting women economically,) outlaw overt discriminatory practices relating to recruitment and pay. However, discrimination is much more subtle and pervades every society at every level. Women are vastly underrepresented in the Board Room in every country, despite evidence that the financial returns for companies with three or more women on their boards are better than those lacking women at the top. And women were again a small minority on panels at the World Economic Forum in Davos last week.

Changing such patterns of behaviour requires much greater awareness and action by both men and women – as the “No thanks to all male panels” campaigns in Norway, Sweden and Australia have been demonstrating. Businesses can also introduce policies to help redress the balance, such as offering flexible work and shared parental leave to allow women and men to balance caring responsibilities, and pay their taxes to pay for public services, so vital to reducing the burden of care. They can seek to ensure women working in their supply chains have secure contracts, earn a living wage, are entitled to maternity leave and sick pay, and – vitally – have the right to engage in collective bargaining to help safeguard their rights.

Another issue which is perhaps less common in the boardroom but much more prevalent in supply chains is that of sexual violence. Human Rights Watch has estimated that many thousands of women have been abused in the US agricultural sector – many of them migrant workers and many of the cases unreported. Sexual violence is endemic in agriculture in many parts of the world, as cases in India and East Africa suggest. Indeed, violence against women in the world of work, including sexual violence, is so widespread across so many sectors that the ILO and trade unions are pushing for a new ILO Convention on Gender Based Violence.

The approach taken by business needs to be one of due diligence: preventing and mitigating abuse and discrimination as much as possible but also providing adequate remedies when harm has occurred, and cooperating fully with legal cases which attempt to give victims redress for harm done.

But there is one game-changer that should not be overlooked. Businesses still tend to wait until they find evidence of discrimination or abuse before acting. This often means abuse goes undiscovered and underreported. Widespread discrimination against women in a society is likely also to be found in the workplace. If it is known that women workers are particularly vulnerable to exploitation – be it in agriculture, domestic work or the apparel sector – then businesses should not wait for evidence before taking action. Cases suggest that in countries where abuse is most endemic, women are least likely to report abuse to the company, often fearing repercussions if they do or lacking faith that the business can actually do much about it. So corporate human rights due diligence in relation to a known risk such as gender-based discrimination means being proactive and using all available leverage to increase transparency and accountability of risk-factors. Businesses that do not act will one day find themselves in court, but long before that their social license should be challenged by women and men everywhere.

Business is clearly an important actor, but it is not the only one. Some of the worst discrimination is in the informal sector or the home. Transforming the status quo requires communities, civil society and government to act to change societal norms, to rethink economic policies, strengthen legislation, ensure its effective implementation to create a level playing field for all, and ensure proper accountability mechanisms. Women can be a powerful force for change as has been shown countless times. They just need business to get on board.

Rachel Noble is the Women’s Rights Policy Adviser & Research Officer, ActionAid UK

John Morrison is Executive Director of the Institute for Human Rights and Business


Men. Just say no, politely…

Picture 14

No more male-only panels or boards

Gender inequality is returning in new forms, and of course in most places it never went away.

A recent debate in the UK has been about whether a football player, who is a convicted rapist, should be allowed to return to his former football club after serving his prison term.  For some, this has reaffirmed a view that once the letter of the law has been followed, there is no further ethical issue. Curious. Many commentators, mostly male but not exclusively, cannot accept that such a football player has lost his social licence for a high-profile job which provides a role model to many young men (and women). He could not conceivably run in politics and therefore nor should he run for any other position in public life where his behaviour influences others.  This should not have to be an issue of legislation, but one of good governance and sound decision-making by the Boards of sporting bodies and football clubs.

You think I am over-reacting? Then ask yourself why so few British footballers are openly gay, when there must be hundreds who are. Its a different issue but the answer is the same. Culture plays a very significant role in hiding human rights abuse, whether it be in society, business or sport (don’t get me started on this week’s FIFA report).

The revelations about how so many British celebrities secretly behaved in the 1970s and 1980s have not yet served as enough of a wake up call. Now there are even allegations of murders in political cover-ups perhaps the biggest revelations are yet to come.

Even more pernicious are the hateful tweets that female BBC journalists received this week after robustly questioning a British comedian who tells rape jokes. Even some of the liberal left make light of sexual violence, defending the right of Julian Assange not to face justice in Sweden for charges of alleged sexual assault. Incredible. This is not to mention the everyday sexual violence that women face all around the world and the bravery of women who stand up to this.

If you are a man, like me (or unlike me it doesn’t matter), and wonder what you can do about the current state of affairs, here is one small example – inspired by our Scandinavian and Australian brothers. The next time you are invited to speak at an event and you the notice that the panel contains not a single representative of a non-male gender (and gender is more than a binary), then do not accept to speak. Don’t say “no” in a horrible way, but instead suggest the very many well-qualified non-male alternatives to yourself and try to persuade the organizers to invite them instead. I know this is tough advice for any young male trying to get into public life, but believe me a male-dominated public life is not worth the effort (have you ever been to a golf club AGM?).

It might not surprise you that Norway and Sweden have led the way with the “Equalisters” campaigners and the “Men Say No thanks” campaign #tackanej (in Sweden) and #takknei (in Norway). You might be more surprised that Australian men are also getting active. What about the rest of us?

Much less seems to be happening in my own country, the UK, but am pleased to see that the NGO Article 36 raised the issue of gender discrimination in policy making.  In May 2014 at the meeting of the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW) at the United Nations, 17 experts were invited to speak and all 17 were men. Nothing more macho than lethal weapons it would seem.

And we all know that only a handful of FTSE-100 or Fortune-500 companies have female CEOs, or Board Chairs. But how many of us have really tried to do anything about it? The change starts with each of us in the day to day decisions we each make.

Of course it is more than gender – it is fundamentally about power. When sitting at the annual stakeholder meeting of a large European multinational I couldn’t help noticing that of the 300 people in the room, 95% were men. But equally as noticeable was that 99% were white, and no one removed their suit jackets (all uniformly black, the jackets that is) until the “chairman” of the Board had done so – oh yes, the chairman was a man. As power gradients steepen, diversity decreases.

You will meet many women working in CSR roles in business, but far fewer in risk management or strategic roles. You might think that you have gender and ethnic diversity sitting on a panel in London, Bogota or Delhi, only to find out at closer inspection that you are sitting exclusively with the elite 1%. Class or Caste discrimination is amongst the most invisible and pernicious but anyone with a working class background will know what I mean here.

So why this diatribe you might ask? Is this just Morrison being all politically correct all of a sudden.  Well I guess we all have the power to say “No thanks”. We might not sit in positions of power, on the boards of multinationals or in the inner sanctums of FIFA, but we can all say “no thanks” to many things and lets start with gender inequality.