The Business Fights Poverty lunch in NYC provided an opportunity to explore how companies can address gender equality challenges through their business aware practices. The discussion was focussed on the question ‘Why is SDG 5* for gender equality reportedly off-track and what can companies do differently to accelerate progress’?
This year, the first SDG Gender Index, produced by Equal Measures 2030, found that 2.8bn women and girls are living in countries that are ‘failing’ or ‘barely passing’ on gender equality, and no country is on track to achieve full gender equality by 2030. Even the higher-scoring countries were unable to make significant progress on complex issues like climate change, gender budgeting and public services, equal representation in leadership positions, gender pay gaps, or gender-based violence.
Why is progress towards gender equality so slow, and what can business do to overcome these barriers?
Despite the pervasive nature of gender inequality, there is reluctance to acknowledge a problem exists in some sectors. Gathering sex disaggregated data on key indicators of gender equality within an organization can help illustrate the problem and create an open conversation.
Business has work to do to clearly articulate the incentives for change, in order to help all employees and stakeholders to understand how they can personally benefit from tackling gender inequality. These conversations must cut across gender and other groups, so that all people recognise their own vested interest in bringing about change. In addition to emphasising the incentives, participants at the lunch also questioned whether there are adequate consequences for not exhibiting good behavior on these issues. For example, poor performance on gender equality is often not reflected in managers’ bonuses.
Maximum progress can only be achieved when everyone plays their part, and more needs to be done to make sure that the conversation is inclusive. Unfortunately, SDG 5 fails to recognise the importance of including men as allies for gender equality and all too often diversity conversations are limited to women.Gender equality is not just a woman’s issue: men also suffer from gender-based stereotyping. Men often hold significant power within businesses, and so they are well-positioned to empower women and tackle structural inequality throughout the organization.
In addition to engaging men as allies, it is important to recognise the interrelated nature of the barriers to gender-equality. Women of colour for example face a double burden of racism and sexism. Failure to take a more intersectional approach to gender equality could result in leaving ethnic and other minorities behind. This requires us to invite people from a wide range of backgrounds and perspectives to the table, ensuring that everyone within the organization is given a voice within the change process.
How can business accelerate progress on gender equality?
There are ever-increasing business reasons to accelerate progress. The growing interest of impact investors is welcome - for example, Bloomberg now track the gender equality progress of 230 companies, Investor scrutiny raises the profile of gender equality as a material consideration for companies. Gender equality also matters to clients and customers, and also has positive impacts on talent acquisition and retention.
Some of our participants suggested that it was time to explore the language of public health to help accelerate change. The AXE/Promundo partnership was cited as an example. Their research has found that harmful masculine stereotypes cost the US, Mexico and UK $20bn per year. This includes costs associated with traffic accidents, suicide, depression, sexual violence, bullying and violence, and binge drinking.
Major companies can harness their advertising power. Companies like Unilever are some of the world’s largest advertisers, and are using brand campaigns as a powerful lever to transform societal attitudes and individual behaviour. There are also valuable lessons to be learnt and built upon from social movements like #MeToo.
Companies can also leverage their supply chains to accelerate women’s economic participation and empowerment. Encouraging more companies to source from women-led suppliers could be a quick win to move billions of dollars into women's hands in our lifetime.
There is clearly much to do to achieve gender equality, and business has an important role to play. Business can start by identifying the harm done by gender inequality to our people and organizations, articulating the benefits of gender equality for all, and convening inclusive conversations to design strategies for action which address the complex nature of the problem. Business can also make an impact beyond our own organizations, leveraging our networks - particularly advertising activities and supply chains - to accelerate progress.
Business Fights Poverty has instigated Challenges to tackle two of the biggest barriers to progress - namely, how business can play a role in tackling gender based violence and how business can advance gender equality through the value chain by engaging men as allies. Both Challenges emphasise the importance of more inclusive and diverse workplaces. If you would like to share your experience or find out more about how you can get involved, please get in touch.
*Sustainable Development Goal 5 is a commitment by the countries of the United Nations to “Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls” by 2030. It encompasses broad objectives: