Why Gender Inequality In Your Supply Chains Matters – And What You Can Do About It

By Jiselle Steele, Private Sector Gender Advisor, Oxfam Business Advisory Service

Jiselle Steele, Oxfam’s Private Sector Gender Advisor, shares insights from recent Oxfam research revealing the gender discrimination and inequality affecting workers and looks at what lessons can be learned so that you can take action. 

Gender inequality in global supply chains is not a new issue for the private sector though the ongoing impact of Covid-19 has seen conditions worsen for workers, particularly women who are often found in the most insecure and lowest paid jobs. The most recent Oxfam Behind the Barcodes report, ‘Not In This Together – How supermarkets became pandemic winners while women are losing out’ highlights the exploitation, gender inequality and discrimination affecting workers in food supply chains.

However, the issues raised in the report are not unique to supermarkets and provide some valuable lessons for other private sector companies that need to take action and respond to gender inequality in their supply chains.

Overall Covid-19 has cost global workers $3.7 trillion in lost income. This exacerbates existing structural gender inequalities and makes the situation even more dire for women workers and farmers. However, Oxfam’s research reveals evidence that women workers, who were already earning less, have lost more income than men during the pandemic.

This is in stark contrast to those at the other end of their supply chains where profits rose for the biggest retailers during the crisis. Like-for-like food sales, excluding fuel, across listed retailers in the Oxfam Behind the Barcodes Scorecard grew by 11.1% on average during the second to fourth quarter of 2020, up from just 1.6% sales growth from the same period in 2019. Whilst total dividends distributed to shareholders increased by 123%, from about $10bn to $22.3bn between 2019 and 2020.

Despite their successes, few of the supermarkets featured in Oxfam’s research have taken the opportunity to invest in longer-term supply chain improvements to benefit the food producers and workers facing extreme hardship as a result of the pandemic, meaning the existing inequality gaps will continue to grow unless urgent action is taken. Oxfam has made some key recommendations for food retailers to begin to address gender inequality in their global supply chains, which can also be taken forward by companies in other sectors:

  • Commit to publish a comprehensive gender policy and action plan with timebound targets that contribute to ensuring that women’s rights are respected. Collecting and disclosing data disaggregated by gender to identify where there are particular issues in the supply chain and to monitor progress to address these challenges is an essential part of this activity.
  • Embed a gendered analysis within human rights due diligence (HRDD) approaches, focusing on the impact of supply chain operations on women (paid and unpaid) and taking deliberate action to promptly address actual and potential human rights violations and respect workers’ rights.
  • Ensure there is access to gender-sensitive grievance mechanisms for workers in all high-risk supply chains. It is vital to make sure that there are appropriate channels for women and marginalised groups to be heard and to raise issues which affect the safety and well-being of all workers.
  • Lead by example and advocate to address the root causes of gender inequality within supply chains, and report annually about efforts and outcomes. Engage directly with women workers as well as other stakeholders such as trade unions, women’s rights organisations, NGOs, companies, suppliers and national government and work collaboratively to develop solutions that that aim to improve the livelihoods and human rights of workers.

Although there is a significant amount of work to be done to improve the circumstances for women in global supply chains, by acting now and implementing the recommended activities from the Oxfam Behind the Barcodes report, private sector companies have the opportunity to lead the step change needed to tackle inequality, close gender gaps and support worker well-being.

The Oxfam Business Advisory Service supports companies to improve their impact in global supply chains. We enable businesses to access the wealth of experience and expertise within Oxfam to strengthen corporate human rights, labour rights and gender strategies, policies, implementation and impact. For more information contact Jiselle Steele at js******@ox***.uk

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