Equality and non-discrimination are core human rights concepts; everyone should be treated equally, no matter what their status. Notably, however, many human rights impacts stemming from business activities are ‘gendered’ in that they affect women and men, boys and girls, differently. Frequently, women and girls bear a disproportionate burden of negative social, economic, and environmental impacts while having less access to benefits such as job creation, supply contracts, or compensation, which may be generated by private sector development.
Negative gender stereotypes reinforce and perpetuate historical and structural patterns of discrimination, which undermine women’s ability to improve their socio-economic conditions. In 155 out of 173 economies, at least one gender-based legal restriction exists on women’s employment and entrepreneurship (World Bank). Globally, women only make 77 cents for every dollar men earn (UN Women). This has given rise to a ‘gender pay gap’ of 23% worldwide. One reason for this gap is occupational segregation. This can be vertical, whereby women and men tend towards different industries, and industries dominated by women typically earn less. It can also be horizontal, in that within those industries, women occupy positions of with lower salaries and less chance of promotion than men (Investing in Women’s Employment). Women are underrepresented in senior positions within both public and private sectors. For instance, women accounted for 33% of senior management positions in central government, despite making up 52% of all central government employees, in 2016. In the same year, only 4.8% of chief executive officer positions were held by women (OECD). On the contrary, women are overrepresented in agricultural, textile and garment industries, which are characterized as being low paid, insecure and unsafe (UN Women). Aside from employment, women are also sometimes excluded from having autonomy or power over land. In addition to loss of livelihood, they and their families may be displaced without having a say on securing alternative land or compensation (Human Rights Watch).+ Read more
The principles of non-discrimination and gender equality are found in the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). These are reiterated in the International Labour Organisation’s (ILO) mandate on gender equality, which is to promote equality between all women and men in the world of work. The following four ILO conventions are particularly relevant:
- The Discrimination (Employment and Occupation Convention (No. 111);
- The Equal Remuneration Convention (No. 100);
- The Workers with Family Responsibilities Convention (No. 156); and
- The Maternity Protection Convention (No. 183).
The UN Guiding Principles explicitly address gender in a number of places.
- Guiding Principle 7 calls on States to provide adequate assistance to businesses operating in conflict-affected areas so that they can assess and address the heightened risks of abuses, paying special attention to both gender-based and sexual violence.
- Commentary to Guiding Principle 3 urges States to provide guidance to businesses that adequately reflects the specific challenges faced by, among others, women.
- Commentary to Guiding Principles 18 and 20 encourages businesses to identify potential negative human rights impacts and monitor the effectiveness of their responses, while paying due attention to the differentiated risks faced by women and men.
- ending all forms of discrimination against all women and girls everywhere;
- eliminating all forms of violence against women and girls in the public and private spheres, including trafficking and sexual and other types of exploitation;
- ensuring women’s full and effective participation an equal opportunities for leadership at all levels of decision-making in political, economic and public life; and
- undertaking reforms to give women equal rights to economic resources, as well as access to ownership and control over land and other forms of property, financial services, inheritance and natural resources, in accordance with national laws.
It is important to note that gender is not the same as sex. Gender refers instead to the different social roles assigned to men and women in various societies. Debates on gender roles and human rights often centre on women’s rights for the simple reason that women are traditionally much more likely to be subject to gender discrimination and inequality. However, these inequalities cannot be tackled by treating women’s rights in isolation from the roles and responsibilities of men. (Why human rights matter).
A number of States have implemented legislative measures to increase gender parity within the business and human rights context. In line with the Equal Remuneration Convention, and many countries before them, Mauritius and South Africa both mandated equal remuneration for work of equal value in 2014. India introduced a quota requirement whereby at least one board member of every listed company must be a woman before April 2015. In 2003, Norway implemented a legislative requirement that board membership of listed companies be comprised of 40% women. Other countries that have followed suit include France, Belgium, Iceland and Italy.
Additionally, the Women’s Empowerment Principles developed by the UN Global Compact (UNGC) and UN Women aim “to empower women in the workplace, marketplace and community”. The principles also “emphasize the business case for corporate action to promote gender equality and women’s empowerment.”
Businesses have also taken steps to recognise gender equality as part of their operations. A group of multinational corporations, together with European authorities, have developed GEES : Gender Equality European Standard, a unique standard for European as well as multinational companies authorities to support companies in improving their human resources processes to reach gender equality throughout the company.
Rio Tinto has also published a resource guide for integrating gender considerations into work with communities (Why Gender Matters). By adopting a gender perspective, the guide provides practical advice on how community programmes can deliver more broad based and lasting outcomes than those designed solely by male community leaders.
- The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) (1979)
- UN The Commission on the Status of Women (CSW)
- The United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (UN Women)
- The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW)
- ILO – Gender Equality
- Human Rights Watch: Forced to Leave
- European Commission: Gender equality portal
- European Commission: EU rules on gender-neutral pricing in insurance industry enter into force
- Oxfam, Gender equality: it’s your business, Briefings for Business No 7,
- UNGC Human Rights and Business Dilemmas Forum: Gender equality
- UN Global Compact: Gender Equality
- UN Global Compact, UNIFEM: Women’s Empowerment Principles
- The World Bank: Women, Business and the Law 2016
- Key suggestions for inclusion in the Draft Elements of the international legally binding instrument on transnational corporations and other business enterprises, 8 August 2017
- E. George: Women’s Health in Global Supply Chains – Re-Envisioning the Business Role, 11 July 2017
- Business and Human Rights Resource Centre: Gender Discrimination section