What is Gender Equality?

Gender equality refers to “the equal rights, responsibilities and opportunities of women and men and girls and boys” according to UN Women, and, as the International Labour Organization (ILO) further notes, “in all spheres of life”, which includes workplace, marketplace and community. Further information on other aspects of equality is provided in the non-discrimination issue.

No country in the world has achieved gender equality. While it is encouraging to see a variety of gender equality efforts across sectors and industries, overall progress has been alarmingly slow. According to the World Economic Forum (WEF) Global Gender Gap Report 2023, it will take over 169 years to achieve equality in terms of women’s economic empowerment and participation. This means it would take over five generations to close the economic gender gap. Due to the ongoing impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, the time required for closing the global gender gap has increased by a generation. The pandemic reversed progress on gender parity in labour-force participation, which had significant impact on how women access economic and other opportunities. Additionally, in 2022 the WEF stated that the projected cost-of-living crisis was likely to more severely impact women than men, as women continue to earn and accumulate wealth at lower levels. In 2023, the WEF confirmed that the recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic and the ensuing global crises has been slow for women’s economic empowerment.

Empowering women and girls helps expand economic growth, promote social development and establish more stable and just societies. Women’s economic empowerment is pivotal to the health and social development of families, communities and nations. Further, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) underscore women’s empowerment as an important development objective, in and of itself, and highlight the relevance of gender equality to addressing a wide range of global challenges.

What are the Women’s Empowerment Principles?

Established by the United Nations Global Compact and UN Women in 2010, the Women’s Empowerment Principles (WEPs) are a set of principles offering guidance to business on how to promote gender equality and women’s empowerment in the workplacemarketplace and community. The Principles outline the range of ways that businesses can adopt to ensure that women are respected and supported in their workplaces, across their value chains and in the communities where they operate.

Over 6,000 CEOs have signed the WEPs Statement of Support, and the number continues to grow. Businesses can join  the WEPs network by downloading the CEO Statement of Support (available in multiple languages), having it signed by the company’s CEO and attaching it to the online application form.

The WEPs include:

  • Principle 1: Establish high-level corporate leadership for gender equality
  • Principle 2: Treat all women and men fairly at work — respect and support human rights and
  • Principle 3: Ensure the health, safety and well-being of all women and men workers
  • Principle 4: Promote education, training and professional development for women
  • Principle 5: Implement enterprise development, supply chain and marketing practices that empower women
  • Principle 6: Promote equality through community initiatives and advocacy
  • Principle 7: Measure and publicly report on progress to achieve gender equality

What is the Dilemma?

The dilemma for businesses is how to ensure that gender discrimination does not occur within their own operations, supply chains and communities given that gender discrimination may be embedded in social norms, local culture and even national laws.

Specific examples of business challenges in the workplace include:

  • Operating in a country where women are required to seek approval to work or travel from a male guardian;
  • Experiencing difficulties recruiting women for certain positions;
  • The culture of hostility of male line workers to a female line manager (including sexual harassment).

Examples of business challenges related to gender equality in the marketplace include:

  • Identifying and proactively engaging women-owned businesses;
  • Ensuring that suppliers and business partners respect the rights of women and girls;
  • Challenging gender stereotypes, rather than perpetuating them, through marketing and advertising.

Finally, examples of gender equality challenges in the community include:

  • Operating in and/or sourcing from countries where women entrepreneurs access less capital and fewer resources than their male counterparts;
  • Ensuring that investments in community programmes benefit women and girls;
  • Operating in and/or sourcing from countries where domestic violence is widespread.

Key Gender Equality Trends

Despite global progress on gender equality over the past few decades, there remain many challenges for women’s and girls’ rights in the workplace, marketplace and community.

Gender equality trends in the workplace:

  • Female labour participation rate is lower than that of male workers. The ILO finds that the average global female labour participation rate for 2022 is 52.9%, which is far lower than the figure for men, of 80%.
  • Women often receive unequal pay for equal work. The ILO estimates that across the world, women on average continue to be paid about 20% less than men. This is echoed by the UNDP that finds that women earn 77 cents for every dollar that men get for the same work. Moreover, the WEPs Gender Gap Analysis Tool shows that only 52% of companies that used the Tool have a stand-alone policy or a commitment embedded in a broader corporate policy that addresses equal pay for work of equal value.
  • Women continue to be promoted less frequently than men. Research from McKinsey suggests that for every 100 men promoted to a manager position, only 86 women are promoted. As a result, men outnumber women significantly at the manager level, which means that there are far fewer women to promote to higher levels.
  • Women are under-represented on corporate boards and in C-suite positions. According to 2021 data from Deloitte, women held only 19.7% of board seats and 5% of CEO positions worldwide. Gender imbalance on corporate boards is prevalent in both developed and developing countries.
  • Sexual harassment at work is a persistent problem that affects women in all jobs, occupations and sectors of the economy across the world. Estimates suggest that globally as many as 75% of women over 18 — at least two billion women — have experienced sexual harassment.
  • Women of colour continue to face significant bias and discrimination at work. While all women are more likely than men to face microaggressions that undermine them professionally — such as being interrupted and having their judgment questioned — women of colour often experience these microaggressions at a higher rate. This highlights the challenges of intersectional discrimination, which occurs when an individual is discriminated against on two or multiple grounds that interact simultaneously and in an inseparable manner.
  • The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the care burden on women, with many women forced to reduce their paid working hours or give up their jobs entirely. The UN Global Compact Target Gender Equality COVID-19 quiz data, however, indicates that 79% of companies that took the quiz have assessed (and where needed, adjusted) their policies and practices to support working parents and caregivers. 2022 data also suggests that women are now significantly more burned out — and increasingly more so than men as a result of the pandemic.

Gender equality trends in the marketplace:

  • Senior positions in Tier 1 supplier companies are rarely occupied by women. Women hold only 5% of the top-level supply chain positions in Fortune 500 companies. Even in the US and western Europe, only 20% of the top 60 listed companies have a woman as chief procurement officer (CPO).
  • Women-owned small and medium enterprises (SMEs) often have to overcome unfavourable lending contexts to access finance. There is a credit gap of approximately US$300 billion for women-owned SMEs. Only 46 economies worldwide require that there is no discrimination in access to credit. Elsewhere, women are often stymied by legal or lending requirements that favour men, such as the requirement for spousal permission to register a company or open a bank account or to provide collateral in the form of deeds where women do not typically inherit property.
  • Women-owned businesses struggle to win corporate contracts and access venture finance. According to UN Women, less than 1% of spending by large businesses on suppliers is earned by women-owned businesses. In 2021, research showed that while venture capital funding boomed in 2020, companies founded solely by women received even less investment than in 2019. In the US, female-founded companies raised US$3.31 billion in 2020, or 2.2% of the year’s total sum, compared to US$3.5 billion and 2.6% in 2019.
  • Women hold 60–90% of jobs in labour-intensive industries and in 2021 women held 41% of all supply chain jobs globally. Despite this, global businesses rarely focus on women in their procurement strategies. In global supply chains (such as apparel and fresh produce) women often make up the majority of the labour force; however, businesses working with these supply chains are often unaware of the issues that women face and/or unsure how to address them.

Gender equality trends in the community:

  • Limited access to education and a large informal sector in many countries push many women towards vulnerable forms of employment. This includes self-employment, usually within the informal economy, or employment within family businesses where labour standards are not likely to be respected. Nearly 15% of employed women — compared with 5.5% of employed men — are contributing family workers where they are self-employed in a business owned or operated by a relative. Such workers are likely to be poorly paid (if at all) and living in poverty, with no employment contract and little access to social protection. ILO statistics show that in developing countries, rates of “time-related underemployment” among women can be as high as 50%. This is where they are likely to work fewer hours than men, but usually not by choice.
  • Household and caregiver tasks are often not shared equally. UN Women finds that women are more likely to bear disproportionate responsibility for unpaid care work. On average, women contribute 1–3 hours more a day to housework than men and 2–10 times the amount of time to care for children, the elderly and sick relatives. In the European Union, 25% of women report that the burden placed on them by care and household responsibilities prevents them from being able to enter the labour force.
  • Confinement measures arising from the COVID-19 pandemic led to increased or first-time violence and abuse against women and children, while, at the same time, resources to support women experiencing violence were less available and accessible. Data from the UN Global Compact Target Gender Equality COVID-19 Quiz shows that only 26% of surveyed companies have taken action to respond to the increase in domestic violence.

Impacts on Businesses

Companies that focus on women’s empowerment experience greater business success. A growing number of business leaders recognize the importance of women as leaders, consumers, entrepreneurs, workers and caretakers. They are adapting their policies, programmes and initiatives to create environments where women and girls thrive.

Business case for gender equality in the workplace:

  • Increased productivity and organizational effectiveness: Strengthening women’s workforce participation and leadership — and preventing sexual harassment in the workplace — can benefit companies in terms of access to improved skills, talent acquisition and retention, employee satisfaction, reduced absenteeism and turnover rates, which can translate into increases in productivity, improved production quality and output, greater innovation outcomes, and access to new markets and customers.
  • Increased revenue and profitability: Achieving 30% female representation on corporate boards could add six percentage points to net margins. Research shows that companies in the top quartile for gender diversity on their executive teams are 25% more likely to experience above-average profitability than companies in the fourth quartile. According to research by the ILO, boardrooms with 30-39% women are 18.5% more likely to have improved business outcomes. A 2018 study also showed that businesses founded by women generated twice as much revenue than those founded by men.
  • Improved corporate sustainability: In addition to boosting financial performance and economic growth, women’s business leadership is shown to positively impact corporate sustainability performance, leading to reduced greenhouse gas emissions, stronger worker relations, better employee productivity, stronger team performance and innovation, as well as reduced incidences of fraud, insider trading and other unethical practices.

Business case for gender equality in the marketplace:

  • Access to a wider variety of high-quality suppliers and reduced procurement costs: Research has found that companies with supplier diversity programmes spend 20% less than competitors on procurement and have lower numbers of procurement staff. Supplier diversity may become a source of a company’s competitive advantage as locking oneself with the same suppliers can be risky.
  • Brand reputation and customer loyalty: Consumers are increasingly requesting information from companies regarding their corporate commitment to diversity, inclusion and gender equality in supply chains. Gender-responsive procurement can lead to reputational benefits that attract customer loyalty.
  • Improved distribution networks: Women entrepreneurs often have better access to female customers or are better positioned to target the base of the pyramid (BOP) markets. Customer segmentation by gender can enhance companies’ ability to serve women even where substantial barriers limit women’s spending power.
  • First-mover advantage: The regions or sectors with the largest gender gaps may offer the largest rewards for closing them. Companies that are among the first to invest in women as customers gain premiums through brand recognition and corporate reputation in the women’s market and through a deep understanding of how to best serve women.

Business case for gender equality in the community:

  • Economic growth: It is estimated that US$28 trillion could be added to global GDP by 2025 through investments in gender equality. Gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls is also essential to a wide range of development objectives, including promoting economic growth and labour productivity, enhancing health and education, strengthening resilience to disasters and ensuring more peaceful and inclusive communities.
  • Strong investment climate: By investing in women as employees, entrepreneurs and customers, companies support the development of a strong investment climate on the national and/or sectoral level.
  • Improved social impact of investments and social license to operate: Reaching out to women as entrepreneurs and customers can benefit companies through improved social impact of their investments and strengthened relationships with local communities (particularly for companies in infrastructure or extractive industries that have large-scale community impact).

On the other hand, businesses can be impacted by discriminatory practices against women — or allegations of gender discrimination — in their operations and supply chains in the following way:

  • Legal risk: Legal charges can be brought against the company, up to and including criminal charges, which can result in imprisonment, for example in cases involving sexual assault or harassment in the workplace. The #MeToo movement has triggered a strengthening of laws across the globe on sexual harassment in the workplace, which for many jurisdictions has meant more stringent compliance requirements or greater criminal penalties for companies that fail to take corrective and preventive measures to eliminate sexual harassment.
  • Operational risk: Companies that have been implicated in or linked to gender discrimination have witnessed employee protests where staff have participated in mass walkouts. The overall employee turnover and company productivity may be affected negatively if companies pursue gender discrimination practices. Sexual harassment in the workplace has also been linked to reduced profitability and increased labour costs. Finally, gender discrimination can negatively affect talent retention strategies.
  • Reputational and brand risk: Campaigns by consumers, civil society organizations, staff members and other stakeholders calling out gender discrimination can result in brand contamination and reputational damage. A reputation as a discriminatory workplace or company can cause workers to leave the company, as well as prevent new talent from applying for roles, potentially resulting in a less diverse and skilled workforce. Research has also found that a single sexual harassment claim could be sufficient to dramatically shape public perception of a company.
  • Financial risk: Divestment and/or avoidance by investors and finance providers (many of which are increasingly applying environmental, social and governance (ESG) criteria to their decision-making) can result in reduced or more expensive access to capital and reduced shareholder value.

Impacts on Human Rights

Gender discrimination has the potential to impact a range of human rights,[1] including but not limited to:

  • Right to equality and non-discrimination (CEDAW, Article 2, UDHR, Articles 1 and 2, ICCPR, Article 26): Women experience discrimination in law and practice. This includes discrimination in economic opportunities as well as access to remedies for human rights violations.
  • Right to education (CEDAW, Article 10, UDHR, Article 26, ICESCR, Article 13): This includes the right of equal access to education and equal enjoyment of educational facilities. Women and girls in many countries lack access to educational opportunities due to discrimination and poverty, thus reducing their chances of employment and an independent life.
  • Right to work (CEDAW, Article 11, ICESCR, Article 6): Women can be unfairly deprived of employment or arbitrarily dismissed on the basis of their gender or reproductive status. The right to work is closely linked to the rights of just and favourable working conditions and the right to non-discrimination.
  • Right to enjoy just and favourable conditions of work (CEDAW, Article 11, UDHR, Articles 23 and 24, ICESCR, Article 7): Women are frequently paid lower wages than men for work of equal value. The right to enjoy just and favourable conditions of work explicitly addresses the right to fair wages and equal remuneration for work of equal value. Particularly, women must be guaranteed conditions of work not inferior to those enjoyed by men. The right to enjoy just and favourable conditions is closely linked to the right to non-discrimination.
  • Right to family life (CEDAW, Articles 11 and 16, ICESCR, Article 10): Workplace practices can hinder the ability of working parents to adopt a healthy work/life balance and spend quality time with their families. In some cases, the conditions under which employees work — including issues such as long or irregular hours and inflexible working arrangements — can undermine this right. Article 10.2 ICESCR provides for special protection for mothers during a reasonable period before and after childbirth.
  • Rights to liberty and security of person (UDHR, Article 3, ICCPR, Article 9): Discrimination, cultural practices and a lack of safeguards can result in harassment, threats and attacks against women, including Gender-Based and Sexual Violence (GBSV).
  • Right to an effective remedy (UDHR, Article 8): Women’s right to an effective remedy for human rights violations can be compromised in countries where the judicial system is inefficient or lacks independence, or where authorities such as the police discriminate against women.
Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)

As the achievement of Goal 5 (gender equality) accelerates and enables progress in other SDGs, it demonstrates the importance of gender equality as a cornerstone of achieving all dimensions of inclusive and sustainable development. In short, all the SDGs depend on the achievement of Goal 5. All 17 goals contain a gender equality perspective that helps frame progress in terms of achieving women’s and girls’ rights.

A number of SDG targets relate specifically to gender equality. The following considerations illustrate the interconnected nature of Goal 5 to other SDGs:

  • Ending all forms of discrimination against all women and girls everywhere (Target 5.1) is directly linked to the achievement of several other SDGs, namely Goals 1 (No poverty), 2 (End hunger), 3 (Good health and well-being), 4 (Quality education), 8 (Decent work and economic growth) and 10 (Reduced inequalities). For example, ensuring universal access to sexual and reproductive health-care services (Target 3.7) is an important step towards ending discrimination against women. Ending discrimination against women and girls also contributes towards promoting inclusive and sustainable industrialization (Target 9.2) and ensuring responsive, inclusive, participatory and representative decision-making at all levels (Target 16.7)
  • By recognizing and valuing unpaid care and domestic work through the provision of public services (Target 5.4), greater social, economic and political inclusion for women will be achieved (Target 10.2).
  • By ensuring women’s full and effective participation and equal opportunities for leadership at all levels of decision-making in political, economic, and public life (Target 5.5), women will have equal rights to economic sources (Target 1.4) and full and productive employment and decent work (Target 8.5).
  • Undertaking reforms to give women equal rights to economic resources (Target 5.a) will go towards the progress of climate action (Goal 13). By empowering women to have greater access to land, credit and essential inputs such as fertilizers, irrigation, technology and market, women will be able to tap into climate change adaptation practices that require the use of technical advances on heat-resistant and water-conserving crop varieties.

Key Resources

The following resources provide further information on how businesses can address gender discrimination and empower women across the workplacemarketplace and community:

  • Women’s Empowerment Principles, Resources: The WEPs website has an extensive collection of resources on gender equality, including frameworks, templates, reports, guidance and toolkits that companies can utilize in the design, implementation and monitoring of their gender equality programmes. In addition, the virtual platform WEPs Learn offers lessons designed to give women more confidence in job interviews, lead gender equality initiatives within their organizations, the ability to assess new job opportunities and grow their careers more effectively.
  • UN Women, Digital Library: A comprehensive resource on gender equality including reports, discussion papers and case studies.
  • ILO-UN Women, Empowering Women at Work: Company Policies and Practices for Gender Equality: This resource provides suggestions on how companies can promote gender equality in their operations, with reference to international labour standards and guiding principles. ILO and UN Women have also published another resource on promoting gender equality in supply chains.
  1. By introducing the due diligence-based corporate responsibility to respect human rights, the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs) shift the focus from impacts on businesses to impacts on human rights. Further information on the UNGPs is included in section ‘Due Diligence Considerations’.

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