From boardrooms to childcare: the role of businesses in fostering gender equality

It is said that education begins at home, and so does learning about gender equality. According to research, children start to absorb biases by age 3. What they see in their homes tends to become their reality, and often may reflect how society around them thinks. While no two families are alike, a child growing up watching both their parents taking equal responsibilities, irrespective of the type of work undertaken, will normalise this from an early age.

Therefore, education plays a huge role in the lives of these children who are our future. Providing children, irrespective of their gender, with equal access to resources like education helps them make well-informed decisions for themselves as young adults. This is particularly important for women who too often aren’t allowed the agency to take their own life decisions. However, this is not to say that education will magically resolve everything overnight. Whether a woman chooses to be a home maker or take up a job or manage both, it is important to evaluate whether we as a society have the systems in place to support each of these decisions.

Companies in this sense are uniquely positioned to address barriers to gender equality. They can introduce policies to enable better representation of women in the workforce and leadership positions, ensure women do not get paid less than their male colleagues, have robust mechanisms to create a harassment-free workplace and provide parental care. However, the absence of these policies can have an adverse impact on the lives of women. It is clear businesses have a key role to play in enabling an environment that supports women. At the World Benchmarking Alliance, we are aiming to incentivise businesses through our upcoming Gender Benchmark, to take action on key issues such as female representation at all levels and support for unpaid care work.

Setting the context

As part of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, in 2015 all UN Member States adopted the goal of ensuring women’s full and effective participation and equal opportunities for leadership at all levels of decision making in political, economic and public life.  A 15-year plan was laid to achieve this goal. However, halfway through 2030, women continue to remain underrepresented in all walks of life. A recent report released by UN Women and UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs reveals that women occupy only 26.7% of parliamentary seats, 35.5% of local government seats and only 28.2% of management positions in the workplace globally. Women’s representation in management positions will only reach 30% by 2050, 20 years post the “deadline” to achieve the sustainable development goals. Whether we will be able to achieve this even by 2050 remains to be seen, given the recent backlash against the ESG (environmental, social and governance) agenda, and the impacts of COVID-19 on women’s participation in the workforce.

This slow pace of change not only highlights the social inequalities that exist in our society, but also the deeply entrenched gender biases. A study conducted by the UN in 2023 has revealed that 9 out of 10 people hold biases towards women. It is not surprising that kids in majority of the households grow up seeing gender inequality in their homes and their communities. The COVID-19 crisis seems to have further increased this divide. Flexible and remote working arrangements have taken a boom; however, it has also led to the requirement of being available anytime, anywhere. Not to say that these flexible arrangements are not needed, but we cannot ignore that our societies still expect women to be primarily responsible for household and caregiver duties. According to research conducted by the European Institute for Gender Equality, employed women spend about 2.3 hours daily on their household work whereas employed men spend about 1.6 hours. The time women spend on these duties, which are usually not recognized as “work”, tends to significantly affect women’s participation as well as their representation across all levels of management in the workplace.

The business case for greater female representation in the workforce

There is no dearth of reports which suggest that having more female representation in the workplace and in the boardrooms increases the profitability of the organisation. Our Governance and Climate Insights Report also found that financial institutions disclosing to have at least 40% women on their board perform better across all climate indicators. Having more female representation in the workplace and in the boardrooms also has positive implications for the growth of the economy. The International Labor Organization has estimated that reducing the gap in participation rates between men and women by 25% by the year 2025 could raise global GDP by 3.9 per cent, or US$5.8 trillion highlighting a strong business case for advancing women’s employment. However, despite these statistics, worldwide, it will take us 132 years to close the gender gap according to the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report 2022.

WBA’s Gender Benchmark: bridging the corporate data gap on gender

When it comes to the role and progress made by businesses towards gender equality, many gaps remain – from the lack of granular data on women’s representation at all levels to disclosure around issues such as unpaid care, women’s health, and the prevention and remediation of violence and harassment. We are also faced with a plethora of questions about how some of these issues may be linked to broader progress or barriers to gender equality, for example: does having more women across various levels of management improve the parental leave policies offered by the companies? Do better childcare benefits promote greater participation of women in the workforce? Or is it the case that women face setbacks after taking maternity leave and despite being offered flexible arrangements are never able to get leadership positions in their careers ahead?

To close these gaps in data and understanding, the World Benchmarking Alliance will launch its 2023 Gender Assessment, where we will assess the first 1,000 companies of our ‘SDG 2000’ list on the steps that companies should be taking to achieve gender equality.  As a part of these assessments, companies will be evaluated on their performance on several topics including gender equality in leadership (Indicator B1), paid primary and secondary care leave (Indicator C2), childcare and other family support (Indicator C3), among many other topics – the full methodology can be accessed here.

This assessment will help in providing a state of play of how companies are contributing to gender equality, as well as provide greater understanding regarding any linkages between issues such as women’s representation in leadership, women’s health, unpaid care and flexible work and move towards achieving gender equality and the 2030 Agenda.

From boardroom to children, women are expected to do it all and have it all. But are businesses playing their part in enabling a positive environment and support for women to reach this ideal?

Stay tuned to see what our results reveal in 2023!

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