Time’s Up: Women Should Be Front and Center of Corporate Human Rights Due Diligence

June 3, 2019
  • Magali Barraja

    Former Associate Director, BSR

  • Salah Husseini portrait

    Salah Husseini

    Director, Human Rights, BSR

  • Dunstan Allison-Hope portrait

    Dunstan Allison-Hope

    Senior Advisor, BSR

Women are disproportionately vulnerable to negative human rights impacts. Our experience in conducting human rights due diligence and engaging with workers in factories, farms, and communities in a variety of regions has highlighted numerous examples of the ways in which women’s rights are violated. From harassment online in the technology industry to the undermining of reproductive rights, lack of representation and equal pay across supply chains, we’ve found women to be especially vulnerable to human rights violations and struggling to access adequate redress for the issues they face.  

Despite these heightened risks to women across industries and regions, there is no systematic or holistic approach for companies to assess, mitigate, and remedy risk to women, highlighting a major gap that requires the collaboration of many different types of stakeholders. The United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (“the Guiding Principles”) make a few passing references to how women and other vulnerable groups may have heightened exposure to human rights impacts. For instance, under the opening General Principles section, the Guiding Principles state:

These Guiding Principles should be implemented in a non-discriminatory manner, with particular attention to the rights and needs of, as well as the challenges faced by, individuals from groups or populations that may be at heightened risk of becoming vulnerable or marginalized, and with due regard to the different risks that may be faced by women and men.

However, they do not go into significant detail on how to account for or integrate such differences into a due diligence program, suggesting that more detailed guidance on how to develop a gender-responsive human rights due diligence process is needed—one that can identify impacts not just for women but also other vulnerable populations, such as LGBTI communities, children, and more. 

The report Gender Dimensions of the Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, which will be presented to the Human Rights Council on June 26, addresses this gap with one primary objective: putting an end to gender-blind human rights due diligence and access to remedy. It provides guidance to governments and companies on how to put a deliberate focus on women when implementing the Guiding Principles by using a gender framework that posits that gender should be a cross-cutting issue at all stages of due diligence and access to remedy, from gender-sensitive assessments to the implementation of gender-transformative measures and remedies.

Following years of conducting human rights impact assessments (HRIAs) across industries and regions since the publication of the Guiding Principles and identifying the need for a more deliberate focus on gendered issues, BSR welcomes this timely and important guidance.

We look forward to working with our member companies to incorporate these recommendations into our human rights due diligence and access to remedy methodologies by combining the expertise of BSR’s Human Rights and Women’s Empowerment practices. We believe that key changes need to be made to the human rights due diligence and access to remedy processes across the entire field of human rights and business practitioners—such as improving gender awareness at the HQ level of companies, revising impact assessment tools and guidance, and enhancing the capability of all those undertaking human rights due diligence to address gender-specific impacts. This is a reform agenda to which we are absolutely committed.

Key changes need to be made to the human rights due diligence and access to remedy processes across the entire field of human rights and business practitioners.

Here, we highlight four main areas of the report that we consider critical:

  • Improving our understanding of gender and human rights by fully considering the intersectional nature of discrimination when conducting gender-sensitive assessments, thereby identifying overlapping vulnerabilities and paying attention to the fact that different groups of women may be impacted differently by corporate activities depending on variables related to societal discrimination, practical discrimination, or hidden discrimination due to stigmas around talking about sexual abuse or violence. This improved understanding also means working towards “substantive gender equality” (providing varying levels of support for different groups to achieve greater fairness of outcomes) instead of formal equality (providing the same levels of support for all groups) and understanding how to shape remediation along these lines.
  • Integrating respect for women’s rights across a company’s operations and value chain by committing to gender equality and establishing a related policy that is fully integrated within the various functions of a company, adequately resourcing such commitments, and establishing clear accountability lines. This may include certain changes like requiring and incentivizing suppliers to uphold gender-sensitive standards or building the capacity of specific key internal functions to better understand and monitor specific issues related to gender equality within a company’s own operations and value chain.

Companies need to establish adequate due diligence processes to uncover, prevent, and remediate the adverse existing and potential impacts of new technologies and economy models that are relevant to the “future of work.”

  • Enhancing the due diligence process by engaging and consulting with women and women’s organizations as well as gender experts throughout the process to ensure that both short-term, practical needs as well as strategic interests of women are addressed. It also requires companies to focus on severe impacts such as the prevention, mitigation, and remediation of sexual harassment and gender-based violence. The report puts the onus on companies to ensure that remedies offered, especially in the context of sexual and gender violence, are sensitive to “women’s experiences and expectations and never exclude access to judicial or non-judicial mechanisms.” It also flags the importance of establishing trust in operational level grievance mechanisms and making sure these are gender-balanced in their composition.
  • Addressing systemic issues, such as the lack of gender-disaggregated data to assess the effectiveness and progress of companies’ interventions, and designing more effective, evidence-based measures and remedies that work for women. Putting a dent in systemic issues also requires companies to find ways to overcome discriminatory laws where they exist and to abide by international standards whilst advocating governments to change discriminatory legal frameworks. Thereby, the report recognizes the role of companies in influencing the legal landscape and broader cultural norms which are so often the hardest obstacles to overcome.

More generally, the report acknowledges the need for companies to establish adequate due diligence processes to uncover, prevent, and remediate the adverse existing and potential impacts of new technologies and economy models that are relevant to the “future of work” and calls for more sector specific guidance to support companies. Responding to this need, BSR is convening a private sector pre-conference event at Women Deliver 2019 to launch a new report this month, which explores how automation and the flourishing of artificial intelligence may help or hinder progress toward gender equality in the workplace. It also offers recommendations to companies on how to respond to these significant new disruptive trends so that future labor market dynamics do not negatively impact women and instead empower them to realize their full potential.

This report reinforces BSR’s position that places gender equality at the heart of its initiatives, programs, and tools: through our collaborative platform, Business Action for Women, and our guidance on how to mainstream gender equality considerations within corporate strategies, supplier codes of conduct and social auditing, we have been advocating for businesses to put a deliberate focus on women across their entire value chain. In October, we will be launching the Gender Data and Impact Framework, a set of KPIs that will support companies and their suppliers in conducting adequate gender responsive due diligence focused on evaluating the true impact of business operations on women workers in supply chains.  

We look forward to sharing more insights on this crucial topic with our members during our Human Rights Working Group meetings.

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