Women’s Empowerment Principles: Turning a Decade of Lessons into Ambitious Business Action

March 12, 2020
  • Aditi Mohapatra

    Former Managing Director, BSR

This year marks the 10th anniversary of the launch of the Women’s Empowerment Principles (WEPs), a set of values based on international standards to guide business action to create more gender-equal workplaces.

Over the past decade, the business case for gender equality has expanded and deepened. For example, a 2019 study from S&P Global found that companies with female CEOs and CFOs produced superior stock performance, compared to the market average. In the 24 months post appointment, female CEOs helped drive a 20 percent increase in stock returns.

Gender-diverse workforces also help to attract talent, reduce turnover, and can contribute to building trust with clients and consumers. On a macro level, achieving gender equality could add upwards of US$12 trillion to the world’s economy. At the same time, we have seen increasing evidence highlighting the deeply entrenched and systemic barriers that women face in workplaces around the world, from violence and harassment to the unequal share of unpaid care and domestic work.

A new report from BSR and the United Nations Global Compact presents aggregate findings of the WEPs Gender Gap Analysis Tool, an online platform that has been used by more than 2,000 companies around the world since its launch in 2017 to anonymously assess their gender equality performance. Like the WEPs, the tool is holistic and considers the range of ways that companies can support women’s empowerment, from the representation of women in senior leadership, to ensuring equal pay for work of equal value, to respecting and supporting the rights of women workers in global supply chains. Here’s what we found:

1. Business is committed to advancing gender equality  

When the WEPs launched in 2010, there was a lot of discussion about the business case for policies and programs aimed at creating workplaces that women and men can equally contribute to and benefit from. Companies were eager to be equipped with data that would prove return on investment and convince business leaders to make a top-level commitment to gender equality. Today, it is encouraging to see that over two-thirds of companies have a leadership commitment or demonstrate public support for gender equality and women’s empowerment. And the list of business leaders that have signed the CEO Statement of Support for the WEPs has grown from 39 in 2010 to over 2,700 today.

2. Translating business commitment to action remains a key challenge

While corporate support for gender equality is strong, businesses have yet to introduce specific policies, measurable targets, and robust accountability mechanisms to ensure progress. In fact, only 28 percentof companies include time-bound, measurable goals and targets on gender equality in their strategy, and even fewer companies report publicly on progress made and outcomes.

We can see the disconnect between commitment and implementation when we take a closer look at specific corporate practices. For example, while almost two-thirds of companies have a policy or a commitment for zero tolerance of all forms of violence at work, only 28 percent of companies provide annual training to promote this norm. Similarly, 67 percent of companies provide paid maternity and paternity leave, but only 21 percent track uptake of parental or care benefits, and only 9 percent report this data publicly. Only one-quarter of companies undertake a gender pay gap audit or evaluation, and only 15 percent disclose their gender pay gap.

3. Business can strengthen performance and contribution to gender equality by considering impacts across the value chain

Data from the WEPs Gender Gap Analysis Tool highlights key areas that have yet to receive adequate attention. For example, business has significant influence and reach to challenge negative gender stereotypes that are holding back progress. Yet, only 26 percent of companies have introduced a specific marketing policy or commitment to address the portrayal of gender stereotypes. Similarly, while engaging women entrepreneurs through inclusive procurement practices has a significant impact on economic growth, as well as business performance, only 3 percent of companies report on public spending on women-owned businesses.

BSR and the UN Global Compact are working with companies to address some of the most pressing issues related to gender equality and accelerate the pace of change. This includes:

  • Signaling your commitment to women’s empowerment: Signing the WEPs CEO Statement of Support demonstrates top-level commitment to advance gender equality and women’s empowerment in the workplace, market, and community.
  • Setting ambitious corporate goals for women’s empowerment: The UN Global Compact Target Gender Equality initiative supports companies in setting and reaching ambitious corporate targets for women’s representation and leadership, starting with the Board and Executive Management levels.
  • Empowering women throughout your supply chain: BSR’s Gender Data and Impact Framework supports both brands and suppliers seeking to conduct better and more effective gender-responsive due diligence. The Framework includes a set of KPIs to measure outcomes for female and male workers and the Gender Data and Impact (GDI) tool, which suppliers can use to detect gender gaps in outcomes for workers. The GDI also helps companies to design an effective action plan, and track improvements against worker outcomes that are truly transformative.
  • Working collectively to advance women’s rights: Business Action for Women is a leading coalition of companies committed to supporting women’s empowerment in the workplace. This initiative will inspire ambition, increase impact, and catalyze scalable corporate solutions to support women's global progress. By joining Business Action for Women, companies can discuss, learn, and explore dimensions of women’s advancement and gender equality with a focus on the full value chain—from policy engagement opportunities to investments in women workers in global supply chains.

With 2020 underway, we have entered a decisive decade to achieve the ambitious 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. However, the World Economic Forum currently estimates that it will take 257 years to achieve women’s economic empowerment and close gender gaps in the economy. Business can continue to play a critical role in achieving gender equality and empowerment for all women and girls by implementing the WEPs, supporting new international frameworks and guidance like the ILO Convention on Violence and Harassment in the World of Work and the Gender Dimensions of the UN Guiding Principles on Responsible Business, and participating in the Generation Equality Forum, which aims to build on this momentum to turn commitments into concrete actions.

However, stakeholders’ expectations of business are shifting, including investors and customers. As such, businesses will need to accelerate progress by identifying untapped areas for change, for example, only 31 percent of companies are taking proactive steps to recruit women in traditionally underrepresented roles. Imagine the outcomes for women if this number double or tripled? This decade is a moment for companies to prove they can turn their commitments into action, through targeted, meaningful programs and policies that enable women, and men, to thrive throughout their value chains.  

Let’s talk about how BSR can help you to transform your business and achieve your sustainability goals.

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