In June 2019, the United Nations Guiding Principles (UNGPs) Working Group will present its report to the Human Rights Council on how to integrate gender more prominently into companies’ due diligence process so that the business impacts of human rights abuses specifically related to women are better identified and addressed.

The systems currently used by brands and suppliers to verify that basic rights and working conditions are upheld in their supply chains rarely integrate a gender dimension. This is arguably evidence that companies have not paid sufficient attention to gender-specific human rights abuses and the broader spectrum of workplace practices harmful to women in their supply chains, where women constitute a majority of workers, especially for consumer products. In particular, women’s rights and workplace-specific challenges are often not reflected in supplier codes of conduct and are addressed in very limited ways, if at all, in the auditing methodologies used to verify compliance with such codes.

To help companies address this issue and prepare to meet the increased expectations associated with the UNGPs, BSR—with support from the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs—is pleased to launch guidance that identifies the main improvements required for gender-sensitive social auditing and provides recommendations, practical advice, and relevant examples on how to effectively integrate gender considerations into audits. This new Gender Equality in Social Auditing Guidance is based on and complements the Gender Equality in Codes of Conduct Guidance published in 2017.  

Social auditing is defined as the thorough formal examination of the labor practices of a workplace or company, based on corroborated evidence. It is appealing to companies as it provides a clear, easy-to-digest, quantitative picture that can be used as a basis for quick sourcing and business decision-making. However, it is still often considered a narrow “snapshot” exercise, predominantly using document checks to surface issues linked to workers’ employment relationships. The voices of workers do not figure prominently. As such, social auditing lacks the ability to uncover more complex, less visible social issues, such as freedom of association, discrimination, and sexual harassment.

Moreover, social audits focus on verifying elements within distinct categories, such as working hours or health and safety. This siloed approach makes it difficult for social auditors to analyze interlinkages between seemingly unrelated issues—a particularly important activity when considering gender-sensitive issues.

If social auditing is to remain relevant and to become better at capturing the underlying root causes of gendered issues and discrimination, providing meaningful corrective action plans to tackle them, and measuring progress toward better conditions for women workers, there is an urgent need to transform its objectives and methodology.

To understand the underlying root causes of gendered issues and discrimination, tackle them, and measure meaningful progress toward better conditions for women workers, there is an urgent need to transform social auditing systems.

BSR’s new guidance is designed to provide all actors involved in these audits with opportunities for individual and collective action to make social audits more gender-sensitive. The guidance will help companies and actors in the auditing ecosystem to:

  • Understand and proactively address the structural constraints that prevent social audits from being more gender-sensitive, from the composition of auditing teams and their knowledge to the complexity of reporting gender-sensitive issues and capturing gender-disaggregated data.
  • Integrate specific gender-sensitive verification measures across codes of conduct principles, verifying not just governance and policy structures, but also how these are embedded in operations and how they impact workers.
  • Analyze the particularities of interviewing workers and apply a gender lens to (for example) sampling and interview techniques. 
  • Explore how to more effectively gather insights on women workers’ issues and needs through methodologies and techniques that are currently not part of traditional social auditing. The guidance shows how worker-driven feedback loops can capture risks and impacts in a way that traditional auditing mechanisms may not.

We hope that this guidance will serve as a significant first step in the transformation of social audits used in global supply chains. However, we recognize that this transformation is not straightforward: It will require proactive measures from key actors, including companies, standards bodies, certification schemes, supply chain initiatives, auditing companies, and auditors’ associations. BSR will convene a meeting on November 9 in New York to stimulate collaborative action amongst these various actors, and we would love for you to join us.  

Further, we call on all actors to proactively review their systems and processes to enhance their ability to unearth gendered risks and positively impact women workers in global supply chains. Companies who integrate a gender lens into their auditing practices will be well equipped to respond to part of the UNGP Working Group’s increased gender expectations.

If you would like further assistance or guidance on improving your codes of conduct and auditing processes, please contact our team of women’s empowerment experts.



BSR18 Post-October 5