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Gender equality

Women and girls comprise half of the planet’s population; their empowerment is essential in expanding economic growth and promoting social development in a sustainable way.

Gender equality graphic


Gender inequality remains an everyday reality for the world’s women and girls. It can begin right at the moment of birth and continue throughout the course of a woman’s life.

Despite critical advances over the course of recent history, women in all countries and across all socioeconomic levels in society can face various forms of unfair treatment, including discrimination, harassment, domestic violence and sexual abuse. Other forms of abuse that are particularly prevalent in certain countries or cultural contexts include forced marriage, honor killings, deprivation of education, denial of land and property rights, and lack of access to work and to health care.

An estimated 1 out of every 3 women worldwide has experienced sexual or physical violence at home, in her community, and/or in the workplace.

Women may experience human rights abuses at different points in their working lives, including during recruitment, hiring, promotion and termination processes, as well as in daily interactions with colleagues and supervisors.

Outside of the workplace, women are often particularly vulnerable to the social and environmental impacts of business activities. For example, in many developing countries, women and girls are primarily responsible for fetching and hauling water. When company operations contaminate local sources, it is they who carry the burden of walking, often for hours, to the nearest substitute, which can prevent them from working or going to school.

According to the UN Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (UN Women), gender “refers to the social attributes and opportunities associated with being male and female and the relationships between women and men and girls and boys, as well as the relations between women and those between men. These attributes, opportunities and relationships are socially constructed and are learned through socialization processes.

Furthermore, gender equality “refers to the equal rights, responsibilities and opportunities of women and men and girls and boys. Equality does not mean that women and men will become the same but that women’s and men’s rights, responsibilities and opportunities will not depend on whether they are born male or female.”

Globally, working women still earn 24% less than men on average.

Women and girls comprise half of the planet’s population; their empowerment is essential in expanding economic growth and promoting social development in a sustainable way. In many cases, the full participation of women in the workforce would add double-digit percentage points to national growth rates. Evidence from around the world shows that gender equality advancements have a ripple effect on all areas of sustainable development, from reducing poverty, hunger and even carbon emissions to enhancing the health, well-being and education of entire families, communities and countries. In fact, “[e]quality between women and men is seen both as a human rights issue and as a precondition for, and indicator of, sustainable people-centered development.”

Globally, working women still earn 24% less than men on average.

As illustrated in the figure above, and depending on the specifics of the relevant corporate initiative, addressing gender-related impacts in connection with business may contribute to the achievement of an array of the Global Goals, including:

  • Goal 1: End poverty in all its forms everywhere [v]
  • Goal 2: End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture [vi]
  • Goal 3: Ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages [vii]
  • Goal 4: Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all [viii]
  • Goal 5: Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls [ix]
  • Goal 6: Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all [x]
  • Goal 8: Promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all [xi]
  • Goal 10: Reduce inequality within and among countries [xii]
  • Goal 11: Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable [xiii]
  • Goal 13: Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts [xiv]
  • Goal 16: Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels [xv]

So, how are companies currently supporting a world in which these goals can become a reality – a world in which the rights of women and girls are respected across all areas of business activity?

Examples illustrated by the case studies below include:

The case studies explore each of these innovative and evolving models in more detail. Each case study captures publicly available information on the initiative, alongside experiences and opinions from various actors involved.

These summaries do not claim to give a definitive account of a specific initiative or of all perspectives on that case study; instead, they are intended to serve as illustrative examples of how action toward corporate respect for human rights can make a critical contribution to the achievement of various goals and targets under the SDGs.

Case studies on gender equality

Inditex’s Sakhi Health and Gender Equity Project

Implementing worker-centric strategies through peer educator programs

Better Strawberries Group

Enhancing women’s social security and economic empowerment

Fair Food Program

Taking worker-driven standards and enforcement mechanisms to scale

Key takeaways on gender equality

Individual company action

  1. Many human rights risks and impacts associated with women’s rights are intersectional, meaning that they do not exist separately from one another but are complexly interwoven. As such, gender issues may most effectively be addressed through holistic and coordinated approaches that recognize and link related issues (such as health, socioeconomic status, education, race, etc.) in activities and outreach.

  2. Programs that equip affected women to raise awareness themselves and provide resources to their peers may be an empowering means of expanding the scope, sustainability and accessibility of such programs.

  3. Buy-in from suppliers and behavior changes at the management level are key in enhancing the long-term impacts of initiatives that may be initiated by global brands but require sustained commitments from suppliers.

  4. Strategic partnerships with technical experts and peer companies within a sourcing country are instrumental in addressing systemic issues affecting women.

  5. Increased representation of women within worker committees and at all levels of a company may be essential in accurately reflecting gender-related risks and building the trust necessary to capture and address impacts.

Collective action

  1. Economic empowerment and social security are integral to reducing negative business impacts on the human rights of women and maximizing outcomes for sustainable development.

  2. All actors along a global value chain can use and build their leverage in unique ways to facilitate change at the international, national and local levels.

  3. Collaborative efforts across a specific sector can inspire and equip affected women to collaborate and organize among themselves, potentially contributing to longer term advancements in addressing risks and impacts.

  4. Worker-driven standard-setting and feedback loops can capture risks and impacts in a way that traditional social policies and audit systems might not.

  5. Market enforcement mechanisms are instrumental in driving real change on the ground and can be embedded in initiatives in ways that both ensure accountability and create benefits for all actors involved.
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