Gender equality issues have once again taken centre stage – in the media, in politics, in coffee shops and bars the world over.

This discourse is being fuelled by concrete evidence that the gender gap is widening rather than contracting.

The latest data released by the World Economic Forum certainly make for depressing reading. Every year it ranks countries on the equality being achieved by each population when it comes to jobs, education, political empowerment and health. Overall, the 2017 index revealed a decrease in parity on the previous year for the first time, with the ‘economic’ pillar – looking at salaries, workforce participation, and leadership – one of the fastest-growing gaps.

Globally, women are still, on average, earning less than men by a significant amount. In fact, the WEF predicts that, as this rate, the gender pay gap will not be closed until the year 2234!

Gender inequality and the plight of women is no more stark than in the rural communities of developing nations where women are most at risk of being left behind. Critically, this is a demographic that finds itself under the radar of many large corporates keen to offer support, advance their diversity and inclusion policies, help and finance to reverse the trend of rampant inequality and the threat of human rights abuse.

The beer-maker, Heineken, is the latest big business to establish a programme to help empower women working throughout its complex supply chain. As part of its Brewing A Better World sustainability strategy, the company has joined forces with the Vital Voices Global Freedom Exchange Program, a two-week educational and mentioning scheme for emerging women leaders. Heineken’s workshop focuses on developing and honing purpose-driven leadership skills for a group of women from 18 countries around the world.

Corporates have a whole host of issues to grapple with – resource scarcity, climate change, modern slavery, water management, to name but a few. Why is the empowerment of women such an important component of corporate supply chain sustainability initiatives? What is it that women can bring, particularly to rural communities, that helps to drive more resilient and successful supply chains?

The last 20 years has seen the rapid growth of international trade which has created plenty of opportunities for women in developing countries. According to the International Labor Organization, between 1995 to 2013, the number of jobs associated with global supply chains increased by over 100 million in developing countries. Today, more than 300 million people are employed in some capacity within global supply chains – and 44 per cent of these workers are women.

From high street retailers sourcing cotton from India, to chocolate companies buying cocoa beans from the fields of Ghana, businesses rely on a steady and sustainable supply of raw materials – the majority of which may be grown, cultivated and delivered by women. Their health and wellbeing is important to many of the brands we know and love.

According to Project Drawdown – said to be the “most comprehensive plan ever proposed to reverse global warming,” – family planning and the education of girls are perhaps surprising two of the top ten biggest factors determining whether climate change gets out of control. In essence, the more educated, empowered and equal women are around the world, the better the chances of staying within two degrees Celsius of global warming.

Women with more years of education tend to have fewer and healthier children, and actively manage their reproductive health. “Education also shores up resilience and equips girls and women to face the impacts of climate change. They can be more effective stewards of food, soil, trees, and water, even as nature’s cycles change,” it says.

To get a sense of the numbers behind this issue: around 225 million women in lower-income countries say they want the ability to choose whether and when to become pregnant, but lack even the necessary access to contraception. 

A growing participation of developing countries in the global economy – and the foreign direct investment that flows from that – has no doubt helped to reshape the lives of many women and flip traditional hierarchies on their head. But such changes have also led to women becoming more vulnerable to abuse at work or outside of the workplace, as they often do not possess the same rights as men.

To reverse the trend, and encourage corporate action, a number of NGO campaigns and projects persist. Women’s economic empowerment is one of six global programmes financed by CARE International. The Clean Clothes Campaign is trying to improve the lives and working conditions of all workers in the global garment and sportswear industry, the vast majority of whom are women. Meanwhile, the Fair Wear Foundation’s violence against women project brings together clothing brands, suppliers, trade unions and governments in Europe and Asia to reduce violence and harassment in garment factories.

Recognising the huge importance of having healthier, stronger and more resilient women at various points along their supply chains, more and more companies are investing in women’s empowerment.

To help companies, governments and NGOs address the situation, the Women’s Empowerment Principles were drawn up to offer practical guidance on how to empower women in the workplace, marketplace and community. They exist to support companies in reviewing existing policies and practices, or establishing new ones, to make women’s empowerment a reality.

The food giant Nestlé relies on people living and working in rural communities to produce the ingredients that goes into its foods. With a responsibility to make sure that farmers and their families are healthy and have sufficient money and food, the business works with hundreds of thousands of women to provide technical and business skill training to encourage more women to start their own businesses. With research suggesting that women reinvest 90 per cent of their income into their families – compared to just 30 or 40 per cent of men – empowering women is crucial to a company like Nestlé as it combats poverty along its vast supply chain.

Meanwhile, high street fashion chain Primark has teamed up with BSR for the HERproject (Health Enables Returns), providing healthcare and health education to women working in the factories that make its products. Women make up about 80 per cent of the workers that make their clothes, and in low-income countries women often lack access to adequate healthcare and the knowledge they need to look after themselves properly.

Adequately addressing women’s rights issues is easier said than done. There are strategic needs which will truly advance women’s ability to exercise their rights and earn more money, rather than just maintaining the status quo. And there are practical needs too – things that can be improved to support women in their traditional gender roles.

Companies at all levels of global supply chains have a responsibility to get the basics right first: to foster safe working conditions and equally respect the rights of all, regardless of gender. But helping women get their practical and strategic needs met is essential if we are to build equality and prosperity for all in the 21st century, and beyond.

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