Magali Barraja and Maria Pontes: New BSR Guidance Integrates Gender Equality into Supply Chain Codes of Conduct

By Magali Barraja and Maria Pontes

With women holding 60 to 90 percent of jobs in the labor-intensive stages of the apparel and fresh produce global supply chains, it would make sense for companies in those industries to consider women’s specific challenges when focusing on ethical supply chain management. However, until now, women have rarely been a focus of such strategies, with businesses either unaware of the issues women face or unsure how to address them—or both.

Moreover, supply chain management tools rarely account for gender dynamics. While codes of conduct are the most widespread tools companies use to drive sustainability and human rights expectations throughout the supply chain, they don’t yet effectively frame and address the specific risks facing women. These codes could, for instance, be used as an entry point for companies to translate their commitment to the Women’s Empowerment Principles and the Sustainable Development Goals within their supply chains.

BSR has launched the Gender Equality in Codes of Conduct Guidance to help companies and standards-setting bodies integrate gender equality considerations across nine traditional code of conduct principles, with a specific focus on developing and emerging market-based supply chains. BSR developed this guidance with the support of the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and with the technical health-related expertise of the Evidence Project/Meridian Group International, Inc.

Our focus on “integration” is important: In an era marked by code of conduct proliferation, it is crucial that we do not reinvent the wheel. To make gender equality mainstream, these considerations need to be integrated into existing codes.   

For each of the nine principles our guidance covers—discrimination, wages and benefits, forced labor, working hours, harassment and abuse, health and safety, freedom of association and bargaining, employment relationship, and management systems—we provide examples of traditional code language, followed by an analysis of related gender issues, and recommendations for gender-sensitive language. Our guidance pushes the boundaries of some principles, encouraging companies to move beyond traditional compliance. Our analysis also pushes companies to think about how gendered issues could directly affect their bottom line and the resilience of their supply chains.

Here are some examples this new guidance provides, highlighting how women are particularly affected by different principles:

  • Working hours: Involuntary overtime may add stress to women in balancing their jobs with their caregiving and home duties. Overtime also raises security issues for women because traveling to and from work very early in the day or late in the evening may put them at risk of abuse and violence outside of the workplace.

  • Freedom of association and collective bargaining: Women may not know their rights, or they may not be recruited by trade union representatives, who often discriminate against non-permanent workers, who are usually women. Trade unions or committees may also fail to include women at meetings. Finally, women may face gender-based retaliation for participating, or may self-censor due to prevailing social norms.

  • Forced labor: Women and girls represent the greatest share of the 21 million people in forced labor globally. Of that number, 14.2 million are victims of forced labor exploitation in economic activities, such as agriculture, construction, domestic work, mining, or manufacturing. Women are often concentrated in informal labor sectors, without legal protections, and are therefore more exposed to forced labor.

Beyond integrating gender-sensitive language into codes of conduct, companies should consider broader programs to ensure meaningful improvements for women. For instance, companies can ensure that workplace assessment methodologies are gender sensitive and that suppliers have the capacity and knowledge they need to integrate gender equality into their management systems.

While compliance can help mainstream gender equality into supply chains, changing norms and values within workplaces and communities is also essential. Meaningful change is possible only when workplaces become truly enabling environments that allow women to achieve their full potential. This starts with gender-sensitive codes of conduct—but it does not end there. 

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