Women, Business and Human Rights: Helping businesses be good global citizens

By Ama Marston, founder and director of Marston Consulting

There is a growing conversation about women’s leadership and economic empowerment globally as well as conversations about business and human rights. However these two conversations often take place in parallel to one another, overlooking the nexus between the two and their importance for companies not to mention issues of empowerment and economic growth. While women’s human rights in the work arena need to be implemented in cooperation with businesses, businesses also have a significant amount to gain in tackling the barriers women face in the business world today whether in the US, Ghana or China.


Sex discrimination remains the most prevalent form of inequality in the work arena around the world, according to the International Labour Office (ILO).[1] Discrimination poses significant barriers for women in business whether as entrepreneurs, business leaders or decision-makers. In addition, women workers concentrated at the bottom of corporate value chains experience discrimination and the violation of their basic rights in unique ways and often have little or no access to formal justice systems.

Further, a World Bank survey of 143 economies shows that 90% have at least one policy that differentiates between treatment and rights of men and women in work and beyond.

While having laws in place that afford women equal protections is critical, much of the discrimination women face is in day-to-day practices and cultural norms, which means that businesses need to be able to engage in changing the practices that violate women and girls’ basic rights. Collaboration between businesses, charities and communities when structured as real partnerships can help create social change and reinforce good business.


Women’s leadership and entrepreneurship - the right thing to do and good business

Globally women are one of the most untapped economic resources in the world at all levels of the value chain. When it comes to women in leadership positions, research shows that companies with women on its boards outperformed companies with zero women board directors by 84% return on sales, 60% return on invested capital, and 46% return on equity.[2]


And still, in 2014, women make up just 24% of senior roles in midsize businesses across developed and developing countries. This is only 5% higher than the number of women in senior management in 2001 according to research from Grant Thornton International.[3] And, women account for just 5.2 % of CEOs in Fortune 500 companies. This has changed very little over the past decade.[4]


Similarly, although, women make important economic contributions as entrepreneurs with 224 million women globally that have started businesses or are operating recently established businesses[5], they only account for 5% of those receiving venture capital globally.[6]


Targeted private sector initiatives and partnerships addressing these issues appear, however, to have had a significant impact in facilitating women as business leaders. For example, Goldman Sach’s 10,000 Women Initiative educates and supports women who run SMEs in emerging economies and report that 80% have increased revenue.[7]  This is but one example of how the private sector can be part of the solution when it comes to problems of gender inequality in the work market.


Protecting women workers’ rights in business

The discrimination that women face as wage labourers at the bottom of supply chains or as members of poor communities where transnational corporations operate is that much greater, combining existing gender discrimination with power imbalances between business actors and individual women.


Some of the most common breaches of rights that women face include discrimination related to pregnancy, lack of basic worker’s rights in industries that rely heavily on cheap female labour, sexual exploitation in areas with a large influx of male workers and a loss of land and livelihoods in areas where land-intensive businesses operate.

That said, a number of business and human rights guidelines have been laid out to help companies be good global citizens and understand their human rights obligations. These guidelines don’t create new obligations for businesses but provide guidance on existing obligations that have already been established.


Guidelines such as the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs) provide operational guidance for companies to make human rights policy commitments, undertake due diligence and provide legitimate processes for remedy. Additionally, initiatives such as the Women’s Empowerment Principles, established by UN Women and the Global Compact, reinforce the UNGPs and help provide a framework for elaborating the meaning of the principles for women’s rights in the context of business and how they can be applied.


Making the business case for human rights

In addition to fulfilling human rights obligation, there are a number of benefits for companies from tackling discrimination and protecting women’s rights. Among them are improved recruitment, retention and the levels of investment employees make in their work. Following human rights guidelines also improve risk assessment and can help build better relationships with a range of stakeholders, as well build a positive reputation that can attract talent and new customers.[8] For example the company MAS Holdings who had employed women in the garment sector in Sri Lanka were able to land additional contracts with big buyers after improving the women workers’ conditions and providing childcare and career training.[9]


What companies can do to foster women’s business leadership and human rights

With this in mind, there are a number of steps that business can take to ensure fair and equal treatment for women in the work place at all levels while reaping the benefits.


This includes:

  • Ensuring that human rights principles of equal rights for men and women are enshrined in your company’s policies and code of conduct as well as broader workers’ rights and human rights
  • Setting goals for achieving equal rights for women in the work place and reaching milestones with respect to women’s leadership
  • Undertaking due diligence, tracking progress against goals and setting up mechanisms for addressing grievances and rights violations
  • Setting quotas as a temporary measure to level the playing field for women to access leadership positions and other opportunities
  • Addressing unconscious bias in hiring and promotion processes
  • Becoming a champion for women leaders and workers by making your commitment public, sharing your progress and lessons learned and encouraging partner businesses in your network to do so as well



See the full report written by Marston Consulting on women and business for the UN Working Group on Discrimination Against Women in Law and Practice for input into the UN Human Rights Council: http://marstonconsulting.org/#/publications/4585711074

[1] Equality at work: The continuing challenge. Global Report under the follow-up to the ILO Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work. INTERNATIONAL LABOUR CONFERENCE 100th Session 2011. Report I(B)

[2] Catalyst. 2011. The Bottom Line: Corporate Performance and Women’s Representation on Boards (2004–2008)

[3] Grant Thornton International. Women in Business 2014. March 7, 2014

[4] Catalyst. Women CEOs of the Fortune 1000. See http://www.catalyst.org/knowledge/women-ceos-fortune-1000

[5] VanderBrug, Jackie. “The Global Rise of Female Entrepreneurs.” Harvard Business Review. September 4, 2013.

[6] IFC. 2011. Strengthening Access to Finance for Women-Owned SMEs in Developing Countries.

[7] Clarke, Charlotte. “Entrepreneurs are taught the lessons of management.” Financial Times. March 4, 2012.

[8] Business Leaders Initiative on Human Rights, OHCHR and Global Compact. 2008. A Guide for Integrating Human Rights into Business Management

[9] Mcarthy, Lauren et al. 2012. Gender equality: it's your business. Oxfam

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