Time to act, Part I: tackling Gender-Based Violence requires more assertive investor engagement

Forceful stewardship

One out of three women globally are victims of Gender-Based Violence. In this first of two blogs, we look at what companies and investors are doing, why many more should get involved, and why they should do more. 

Addressing Gender-based violence must be at the heart of responsible investment strategy

At the risk of stating the obvious, achieving greater gender equity and enabling female flourishing are fundamental to the success of human civilization. The UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), while not immune to challenges, are on to something in asserting that gender equality is foundational to achieving sustainable development: “Women and girls, everywhere, must have equal rights and opportunity, and be able to live free of violence and discrimination.” Says SDG 5. UN Women affirms that “women’s equality and empowerment is one of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals, but [this Goal is] also integral to all dimensions of inclusive and sustainable development.”

Defining Gender-Based Violence

Gender is not a new theme among institutional investors. We all remember Kristen Visbal’s Fearless Girl statue facing the Bull near Wall Street – a clever marketing campaign for State Street’s gender lens index fund. But the statue’s impact extended beyond their marketing campaign to encourage companies to put women on boards and investors to require it. It opened up a wider discussion on the failure of governments and investors to make substantive progress to end violence and discrimination against women and their systematic exclusion and under-representation in large swathes of the economy.

In this context, Gender-Based Violence (GBV) deserves much more attention. GBV is one of the direst manifestations of gender inequalities and the power dynamics that drive them, a beacon of much larger cultural issue. The United Nations defines violence against women as “any act of gender-based violence that results in, or is likely to result in, physical, sexual, or mental harm or suffering to women, including threats of such acts, coercion or arbitrary deprivation of liberty, whether occurring in public or in private life.” The World Health Organization indicates that 30% of all women worldwide have been subjected to either physical and/or sexual intimate partner violence or non-partner sexual violence in their lifetime.   Institutional investors are beginning to recognize this. The US-based Criterion Institute – a movement leader on gender and investing – devotes significant attention to GBV and aims to shift $10 billion of capital towards responsive strategies. The PRI, in partnership with development finance institutions, published extensive Private Sector Guidance in 2021. These efforts are essential to drive a bigger and much-needed structural shift. More systematic investor approaches could include shareholder engagement, public policy engagement, and work with investor and corporate leadership teams to drive normative shifts in how investment industry culture responds to and deals with GBV. 

Investors need consistent strategies to address the human, social & economics costs of GBV

The social and economic costs of violence against women are significant and touch all of society. Victims of violence suffer physical and mental injuries, and sometimes, death. They may suffer isolation, become unable to work, lose wages, have restricted participation in political and community life, and reduced ability to care for themselves and their relatives, among many other impacts. 

 The corporate “business case” for action – if you insist on having one – is well documented. GBV can significantly impact a company’s bottom line with lower productivity, higher turnover rates and legal risks. GBV can cause reputational risks leading to lost revenue (See Harvey Weinstein and R. Kelly). Beyond costly reputational risks, global labor responses, including strikes and boycotts at companies ranging from Uber to Google demonstrate the scale of risks facing companies who ignore these issues. Studies on the cost of GBV to business routinely range in the billions, and may often not account for the positive business gains associated with making companies a safe and stable place to work for half the world’s talent.  

The macro-case for investor action is similarly persuasive. In the age of COVID-19, the World Bank asserts that GBV is its own global pandemic and estimates the cost of productivity lost due to GBV in the range  of 1.2 to 2% of global GDP.

Investors can start by integrating GBV analysis across key industries

No workplace is immune from GBV, but certain sectors are more prone than others. For example:

  1. Customer-facing service industries such as restaurant and hospitality workers or home care or domestic workers, 
  2. Traditionally male-dominated sectors, such as agriculture and construction. These low pay, dangerous jobs facilitate GBV due to widespread gender discrimination and isolating conditions out in fields where women are more vulnerable. 
  3. The hospitality industry, which can serve as a conduit for sexual trafficking and exploitation.
  4. Technology and social media, which also facilitate abuse, sexual trafficking and exploitation 
  5. Food processing and textile workers are also at significant risk.
  6. Mining and extractives – where violence is directed to local communities.   

Opportunities for shareholder action 

There are several areas of possible intervention for companies and their investors.  There is ample literature and practical advice on the topic – see for example UN Women’s handbook, or the IFC’s Guidance Note to Employers on Responding to Workplace violence during the pandemic – and therefore no excuse for executive inaction. 

To start with, companies can create and communicate clear workplace norms through executive leadership and training, and by implementing practices that put the safety of their workers front and center. They can proactively ensure that they are not participating in enabling GBV through their products and service supply chains. Investors can also request that companies improve accountability mechanisms, removing contractual stipulations or recourse to forced arbitration or other tools that enforce secrecy on the issues. While companies should respect boundaries between the workplace and the domestic sphere, companies can protect and empower victims of domestic violence – through paid leave, legal support, safe housing, referral networks of support organizations, or by promoting financial autonomy from families through digital payments. They can require the same of their supply chains. Uber’s response to its GBV-problem, including transparent disclosure of the scale of the problem their customers face, is a valuable example to learn from and follow. 

Companies must also put men – the majority of perpetrators and enablers – on notice, and involve them in shifting cultures. Suzanne Biegel has many ideas about how to do this in practice, among other experts. Chiara Condi’s The Other Half podcast, engages male leaders on gender equality. 

For their part, investors can request or demonstrate support for such behavior changes through shareholder engagement and AGM resolutions. As always in ESG, requesting more transparent, systematic disclosure on gender-related risks is a necessary but insufficient step: investors can focus on the change they wish to see. Among recent examples, investors were instrumental in getting Marriott to integrate child sex tourism in its human rights policy. In 2021, shareholders convinced Goldman Sachs to modify its arbitration clauses in order to provide transparency on sexual harassment issues. Also in 2021, a successful shareholder resolution at fast food chain Wendy’s asked the company to disclose evidence of the effectiveness of its policies to protect workers from human rights abuses in its supply chain. In these, investors have acted through a variety of entry points, whether through their commitments to human rights, to gender equality, to safe workplace practices, to the SDGs.  

Of course, much more needs to be done. For every Goldman Sachs victory, there is an Apple resisting public and shareholder pressure to revisit concealment clauses in its employment contracts. Companies can easily hide behind the professed lack of control over their supply chains, over their franchise networks, over outsourced contractors to stick with the status quo.

In short, investors can make sure that GBV is consistently and explicitly a part of their ESG policies and practices, affirming zero tolerance objectives. They can support existing investor engagement initiatives and cast their votes accordingly. They can also create their own, for example by leading sector or country-wide campaigns.  

Investors can enable bold public policy interventions that protect & empower women

As with all systemic issues, investors and companies can also act on public policy. Today, according to the World Economic Forum, more than one third of countries have no laws against violence and harassment at work. Even where they exist, social movements such as #Metoo have demonstrated the weakness of their enforcement. On June 25, 2021, the International Labor Organization (ILO) Violence and Harassment Convention went into legal effect under international law. The treaty sets international legal standards for preventing and responding to violence and harassment at work. In just one month, more than 650,000 people around the world signed a petition calling on governments to ratify the treaty. In the UK, a senior conservative Member of Parliament recently introduced legislation to stop employers hiding behind gagging orders.

Investors and companies should back legislation where it doesn’t exist or needs strengthening. But also, crucially through their own actions, support the enforcement of new rules and regulations that deliver meaningful change for women.

This blog and our upcoming 14 October roundtable are an invitation to all investors to deepen their understanding  of gender-related issues and to contribute solutions across a spectrum of interventions. Investors in particular need to understand fundamental secular and attidudinal shifts across gender, power and society, from the workplace all the way to how relationships are formed – because this is the future of everything they invest in. Gender and gender equity issues impacts all the social, economic and environmental considerations that responsible investors care about. Committed to climate change? Project Drawdown puts investment in girls’ education among their top solutions to climate change and adaptation around the world. The future of equitable and stable employment? Women now represent 60% of college enrollment in the US and will have an increasing share of all G20 workforces this decade, building out the clean energy economy. Concerned about the risks linked to extreme political polarization? Debates over women’s reproductive rights and access to education have long been central to extreme identity politics, as we are witnessing in Texas and in Afghanistan under a resurgent Taliban regime, respectively. Human rights high on your stewardship agenda? Gender should be part of this. Digital rights? Technology plays a key role in the systematic abuse and sexual exploitation of women and girls around the world. Corporate governance? Gender. Sovereign risk? Gender. There are many other reasons for investors to focus on GBV. In a subsequent blog, we will discuss moral imperatives and the cultural influence of institutional investors. 

We are grateful for the generous support of Direct Action for Women Now Worldwide (DAWN) for this project. A recording of our first roundtable introduction to GBV issues – featuring Chiara Condi, Chiara Condi, Gender Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Advisor and Founder—Led by HER, Meredith R. Benton, Principal and Founder—Whistle Stop Capital, LLC, and Matthew Friedman, CEO—The Mekong Club – is available here.

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