Introducing The Great Wake-Up: on Women’s Health and ESG

Human Rights

Preventable Surprises is pleased to release its latest discussion note: The Great Wake-Up – why investors must act on women’s health – now, presented with the generous support of DAWN Worldwide.

This discussion note analyzes the current state of play on investor and corporate action on women’s health. It proposes a series of steps and actions investors can take to give women’s health a suitable and effective place among their ESG practices.

Why women’s health? The first answer to this is: “why not?” and it speaks volumes that an argument needs to be made. Women and men have different healthcare needs, but an equal right to live healthily, as UN Women observes in the context of SDG 3 (Health and Wellbeing). Yet, women and girls’ health, and their experiences of and access to comprehensive healthcare, is at great risk. For those in need of business arguments, let us note that healthy women are more productive, enjoy greater work participation and less absenteeism; in the economy, they can drive sustained economic growth; and in society, they strengthen families and communities.

Among those risks are those linked to their reproductive health and pregnancies. Indeed, this report began on the back of the US Supreme Court’s June 2022 Dobbs v. Jackson decision, holding that abortion is not a constitutional right. This decision reversed a 50-year precedent and sent shockwaves across the US and the world.

We began by speaking to experts to understand the implications of this decision on the business world, as well as how investors were grappling with it.

In the process, we discovered that the questions on abortion and reproductive rights, and the campaigns that were taking place, didn’t easily fit into the mainstream of corporate sustainability and ESG practice. Indeed, the entire sphere of women’s health is remarkably absent from it.

With notable exceptions, the gender lens is absent from health frameworks and discussions, and the health lens is absent from gender frameworks or discussions. Neither is women’s health to be found in ESG approaches.

We follow this observation with a range of recommendations for what investors can do to address women’s health:

  • LEARN – for its own sake but also to socialize often taboo questions on women’s health and reproductive health,  and to access lessons learned from investors on other issues
  • SET PRIORITIES – in terms of policy and portfolio focus
  • ACT – on ESG data provision, on processes, on shareholder engagement. We include a set of guiding questions that investors can ask companies
  • ACTIVATE SYSTEMS – to set agendas, in collaboration with others, to establish what good looks like in terms of women’s health and the role of the private sector, and to ensure that the most at risk populations are not left behind.

Activating Systems may be the most challenging but also the most interesting part:  what can investors do to ensure that their interventions are successful and inclusive? How can they work with other economic and social actors to set ambitions and define what good looks like? How can they ensure that their interventions  benefit the poor, those with no access to healthcare, and ultimately the majority of workers?

This discussion note can be read through multiple lenses:

  • A review of what has been done and can be done, particularly on reproductive rights
  • A roadmap to making women’s health an integral part of ESG practice
  • A field builder’s guide to successful and inclusive investor campaigns.

We do not enter this discussion lightly, knowing how politicized questions around gender and particularly reproductive health and rights (including abortion) have become. But we feel these questions are particularly relevant for investors who have embraced stewardship. Indeed, as a relative recently put it to us: the question we are asking is: who takes care of people?

Our ultimate goal is a world where investors and companies are doing what they can alongside communities and lawmakers to support reproductive health, and to suitably prioritize women’s health. The Great Wake-Up, so to speak.

So who, among institutional investors, will wake up first?

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