ESG influencers survey response: Gender Based Violence & Harassment

Human Rights, Positive Mavericks, Forceful stewardship

From time to time, Preventable Surprises invites ESG influencers – senior practitioners and stakeholders who shape responsible investing – to share their sentiment on select topics and set an agenda for action. Our latest, the next step of our partnership with DAWN Worldwide, looks at investor sentiment on responses to Gender-Based Violence and Harassment (GBVH). Is this a topic for ESG? What should investors do?

The takeaways: Investors need more information and more strategic approaches to address GBVH at industry and sector level. The rationale is understood, and the motivation is strong but they have yet to transform into systematic action. This calls for sustained leadership and engagement from advocates and concerned parties.

Demographics: a balanced mix of respondents, but response rate below standard

First, what we know about survey respondents: they were equal male and female in proportion. A third have a direct role in the investment chain while half are nonprofits and NGOs. Fifteen percent described themselves as GBVH experts, 60% as occasional experts, while a quarter knew little or nothing on the topic: an almost normal distribution. Perhaps one of the most interesting things is that, at 10%, our survey did not get the level of responses we have come to expect from similar efforts in the past (at times above 50%). We speculate about the reasons: timing, specifically with all eyes having been on climate at COP26, or more broadly because ESG managers are already juggling priorities; interest, because outside of this sample investors do not see an obvious link between ESG and GBVH, or because it is awkward, or overwhelming. This may simply confirm that GBVH issues are not center stage on the professional agenda of mainstream ESG.

The view from investors: some way to go

Second, what we learned from investor respondents:

  • Eighty percent have an explicit ESG policy commitment to gender, 20% have it via a larger framework such as the SDGs.
  • At the same time, 20% do not focus on GBVH. Among the 80% who do, half say the issue sometimes comes up in the context of other efforts (on gender or human rights), half say that GBVH is part of their corporate analysis, and three quarters say it is part of their shareholder engagement.
  • 100% (of which 40% strongly) agree that they do not receive consistent data about GBVH from their ESG providers.

What is immediately striking is that even though all respondent investors have a commitment to gender, it does not translate into incorporating GBVH for a fifth of them, or only occasionally so for another two fifth. In other words, 40% of our sample can point to a level of consistent, if not systematic, activity on the topic.

Even for the most engaged, there is an obvious disconnect between available data and intentions or activities: the state of GBVH data is dismal.

The general view: rationale and means of action are well understood

Third, from all respondents, we learned that:

  • Ninety percent said investors have a strong rationale for engaging on GBVH and 95% think investors must give it more attention
  • Zero percent thought that it is unclear what investors can do
  • Eighty percent say investors must adopt zero tolerance policies
  • Ninety-five percent think investors should engage with policymakers to ensure more systematic enforcement of rules and regulation

There are three immediate takeaways from this data: one is the noticeable gap between advocacy and action: the rationale is there, there are no questions about what investors can do, the demand is there, but the actions, as reflected by the investor respondents of the data is less definitive. Why?

We also notice strong support for engagement with policymakers, when this did not show up in the actual activities investors undertake. This is consistent with what we see on other ESG issues such as climate change, where – while there are always important questions about enforcement – most people recognize the influence of policy on ESG outcomes. Why the gap? This needs testing, but here also we can intuit answers: it is likely that investors need guidance on where and how. More broadly, policy engagement (other than on financial and governance regulation, e.g., dimensions that affect investors from a compliance perspective), remains largely out of the scope of current ESG practice from a risk perspective.

Lastly, we are very intrigued by the responses on zero tolerance policies. Turning the question around, if we asked investors: under what circumstances would you tolerate gender-based violence and harassment? (Leave gender-based out and you can ask a similar question). The answer would probably be “none.” This again needs further testing, but one reason may be that respondents did not want to support policies they would deem to be unenforceable, e.g., setting themselves up for failure. It is also debatable: for example, private equity funds have long had zero tolerance policies on corruption (albeit due to legal pressures such as FCPA in the US), and trillions of dollars have been committed to Net Zero without investors having a clear idea on how to get there.

Leadership begins at home

The view from within: 70% agreed (of which 20% strongly) that their employers take adequate steps to address GBVH internally, whereas 30% disagreed (of which 5% strongly). In the post #metoo era, the data is encouraging, although disheartening for the third who may simply feel unsafe at work because their employers are not supportive or doing enough. This should be reason to act on its own, but it is also noteworthy because voices on human rights increasingly contend leadership should begin at home and that investors or any other groups wishing to roll out external policies, as a matter of credibility, experience, and to work from a place of confidence and trust.

What respondents think investors should do next 

Asked which immediate next steps investors could take in response to GBVH, respondents offered a range of directions (table 1). The response is partially idiosyncratic but makes a case that there are many opportunities for ESG investors to ramp up their efforts (and, by extension, increase the internal resources) on GBVH.

Ask data providers for more consistent data. 60%
Improve internal analysis capacity with regard to GBVH. 75%
Establish external zero tolerance policy (portfolio engagement), leading to exclusions if needed. 35%
Establish internal zero tolerance policy (e.g. within the financial institution) 55%
Engage public authorities (at state, national, EU-level etc., as relevant) on improving GBVH policies and their enforcement. 55%
Campaign publicly against GBVH. 35%
Nothing, GBVH is terrible but it’s simply not a challenge for investors to address 0%
Nothing, we are a financial institution and already do most of this. 0%


GBVH needs relentless leadership and collaboration

The Preventable Surprises view: there are of course limited conclusions we can draw from a short survey, but they merit consideration. There is overwhelming support, across genders, that investors should be doing more on gender-based violence and harassment. This requires continued and consistent advocacy. As we wrote in an earlier project commentary, addressing specific GBVH risks at the company and industry level is essential. But the likelihood of investors having a lasting positive impact would increase if they could also support more systematic legal protections for women as employees and contributors to prosperity across the economy as entrepreneurs, carers, and community leaders. As S&P points out, the economic value of women’s unpaid care work represents 6.6% of global GDP, or around US $8 trillion. Acknowledging these contributions and making it safer and easier for women to contribute to global prosperity and be free from physical coercion and abuse should be a global priority, as much as it is one for employers for the protection of their own workforce. Investors should be prepared to lead by example in demonstrating respect for women’s rights in their own workplaces and by adopting zero tolerance policies to gender-based violence at investee companies. Beyond the sticks of litigation and reputational risk, positive peer pressure and public leadership can go a long way to contribute to the mitigation of GBVH.

Investors and stakeholders can collaborate more effectively to:

  1. Create new opportunities for advocacy on GBVH that cut across industries and sectors. The advocacy platform on NDAs is a case in point. Investors will need a stronger focus on blue collar and vulnerable workers in supply chains
  2. Advocate for the systematic adoption of Zero Tolerance policies
  3. Request more consistent data on GBVH to inform new stewardship strategies (and not just respond to  controversies)
  4. Broaden the coalition of investment chain participants acting on GBVH
  5. Lead by example with internal GBVH policy to show investee companies what investors expect of them


For more perspectives, respondents indicated the following organizations as their sources of information on GBVH:

  • Center of expertise: Criterion Institute
  • Controversy monitoring and reporting with data providers: Reprisk, MSCI, ISS, Oekom, Sustainalytics, etc.
  • On domestic violence in the workplace Champions of change coalition
  • On forced arbitration for sexual harassment in publicly listed companies:
  • Primary research
  • human rights databases
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