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The Pitfalls of the Periphery in Gender

To fully realise gender equality and women’s empowerment, companies must move beyond strategies and policies that focus exclusively on the ‘business case’ for gender work.

Gender equality and women and girls’ empowerment are emphasised in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development as fundamental prerequisites to shift the world onto a sustainable and resilient path. Indeed, gender equality is both one of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDG 5) and a universal human right cutting across the entire Agenda. Today, an increasing number of businesses, big and small, have pledged their support for SDG 5 and considered their role in realising gender equality and women’s empowerment throughout their global value chains.

Why are companies pursuing work in gender?

The “why” of doing gender work is framed in different ways by different actors. For example, some companies emphasise the moral imperative of gender work (the intrinsic value of gender equality), while others point to the economic or political imperatives of gender (the instrumental value of gender equality). The economic imperative, termed “the business case of gender”, emphasises the idea that advancing gender equality will not only deliver social benefits for communities at large, and women and girls in particular, but also drive and sustain a flourishing global economy and company profits. The business case of gender is repeatedly embraced by companies. For example, a company might direct investments into the skills and labour of young women as a means to stimulate revenue, economic growth and reduce poverty.

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Indeed, it is often contended that companies embracing gender equality and women’s empowerment outperform the companies that are “gender blind”. For example, a McKinsey study titled ‘Delivering Through Diversity’ finds that companies in the top quartile for gender diversity on their executive teams were 21 percent more likely to experience above-average profitability.

The pitfalls of the periphery

Nevertheless, work on gender is often separated from companies’ core business activities, and risks being delegated to “the periphery” where little resources and expertise exists. Questions remain as to whether this “peripheral approach” to gender equality has prevented people close to the “core” of companies from purposefully engaging with, and appreciating, policies and initiatives promoting gender equality. Hence, a new frontier for companies is to further internalise both the intrinsic and instrumental arguments for gender equality in core business activities and management.

Moving beyond the business case for gender

How can companies embrace an SDG 5-vision that goes beyond corporate engagement in the 2030 Development Agenda as a narrowly defined and peripheral business case? At KIT, we believe this requires an intentional effort to explore what gender equality and women and girls’ empowerment mean and imply. Although the instrumental and intrinsic value of gender equality are not mutually exclusive, the nature of gender inequalities and women and girls’ disempowerment suggests that they do not automatically reinforce each other. Put differently, a positive interplay between the business case and intrinsic value cannot be assumed.

This is not ‘business as usual’

Realising gender equality and women and girls’ empowerment requires a transformation of the unequal power relations and dynamics that contribute to and reinforce inequalities. These power relations manifest themselves in how markets operate, how value chains are organised, in business practices, in trade agreements and rules. They shape how institutions work, dictate women and girls’ access to and control over resources, and affect mindsets, attitudes and behaviour.

Gender equality and women and girls’ empowerment entail a systemic transformation in structures producing and reinforcing gender inequalities.

Therefore, transformative change cannot be achieved through ‘business as usual’ that is blind to gender relations as a systematic driver of inequalities between women and men. To realise the instrumental and intrinsic benefits of gender work and achieve meaningful impact towards SDG 5, companies must look critically at their core activities to facilitate deeper understanding of and insight into the origins of gender equality within their specific context. It is on this basis that we work with our partners and clients to explore opportunities for transformative and sustainable change—change that engages not only with the symptoms, but also the root causes of inequalities and disempowerment.

*This is the first in a series of blogs dedicated to gender and human rights in business. Stay tuned for future editions.

This blog was written following a workshop on “The role of Dutch companies in advancing gender equality globally”, organised and facilitated by KIT’s Yngve Bråten and Anouka van Eerdewijk. The workshop was part of the wider SDG Action Day on September 25th 2018, celebrating the three year anniversary of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. The workshop session hosted about 30 participants from a range of different organisations.