While women consist of a vast majority of the labour force in global supply chains, men still hold most of the management positions. In the textile and garment industry alone, women generally represent 80% of the workforce but only 5% of supervisors. The disparity increases the risk of abuse and has led to a broad range of negative impacts for women in the workplace, such as inequality of income, imbalance of power and discriminatory behaviour like sexual violence and harassment.

Even though regulations are in place in many countries, a lack of enforcement and awareness has made factories and farms places where women are disproportionately marginalised. Effective ways to address women’s rights and their specific workplace challenges though internal grievance mechanisms are often lacking, which severely decreases the likelihood of women reporting violations of their rights. In addition, due to social norms and stigmas, women are generally presented with less opportunities for upward mobility than their male counterparts and often fear to speak out about abuses they are exposed to.

Addressing inequalities, discrimination and gender-based violence is not only a social and moral issue for companies, but it also has critical economic implications. McKinsey Global Institute published a report in 2015 where they state that US$12 trillion can be added to the global GDP by 2025 by advancing women’s equality.

Creating an enabling working environment where women can freely set their own agendas, have career mobility, gain skills and equally participate in economic life has revealed to have measurable positive effects. Providing greater opportunities for female workers to reach supervisory roles have proven to not only contribute to social and economic empowerment, but also enhance productivity levels and financial returns for the company. It has been shown to have a direct positive impact on working conditions, reduce absenteeism, turnover and workplace incidents, as well as improve decent working hours and fair remuneration for all women at the workplace. A company that aims to be a good employer for women also increases their brand reputation and makes them a more attractive employer that can easily retain new talent.

To successfully attain these benefits, businesses must include women in all levels of decision-making processes and incorporate a gender-lens to their internal and external procedures to appropriately identify, prevent and remedy violations of women’s rights. Embedding a gender-lens to human rights due diligence implies taking the specific needs and risks of women into consideration in workplace policies and management systems. It is critical here to approach gender equality through an integral approach in each step of the due diligence process, including capacity building, monitoring and evaluation measures as well as access to effective grievance mechanisms.

Social dialogue with key stakeholders is a further powerful means to achieve greater impact and drive collective progress to create an enabling working environment for women and drive long-term improvements for companies, their business partners and workers throughout global supply chains. The prevention of discrimination against women is a major dimension of the broader business responsibility to respect human rights, and supply chain sustainability can only be strengthened if we appropriately empower, promote and protect women’s rights at the workplace.

Businesses have a fundamental role to play in facilitating a shift in the mindset regarding women at work and bring about tangible behavioural change to advance their rights, increase opportunities for professional development and reduce gender inequalities in global supply chains. The business case for empowering women clearly demonstrates that companies do not have to chose between a moral responsibility to respect human rights and their financial bottom line. In fact, it proves that to be truly sustainable, a company cannot have one without the other.