Caution Ahead: Women at work, Business and SDG 5

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) arrived with much fan fare and rightly so, they lay down a vision that if achieved will see a world without poverty. It is an exciting prospect, one that requires more than business as usual but demands we understand and dismantle the root causes of the challenges articulated in the SDG framework. With SDG 5, to achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls, we must deal with the underlying issues that hold women back.  These include violence against women, unpaid care work and discrimination in the workplace.  With each there is a role for business to play not only in preventing these injustices, but in ensuring they are not inadvertently contributing to them.

The gender pay gap has made headlines of late as one of many forms of workplace discrimination. At  current rates, the 23 percent global pay gap between men and women will now take 170 years – 52 years longer to close than it would have done just a year ago.  If I had a pound for every time I have heard this statistic, wait, I am a woman so that would be 77 pence. Yes, we have heard this before but no matter how often it is repeated the enormity of the gender pay gap never ceases to dismay.  

care-economy1The UK legislation that will compel employers with more than 250 staff to publish data on gender pay gap, gender bonus gap is a step in the right direction. The absence of consequences is a problem. However, getting the figures out will at least prompt discussion and aid understanding.

It is important for all companies to actively root out all forms of discrimination within the workplace.  A starting point, adopt policies and practices that are free from and prevent gender-based discrimination. In addition and maintain disaggregated data for male and female workers including wages and contract status across the supply chain. 

Going beyond “do no harm”, companies can increase women’s economic participation by intentionally sourcing from women run businesses, and increasing  the number of women in leadership roles throughout  operations and encouraging  supplier to do the same.

 Around the world the disproportionate burden of unpaid care work remains an enormous barrier to progress for women  In some parts of the world women and girls currently spend as many as six hours a day on unpaid care work – a vital contribution that often goes unrecognised. This in turn, can greatly limit their ability to take opportunities to earn a living, participate in public life, and pursue an education.



Business contribution to mitigating the burden of unpaid care work includes; providing  paid paternity leave for employees and ensuring that this facilitates equal opportunities for women once they have returned to work  The  provision of day care facilities will also be a step forward. There is also a business opportunity in investing in technology and infrastructure that makes household chores easier e.g. water access, energy access and waste services.

Gender equality interventions must go beyond the factory door to supportive norms; companies play an enormous role in shaping women’s roles and rights. For example, advertising can play either a positive or a negative role in shaping the way that women are perceived and treated in society.

 It is clear that we need to urgently move away from the limited scope of options that are set as examples such as the perfect housewife and the pleasing wife.   Yes, I can’t believe we still have to protest this. In an age where we can get HD colour photographs from distance moons  it should not be a stretch to show women a world of limitless possibilities.  Companies can actively promote gender equality through community initiatives and advocacy that remove harmful stereotypes and prejudices in operations and marketing campaigns.


 Violence against women and girls knows no boundaries of geography or culture – it is a global crisis. Gender inequality is both the cause and the consequence of violence against women and girls; A third of women will experience violence at some point in their life.  However, marginalized women, including poor women and girls, are the most vulnerable to violence. Business should actively seek to understand the indirect impact of their business on violence against women. For example, male-dominated industries such as mining, fishing or oil pipeline work are often accompanied by increased trafficking of women or violence against local women.  

Not only should businesses have zero tolerance for violence against women within the workplace itself,  but also on the journey to and from work and around it; women’s dormitories, on-site accommodation, or places where employees are sent together for work purposes (such as when employees travel for conferences and stay in hotels) where violence can take place. There should also be an obligation for businesses to continually monitor and support supplier’s ability to identify and eradicate violence in the workplace. 

Business can and should play a role through adopting and implementing policies that prevent gender-based discrimination.  A world without poverty is within reach, but requires business to do more to remove the burdens and injustices that keep millions trapped in poverty. “Gender equality is more than a goal in itself[1]. It is a precondition for sustainable development”.  



This blog is a part of the September 2017 series on Empowering women, in partnership with SPRING.

Read the full series for insights on business models that empower girls and women, a new analysis of gender impacts of value chain interventions, tips on gender-lens investing and many inspiring personal stories from women.


[1] Former  UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan https://www.unicef.org/media/media_35134.html

[1]  Source for Picture 1 : https://oxfamblogs.org/fp2p/whats-the-link-between-human-rights-and-cooking-cleaning-and-caring-and-why-does-it-matter/  Source for Picture 2 https://feminisminindia.com/2015/12/30/caregiving-and-paid-work/ 

[2] Source for picture Always Adverts  Proctor and Gamble


1 Comment

  1. Profile photo of Caroline Ashley, Editorial Advisor Caroline Ashley, Editor says:

    You lay out a great set of challenges to corporates Ruth and make it clear we can’t just stick an SDG 5 logo on a business simply because its products or services benefit women. These are huge issues of pay, unpaid care, stereotypes and violence that we need business to push the needle on.

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