International Day of the Girl Child

Why business investment in girls is the key to sustainable development

A report released last week by the UN Global Compact (UNGC) states that 45% of UNGC signatories have implemented activities to improve gender equality. In fact, Sustainable Development Goal 5 on gender equality is the third most prioritised goal by UNGC members, falling just behind Goal 8 on decent work and economic growth and Goal 3 on good health and wellbeing.

That businesses are engaging more with the SDGs, and with women and girls’ issues more generally, is in line with analysis from our 2017 Human Rights Outlook, which found that the two goals to which business can contribute most directly are SDG 5 and SDG 8. As the figure below shows, approximately 3 billion workers, or 81% of the world’s workforce, are living in countries that are considered to be high or extreme risk for both labour rights violations and gender inequality.

Sustainable Development Goals: Labour Rights And Gender Equality Indices

There are two key targets within SDG 5 that companies can focus on to reduce labour rights violations and achieve better outcomes for women throughout their operations and supply chains. These are target 5.1 on eliminating all forms of discrimination against women and girls, and target 5.5 on ensuring women’s full and effective participation and equal opportunities for leadership. Both present opportunities for business to implement initiatives that help to achieve the goal independent of governments or NGOs. This could include making equality policies more robust, or ensuring all staff are trained in unconscious bias. And where companies do choose to work in partnership with government agencies or NGOs, their contribution can be even greater.

Equality policies do not always translate into positive outcomes

But what is happening in practice? A 2016 report by McKinsey shows that although more than 75% of CEOs surveyed include gender equality within their top 10 business priorities, most companies fall short when it comes to walking the walk. For example, while 93% of the companies surveyed stated they have clear and consistent policies in place for evaluating staff performance in a non-discriminatory manner, only 57% of employees report that managers implement these policies effectively in practice. Therefore, on average, women are found to be three times more likely than men to spend at least five or more years in the same position. This in turn translates into a lack of women in C-suite positions. Women currently make up only 20% of top level executives in American companies, with this figure dropping to just 3% for women of colour. According to Grant Thornton, the landscape is not much better in the UK, where women represented 21% of senior managers in 2016, a decrease from 22% in 2015.

In countries where discrimination against women is most common, and where many American and UK companies have complex supply chains, traditional gender roles in wider society are often replicated in the workplace.

This means managers and supervisors are more likely to be male, with women more likely to be confined to low-paid work. Reports of male supervisors committing acts of violence and sexual abuse against low-skilled, low-paid female staff are also frequent, particularly in sectors such as apparel manufacturing.

And while there are some companies that are making great efforts to tackle some of these issues, change is slow. If the current pace remains the same, it is unlikely that all SDG 5 targets will be achieved by 2030. The reality is that substantive change must occur before women even enter the workforce. It must begin with investment in girls.

Counting girls is the first step to gender equality

On International Day of the Girl Child 2017, the UN is both celebrating the potential of girls and drawing attention to the gaps in both data and knowledge about the specific challenges that they face. In other words, if girls are to be empowered, they must be accurately counted first.

In the past few years, adolescent girls have risen up the development agenda, and businesses have begun to pay attention. More and more companies now recognise that investing in girls results in direct economic, social and business benefits, and helps to reduce gender inequality long before girls and young women enter the workforce. A 2011 World Bank study found there were 1.6 million adolescent girls in Kenya, of which 220,098 had children. If the adolescent mothers were employed instead of caring for children, and the remaining girls finished school, USD3.4 billion could be added to Kenya’s gross income each year. This figure is equivalent to the value of the entire Kenyan construction sector. However, data such as this is generally lacking.

Data2x, an advocacy platform designed to improve the quality and use of gender data, highlights that a lack of international standards in data collection inhibits comparability, and that key indicators such as female voter registration and access to essential services are not systematically collected in many countries.

Such sparse coverage leads to an inaccurate understanding of the situation of women and girls, and therefore limits the success of initiatives designed to empower them.

Thinking outside the boardroom

In 2016, we launched Girl Stats, a not-for-profit platform that collects open-source data on girls and young women. Girl Stats helps shape the business case for tackling gender inequality at the grassroots level by encouraging business users to engage with the data and recognise the benefits of investing in girls. By understanding the unique barriers many girls face, companies can then make informed decisions that promote better outcomes for girls and young women around the world.

In countries where government policy tends to leave girls behind, companies have a unique opportunity to the fill the gap. Many businesses are already doing this by developing initiatives that challenge social norms and seek to reduce gender inequality before women enter the workforce. Through its independent foundation, MasterCard has partnered with BRAC in Uganda to deliver a programme that provides adolescent girls with financial literacy and life-skills training. With adolescent fertility rates higher in Uganda than the sub-Saharan African average, the company recognised that by providing girls with essential skills, they were less likely to become teenage mothers.

Likewise, the Goal programme developed by Standard Chartered aims to improve outcomes for adolescent girls through sport in countries such as India, China, Jordan, Indonesia and Bangladesh. By playing basketball, football or netball, girls can both challenge traditional gender stereotypes and develop confidence, leadership and teambuilding skills. This can lead to fewer cases of early marriage, better educational outcomes and more women in skilled work, increasing the overall productivity of the workforce.

It is through implementing and supporting initiatives such as these that companies will truly make a transformative contribution to fully realising SDG 5. Of course, robust gender equality policies and management systems are essential in business, but until girls are encouraged to reach their full potential from an early age, these policies will continue to have very little impact in practice.

Michelle Carpenter

Senior Human Rights Analyst