As the supplier of consumer goods, the leader of advertising, and a key source of incomes and benefits, the private sector has a considerable influence on perceptions about and the advancement of gender equality. Recognizing this unique power and the market and competitive opportunities that come with supporting the dignity and opportunity of women, private sector leaders are increasingly establishing more ambitious gender equality norms and goals than government leaders.
This leadership is necessary and welcome and will be required to realize SDG 5 (achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls). As the Decade of Action begins, and the world continues to grapple with a pandemic that has further revealed the extent and harm of the global gender gap, the case for private sector action on gender equality — as a business necessity and universal benefit — is clear.
To foster private sector action for SDG 5, the UN Foundation is embarking on a five-year program to convene and strategize with private sector leaders on advancing gender equality at work. This platform will facilitate learning and connections between business peers, gender equality leaders, and the UN, and will focus on the implementation of five key policies:
Women are far from equal when it comes to equal pay for equal work: global estimates reveal that women earn only 77 cents to every dollar that men make for the same work, constituting a 50 percent income gap and a 40 percent wage gap between men and women. Despite this glaring disparity, only 40 percent of countries mandate equal remuneration for work of equal value.
Closing the gender pay gap not only encourages more women to participate in the workforce, but it also offers an untapped benefit to economies: it has been shown that economies grow faster when more women work, and development can only be sustained if there are equal benefits and pay for both men and women.
In the case of the U.S., for example, if women’s economic participation were to equal men’s, the country’s economy would earn a 19 percent increase in GDP by 2025, equivalent to an overall gain of $4.3 trillion or $13,392 per person. Globally, these gains amount to an additional 26 percent, or $28 trillion, to the global GDP by 2025.
Women do not yet enjoy equal power in many sectors, but the business leadership gap is among the widest. A study across 26 OECD countries revealed that as of 2016, women represented only 14 percent of board members. Approximately 42 percent of the central banks covered in the report had no women on their board, a level which has remained constant since 2003. Within the U.S., only 11 percent of Fortune 500 executives are women, and only five percent of tech start-ups are founded by women.
Holding leadership positions is critical to women’s agency and potential within companies and society more broadly. Women in power are more likely to institute gender-responsive policies and practices that permeate throughout a company. Promoting women’s leadership is also a benefit to businesses’ bottom lines: when it comes to corporate boards, research links gender diversity to better company performance, including in areas such as greater returns on sales and assets. One study even found that having women in leadership positions aligned with a 15 percent increase in profitability on average.
Research shows that harassment and discrimination in the workplace remains a pervasive issue and a barrier to women’s advancement. A reported 54 percent of women have experienced unwanted sexual advances at work, yet 90 percent of employees who experience harassment never file a complaint and 75 percent never complain directly to their employers. Given that 59 countries currently have no laws prohibiting sexual harassment or abuse in the workplace, businesses are in a critical position to implement their own policies to ensure a safe professional environment.
Women face a range of negative consequences from hostile work environments including physical and mental health challenges, career interruptions, and lower earnings, all of which contribute to the gender wage gap.
However, it is not only women that bear the brunt of these consequences – employers also face significant costs when women face harassment in the workplace. Research shows that sexual harassment in the workplace can increase employee turnover. In fact, targets of harassment are 6.5 times more likely than non-targets to change jobs, posing a significant cost to businesses. One study found that the annual cost of sexual harassment associated with absenteeism, lost productivity and turnover exceeded $6 million per Fortune 500 company. Sex-based harassments in the workplace can also result in expensive litigation and insurance costs as well as irreversible damage to a company’s brand and reputation.
Paid parental leave, including paternity leave, is essential to creating an even distribution of childcare and ensuring that women are supported and able to return to work. The U.S. remains the only country among 41 OECD nations that does not mandate any paid leave for new parents. In fact, the smallest amount of paid leave required by any of the other 40 countries is two months.
Stubborn gender gaps also characterize parental leave and exacerbate inequality. Paid paternity, intended for fathers, lags dramatically behind maternity leave. Globally, the median length of paid paternity leave is just five days, compared to 98 days for maternity leave. Yet even when paternity leave is offered, men tend not to take it: a recent study revealed that within G7 countries, at least 23 percent of men could be taking paternity leave but are not.
Paid family leave is not only essential to the health and wellbeing of children and their families, but is also an important contributing factor of women’s labor force participation and creating a more gender-equal distribution of home care. Studies have shown that paid parental leave incentivizes labor market attachment for women before and after birth, which creates a larger workforce, higher GDP, and higher national productivity. In the U.S., paid family leave has been shown to lead to higher employee retention rates and higher incomes for families. Furthermore, instituting and encouraging paid paternity leave reinforces the concept of shared unpaid work at home, which allows women to return to the labor market and creates a more gender-equal distribution of home care.
Negative gender stereotypes undermine gender equality and cause real and lasting harm. According to a recent report from the UK, gender-stereotypical imagery and rhetoric “can lead to unequal gender outcomes in public and private aspects of people’s lives.”
Advertisements are one of the most ubiquitous and reinforcing methods of negative gender stereotypes: a recent study by Unilever found that among thousands of ads used globally in 2016, only three percent featured women in leadership roles, while only two percent showed women as intelligent, and only one percent portrayed women as having a sense of humor.
Furthermore, men and women around the world report being fed up with these negative stereotypes in advertising: a 2018 study that interviewed consumers aged 16-64 in 28 countries showed that 73 percent find advertising affects how women see themselves; 53 percent say advertising sets unrealistic expectations on women and puts pressures on women and girls with regards to their lifestyle decisions; and 72 percent say that advertisements do not reflect the society and world around them.
Through advertising, companies have tremendous sway over consumers and therefore have a responsibility to combat gender norms and end negative gender stereotyping. Women exposed to media images of women in counter-stereotypical roles have been shown to report less negative self-perception and greater leadership aspirations compared to images of women in stereotypical roles. This is not only a gain for women, but for businesses’ bottom line as well: research has shown that progressive advertising creates 25 percent more branded impact, is 16 percent more relevant, and can drive purchase intent by 18 percent. One study in particular found that featuring female leads and gender-balanced content in YouTube marketing attracted 30 percent more viewership than male-dominated videos.