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Making Gender Visible

By Geeta Aiyer, CEO of Boston Common Asset Management.

Exclusion and harm on the basis of gender are so pervasive as to be invisible, normalized, and ignored. Like racial exploitation, gender-based inequity, violence, and harassment are woven into commerce, economics, and social systems. Human trafficking – modern-day slavery for supply chains, personal servitude, and sexual exploitation – is largely gender driven. Women are universally underpaid for equivalent work and lack equal access to capital, land, water, and opportunities to build wealth. Intersections of class, race, and ethnicity exacerbate the harm.

Taxed by society’s expectations, women and girls carry the burden of unpaid care and sustenance for the young, old, and infirm, for food and water. This burden often leaves them penalized in the “paid” economy, relegated to inferior or precarious work, their opportunities curtailed, their work devalued. Power imbalances and enabling cultures further objectify them, condoning threats to their freedom and safety.

Why should investors care? Because corporate choices on exploitative supply chains, damaging marketing practices, toxic company cultures, and unsafe workplaces are justified on their behalf. These unpriced externalities along with broader concerns about the well-being of employees, customers, and community have risen to the top with the pandemic. By some estimates, a decade of progress on women’s economic participation has been erased by the pandemic as women bore the brunt of “essential work”, care-giving, and lost service-sector jobs.

Disappointingly, gender is largely absent from conversations on global investor action despite its adverse impacts pervading most sectors and geographies. Palpably gender-driven harms are often subsumed under broader “worker” or “human” rights frameworks, or the “S” in ESG, or Human Capital in research and standard-setting. Boston Common wants to increase the visibility of gender concerns, naming them in order to prioritize, monitor, and address them.

Data on corporations is improving but the full impact of gender-related issues can be hard to uncover. Companies may distance themselves from Gender-Based Violence and Harassment (GBVH) in their supply chains, sub-contracted, or franchised operations. They may bind women employees to forgo access to courts in favour of mandatory arbitration. As investors, we see both gender-related risks and opportunities for well-managed, gender-inclusive, and gender-supportive corporations to benefit from innovation, talent retention, resilience, and societal well-being. Gender has long underpinned our work, as women are hardest hit by the interconnected crises of climate change, rising inequality, and human well-being. Our pathbreaking work has led to changes on uncomfortable issues like child sex tourism in the hotel industry. Now, as part of our ambitious corporate engagement efforts on equity and inclusion, we are building a Gender-Priority approach across sectors, regions, and the corporate value-chain on products, processes, and policies. We are ready to pull back the curtains and let Gender take centre-stage.

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