What the Corporate Responsibility to Respect Human Rights Means for Workplace Gender Diversity

In 1995, Hillary Clinton, addressing the United Nations, put the point powerfully and succinctly: "Human rights are women's rights and women's rights are human rights."

Over the last two years, I have worked directly with some of the world's largest corporations to address human rights challenges -- from responsibly investing in the oil sands and Myanmar to empowering women workers in global supply chains.

As part of these engagements, I work with my corporate clients to map possible human rights risks against the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. My findings from these assessments are in line with the best literature on the matter: Women often do not have access to the same rights and opportunities as men -- even in corporate America.

As my clients are aware, the statistics are disconcerting: 96 percent of Fortune 500 companies are run by men; 85 percent of Fortune 500 executive officers are male; 83 percent of board seats are held by men. While there is no single factor that explains these statistics, the question remains: Are there any concrete steps corporations can take to help counteract these inequalities?

Anne-Marie Slaughter, Professor of Politics and International Affairs at Princeton University and author of The Atlantic's most read article in 2012 "Why Women Still Can't Have It All", argues that structural barriers in the workplace are often a major factor preventing women from reaching their highest potential. One such barrier is a workplace structured around the "expectation that someone else is handling the home front." The result is that some workers must make hard choices between family and work, choices that disproportionately burden women.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Convention on the Elimination on All Forms of Discrimination against Women and the International Labor Standards all outline the right to non-discrimination. Structural barriers that prevent women from securing high ranking corporate positions infringe on the right to non-discrimination in the same way that foregoing wheel chair accessible offices is a form of discrimination for workers with disabilities. In both cases, there are concrete steps companies can take to reduce or eliminate the barriers that prevent certain groups from advancing within their organizations.

Companies can start to address the problem of gender discrimination by following the guidelines established in the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. The Guiding Principles detail the corporate responsibility to respect human rights. Companies are expected to "know and show" that they do not infringe on human rights by developing appropriate policies, conducting due diligence, and updating management processes to avoid infringement.

While tackling the issue of gender equality may seem daunting, the Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights highlight four steps from companies to take:

  1. Adopt a policy. Companies should adopt a human rights policy that explicitly recognizes the importance of gender diversity at all levels of the company. The policy should be signed by the CEO and made public on the company's website.
  2. Conduct due diligence. Companies should ensure the root causes of gender discrimination are understood and the gaps in company management are made clear through a human rights impact assessment.
  3. Address current instances of gender discrimination. Companies should integrate findings from the due diligence into company processes and take steps to ensure non-repetition of infringement.
  4. Set targets and report on performance. And companies should set clear gender diversity targets and expand the diversity data made available. (As the saying goes, "what gets measured gets done.")

While there are many factors that contribute to gender inequity--from inadequate government policies on maternity and paternity leave to a dearth of leadership examples women can look to--these four steps will help companies better understand and address the challenge of gender diversity.

There are already encouraging examples.

Novo Nordisk, the Danish-owned pharmaceutical company, recognized that promoting women leaders within their company required a results driven work environment that downplayed face time -- giving their employees the flexibility to meet both family and work needs throughout the day. This combined with women networks designed to help the company meet its diversity targets has resulted in a 30 percent to 46 percent increase of female employees in their Lighthouse Program for exceptional vice presidents since 2009.

Similarly, McKinsey and Company, the global consulting firm, recognized that it was losing some of its top female talent to motherhood. In response, they launched a new initiative to recruit these same women back into the company and are reexamining their work culture in order maintain high rates of female consultants as they enter motherhood.

Additionally, companies such as Microsoft and PepsiCo have expressed support for advancing equality between men and women by signing the UN's Women's Empowerment Principles, which offers guidance on how to empower women in the workplace, marketplace and community. What these examples suggest is that companies can make powerful changes to their current structures, policies, and recruiting practices to promote gender equity.

Ensuring that we live in a world where half of our companies are run by women is no easy task. I'm optimistic, however, that if companies tackle the issue of gender diversity, with the same zeal I've seen my clients tackle the right to freedom of expression or the right to education, we'll get there much faster than current forecasts suggest.