Commission on Status of Women takes on “Gender Asbestos”

The 58th Session of the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) kicked off this week in here in New York.  The slew of events this past week and next cover kind of  topics you would expect:  healthcare, clean water, and eliminating violence against women.  But one issue making inroads this year is the critical role of the private sector in advancing the cause of equity and rights.

United Nations Global Compact, which is the arm of the UN that engages with the private sector, held an event with panelists from companies like BNP Paribas and a representative from the Commonwealth Business Council to address their seven ‘Women’s Empowerment Principles.” Elizabeth Broderick, the Sex Discrimination Commissioner for Australia, offered some powerful remarks to the panel.  (No doubt, the fact that her job title even exists is a huge step in the right direction.) She noted that “it was fabulous to have a female Prime Minister [Julia Gillard]…but if I look at our boards of our top 200 companies, we have around 18% of women at board level and if we look at the executive level, because that speaks to cultural change, it’s down around 9.7%”  Those figures are similar in other developed countries as well and slow to grow.

Broderick says that though she does not see the overt discrimination of decades before, we face “gender asbestos” at the moment — an apt description for a subtle prejudice that according to her is “built into the walls, the floors, and the ceilings of organizations.”  It is invisible for many women in the corporate realm, but not intangible.

The UN Global Compact does its part by asking executives of Fortune 500 companies to sign their CEO Statement of Support to commit them publicly to advancing equality.  It seems like a hollow promise, but it is a step toward what Broderick refers to as “engaging with the seat of power.”

Those with the power are men and so it only makes sense to have these male executives take the message of equality to other men. It should be unnecessary to even have to do this, given that there is research to show that more equally represented Boards of Directors for companies lead to increased return on equity, sales, and returns on investment.

More reports and hard data like that may help make the business case for gender equality.The moral case for women’s rights should continue to be made and so should a further discussion about access to healthcare, clean water, food, maternal health, and putting an end to the mindless levels of sexual violence against women and girls. However, to fully discuss women’s economic development – often their way to cleaner water, more food, and better health – the private sector must be included. They are the largest employers in the world and increasingly, corporations are the only entities to make inroads in difficult emerging markets.

Including them in the discussion on gender equality only makes sense.