Glassed: women and CSR

Dr Jem Bendell
Adjunct Associate Professor, Griffith Business School, Australia
Sandy Lin
Research Associate, Lifeworth

In June 2008, the 18th Global Summit of Women was held in Vietnam. Known informally as the ‘Davos for Women’, the Summit attracted over 900 participants from 72 countries and regions.1 The list of sponsors for the Global Summit of Women included corporate powerhouses such as Microsoft, IBM, Pfizer and FedEx. Despite the scale of the event, the Summit did not garner international press coverage. An internet search revealed that press materials were limited to major dailies in Vietnam, Malaysia and China. The Summit aims to be a celebration of women’s achievement. In the Opening Address, Irene Navidad focused on how women have the ability to run businesses successfully. ‘41% of Rwanda’s businesses are owned by women,’ she explained. ‘The march of female entrepreneurship from agribusiness to tourism came out of the sad opportunity emerging from the genocide, which left agricultural lands, for example, in the hands of women whose husbands, sons and fathers were slaughtered. To survive, women—many of whom had no training or exposure to managing property or farms—had to take control simply in order for their families to survive. With the help of international agencies which provided training and loans to the women, Rwanda came back to life.’2 This advancement of women out of adversity echoes progress made in women’s rights in Europe after World War II, as women had been depended on in factories and farms during the fighting.

There was disquiet being expressed in some media that progress made in the West over the last decades on women’s rights, as economies had boomed, are falling back, and look likely to slip further due to an economic downturn. ‘So you thought the gender equality cause had come a long way in the last 30 years? Well think again. Not only is gender discrimination in the workplace alive and kicking, it’s actually getting worse,’ argued the British newspaper The Independent in May 2008. It reported on a survey of more than 100 British recruitment agencies, which revealed that 70% had been asked by clients to avoid hiring pregnant women or women of childbearing age.3 The New York Times then reported that women were being laid off faster in the economic downturn.4

How is the corporate social responsibility (CSR) profession addressing gender issues? New research published by the International Centre for Corporate Social Responsibility (ICCSR) found that the potential role of business as a vehicle to advance women’s issues is often overlooked in corporate responsibility work.5 In describing the state of CSR and gender equality in the EU, Dr Irmgard Schultz, co- founder of the Institute for Social-Ecological Research (ISOE), states: ‘the potential of CSR to promote EU policy goals for gender equality is hardly recognised by the public’.6 This was evident in a survey conducted by responsible enterprise consulting firm Lifeworth on ‘Women and CSR’ for this review, which invited current members of the mailing list ‘CSR Chicks’ to share their views. Sixty-four per cent of respondents, who were all female CSR practitioners, stated that their membership of the (gender-specific) network had not led them to think about the role of CSR in women’s advancement before the survey was conducted. Fifty-eight per cent reported that gender issues are ‘not a top priority’ in their organisation’s corporate responsibility efforts, 36% that it is one of the top ten priorities, and 6% that it is one of the top three priorities.

With intergovernmental organisations launching several key gender initiatives in 2008, more corporate responsibility practitioners may awaken to a gender perspective. One such initiative was the Danish government’s launch of the MDG3 Global Call for Action Campaign in the Spring, which urged for gender equality and women’s empowerment to be put higher up in the international agenda.7 In a symbolic gesture representing the ignition of a global resolve, they planned for more than 100 MDG3 torches to travel around the world as they are passed to representatives of governments, the private sector, civil society, individuals from North and South and international organisations.8 Responding to the call to ‘do something extra’, intergovernmental organisations have taken on a leading role to facilitate and strengthen advocacy on gender equality. On International Women’s Day 2008, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD)’s Development Centre launched Wikigender, an internet portal that aims to foster a bottom-up dialogue on the importance of gender equality. Along with the introduction of the Gender, Institutions and Development Database to determine and analyse obstacles to women’s economic development, the OECD aims to fill in the knowledge gap about gender discrimination that is often rooted in social institutions such as norms, traditions and family law.9

Following the OECD’s lead, in June 2008 the International Labour Organisation (ILO) embarked on an awareness-raising campaign. Speaking about the year-long ILO Global Campaign for Gender Equality that will lead up to the ILO conference scheduled in 2009 on ‘Gender Equality at the Heart of Decent Work’, ILO Director-General Juan Somavia stated, ‘although progress is being made, gender equality is still lagging behind in the rapidly changing world of work’. Indeed, despite substantial progress in the closing of the gender pay gap, women are finding out that money and power do not go hand in hand. In the Mastercard Master Index of Women’s Advancement released in March 2008, women in the Asia-Pacific region continue to feel that they are under-represented in managerial positions.10 The survey measured women’s socioeconomic progress according to four indicators. The first two objective indicators are the ratio of female to male participation in labour force and in tertiary education based on source data from national bureau statistics. The remaining two subjective indicators measure female and male perceptions of whether they hold managerial positions and earn above-average income. Their findings that women do not have the same opportunities as men in the workplace corresponded with the ILO report on Global Employment Trends for Women 2008 released in Geneva in the same month. It revealed that, even though more women are working than ever before, they are still clustered in ‘low-productivity, low-paid and vulnerable jobs, with no social protection, basic rights nor voice at work’.11 In Hong Kong in June 2008, Devi Novianti from Christian Action noted there is a particular challenge for domestic helpers, with sexual harassment being a concern. Equal Opportunities Officer Cynthia Lam emphasised that awareness-raising activities, such as training, are key.12

It is problematic that the gender impacts of business operations still register low on the radar of CSR programmes and priorities, given that women are disproportionately affected by social and environmental issues. A report released in April 2008 by the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) on the gender implications of biofuels production asserts that, in light of the increase in food prices, women ‘tend to be particularly exposed to chronic and transitory food insecurity, due also to their limited access to income generating activities’.13 Co-author of the paper Yianna Lambrou said: ‘Unless policies are adopted in developing countries to strengthen the participation of small farmers, especially women in biofuel production by increasing their access to land, capital and technology—gender inequalities are likely to become more marked and women’s vulnerability to hunger and poverty further exacerbated.’

In high-income nations, key gender issues for business centre on women on boards and the related issue of career mentoring and grooming for leadership roles, equal opportunity and diversity management in employment, segregation in the context of male/female professions and the reconciliation of a work–life balance.14 Although women in the developed world may face different socioeconomic challenges as a result of their gender identity, common among women of the North and South is a lack of decision-making power, as well as an absence of control and access to resources such as financial credit, technology and property.

The lack of attention paid to gender issues in the corporate world was highlighted by the main CSR-relevant news-making study of the second quarter: the IBM report Global CEO Study: The Enterprise of the Future.15 Its survey of over 1,000 CEOs worldwide found that were perceiving consumer interests in the social dimension of business has become a key strategic issue. Perhaps women leaders might be involved in this strategic shift? We asked the authors, but found that they had not included a gender variable in their study. On our request they kindly ‘drove it’ into their data, to find that 5% of their surveyed CEOs are women. ‘We did not do any additional analysis using this variable, but it will for the future certainly be interesting,’ explained Dr Phaedra Kortekaas of IBM. The 5% figure and the oversight of the relevance of the variable suggest that gender mainstreaming, let alone equality, has some way to go in the corporate world.

Given the scale of the challenge, why is there a lack of gender consciousness in CSR, even though many women are personally involved as CSR practitioners? Interviews with executives led Kate Grosser and Jeremy Moon to conclude ‘a lack of civil society engagement with business about gender equality in the workplace’.16 As civil society pressure plays an important role in shaping corporate responsibility agendas, unless the efforts of the ILO, OECD and others to raise the profile of gender issues changes civil society engagement, leadership will need to come from companies. However, Judi Marshall, a leading writer on women in management, suggests that gender issues may not be raised by women business people in the context of corporate responsibility ‘because the challenges CSR might address are [seen as] more important than creating trivial gender skirmishes’.17 Indeed, gender equality often ‘disappears’ behind broader CSR preoccupations with labour rights, human rights or the environment. As a result, a gender perspective has not emerged as a key issue, or framing of issues, within CSR. ISOE’s study on the banking sector found that there is ‘an urgent need to clarify and define gender equality as an indispensable dimension of CSR’.18

Professor Marshall attributes the lack of shaping power by women in CSR to the fact that women remain at the margins of CSR leadership. She cites Vandana Shiva and the late Anita Roddick as examples of well-known women who have used raw messages to challenge gender power dynamics. Marshall asserts that their ‘discordant and confronting’ style of leadership contributes to their marginalisation as activists, vis-à-vis more ‘tempered radicals’ such as Al Gore and environmental scientist James Lovelock, who have found mainstream credibility. It is perhaps time for the CSR narrative to be shaped by a more diverse group of voices. Gender differences in leadership style leads Marshall to wonder if the white male dominance of CSR leadership is ‘simply a mirroring of dominant notions of management, business and organizational scholarship’.19 Additional reasons for this lack of a gendered engagement in CSR may be the absence of gender solidarity due to competitive attitudes both professionally and personally, and a deliberate downplaying of gender issues by female captains in industry, for personal reasons.

Carly Fiorina: downplayed gender issues

Carly Fiorina: downplayed gender issues

This is illustrated by the attitude of the most powerful female CEO in American history, Carly Fiorina, who was fired from her tenure at Hewlett-Packard after five and a half years on the job. In her memoir entitled Tough Choices, Fiorina describes that she did not want to talk about her gender or the glass ceiling as she felt these topics were distractions from the mission at hand and might cause alienation among the vast majority of her employees. Fiorina further states that she made a deliberate choice to downplay issues of gender in interviews with the media, as she did not want to draw attention to herself. This lack of clear leadership on women’s issues was reflected by results from the Lifeworth survey of the CSR Chicks mailing list. Only 34% of the respondents, all female CSR practitioners, answered yes to the question ‘Has the most senior woman in your organisation that you have some direct experience of, mentioned their activities to improve the organisation’s impact on women?’ Respondents considered ‘Personal Leadership from Women CSR Professionals’ to be the most important activity within CSR to advance women over the next five years, with 46.0% considering it ‘very important’.

Servane Mouazan, managing director of Ogunte, which works on women’s leadership development, told us that more women business executives need to connect with women who are serving their local communities more broadly. She said the Global Summit of Women is an example of how successful women can develop an elite view, by praising themselves for their own success and their support for women and girls in poverty. Thus a critical perspective of how their own societies, institutions and personal behaviours affect women is overlooked. This lack of critical perspective, and the kind of reticence expressed by Ms Fiorina, does not promote awareness of the nature of gender discrimination. Consequently, misunderstandings of attempts to promote diversity at work are widespread. For instance, in a paper to be presented at the Engendering Leadership conference held at the University of Western Australia, Rhonda Pyper suggested that white males can see affirmative action as about providing special privilege rather than levelling power imbalances. While Pyper was describing these change initiatives in the context of equity legislation in Canada, one wonders if the same may be said about reactions to the Equality Bill that was passed in the UK in June 2008.20

The pressing need for CSR practitioners to win the ‘hearts and minds’ of middle-level management to promote gender equality is acknowledged by the ISOE banking case study, where it was found that instruments that are sensitising for gender equality (against gender stereotypes) contributed to the success of CSR initiatives adopted by one of the two banks surveyed in the study. It is only through this process of winning the ‘people’s case’ for gender equality that a change in attitudes will translate to a corresponding change in organisational behaviour. While gender issues may be less easily discussed than climate change, relying on the business case alone to carry broader normative perspectives is unwise, as the societal change desired requires a change in the emotional basis of gendered relations.

The emotional baggage surrounding gendered power relations is reflected in the varied definitions that have been used to bring meaning to the word ‘gender’, ranging from the use of gender as a concept, an ideology, a perspective, a role, a paradigm, a mechanism and a value. The confusion surrounding the use of the term brings up the question of ‘the political reasons for the disappearance of other problematics, concepts, and words (“women,” “feminism,” and “patriarchy” probably being the most significant) for which progressively but rapidly gender has been efficiently substituted’.21 While the use of gender as a catch-all term does not eradicate the ‘fight’ against patriarchy, male domination, power relations between the sexes and the equality/inequality between men and women, one wonders if the term ‘gender’ now holds any meaning at all, especially when the richness of detail and the sharing of meaning and experience of other concepts it embraces are now subsumed in a single word. Perhaps ‘gender’ is now a term that is used unknowingly and carelessly to ‘enable analyses that disregard patriarchal relations of domination’, with the unintended consequence that ‘gender’ is now a word to legitimise ‘the absence of any relation of domination, any system of domination, any thought of domination, of all domination’.22

If business is to take on a more active role in women’s advancement, existing CSR instruments to promote women’s equality must be strengthened. In examining the gender practices of UK companies claiming best practice, the International Centre for Corporate Social Responsibility found that, although there has been ‘some improved reporting of performance information’ relating to gender equality, the level of reporting was still limited. Authors Kate Grosser and Jeremy Moon attribute this to ‘the fact that companies committed to gender equality perceive little advantage to reporting quality information, where market, social and governmental actors appear neither to demand nor reward it, and where media attention risks misuse and misinterpretation of data’.23 Perhaps an improvement in gendered data collection and impact assessment will occur if the investors in companies begin to make this a priority. Despite conclusive evidence about the business case for gender equality being presented by Catalyst in reports published in 2004 and in 2008, there is limited pressure from the responsible investment community on these issues.24 Providing ‘Evidence of Business Case for Gender Equality’ was the second most important activity for CSR to advance women over the next five years, according to respondents to the Lifeworth survey. The launch of the ‘Women’s Principles’ by investment firm Calvert, in partnership with the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM) in 2004, has not yet led to a widespread focus on corporate responsibilities for empowering and investing in women worldwide.25 As the asset management industry has generally been dominated by men, as are corporate boards, the discussion of women at investor relations meetings probably leaves a lot to be desired.

The conclusion must be that real change will occur if women decide to lead the agenda themselves. ‘What Rwandan women demonstrated is that in order to create change in their lives, they looked to themselves first,’ explained Irene Navidad in Hanoi. ‘That is why I say over and over to women everywhere—it is not enough to envision change, you must see yourself as the agent of change. This next century is ours, and we women are poised to demonstrate to the world that the economies of each of our countries can only flourish, as it did in Rwanda, if we are given the chance to lead. But like the Rwandan women, do not wait for leadership to come calling, remember that it’s not enough to envision change, you must see yourself as the agent of change.’26

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(The references are available in the pdf download and hard copy versions of this annual review, available from Lifeworth’s bookstore.)

This section can be referenced as:

Bendell, J., and N. Alam, S. Lin, C. Ng, L. Rimando, C. Veuthey, B. Wettstein (2009) The Eastern Turn in Responsible Enterprise: A Yearly Review of Corporate Responsibility from Lifeworth, Lifeworth: Manila, Philippines.
(Page numbers for this section are available in the pdf download and hardcopy.)

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