The BusinessGreen Guide to the SDGs: SDG5 - Gender Equality

James Murray
clock • 7 min read

BusinessGreen takes a look at the economic implications that will arise from the global push to 'achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls'

Targets

5.1 End all forms of discrimination against all women and girls everywhere.

5.2 Eliminate all forms of violence against all women and girls in the public and private spheres, including trafficking and sexual and other types of exploitation.

5.3 Eliminate all harmful practices, such as child, early and forced marriage and female genital mutilation.

5.4 Recognize and value unpaid care and domestic work through the provision of public services, infrastructure and social protection policies and the promotion of shared responsibility within the household and the family as nationally appropriate.

5.5 Ensure women's full and effective participation and equal opportunities for leadership at all levels of decision-making in political, economic and public life.

5.6 Ensure universal access to sexual and reproductive health and reproductive rights as agreed in accordance with the Programme of Action of the International Conference on Population and Development and the Beijing Platform for Action and the outcome documents of their review conferences.

5.A Undertake reforms to give women equal rights to economic resources, as well as access to ownership and control over land and other forms of property, financial services, inheritance and natural resources, in accordance with national laws.

5.B Enhance the use of enabling technology, in particular information and communications technology, to promote the empowerment of women.

5.C Adopt and strengthen sound policies and enforceable legislation for the promotion of gender equality and the empowerment of all women and girls at all levels.

Progress to date

The progress made against SDG5 has to be set in the context of the huge and justified ambition of the goal. The target to "end all forms of discrimination against all women and girls everywhere" necessitates a turning point in the history of human civilisation that would end centuries of cultural, social, and economic inequality.

It remains genuinely remarkable that all governments were corralled into backing a target when a significant number of administrations maintain laws and policies that are blatantly antithetical to the agreed goal.

As the UN acknowledges, "while some forms of discrimination against women and girls are declining, gender inequality continues hold women back and deprives them of basic rights and opportunities".

Distressingly, data from 2005 to 2016 collated in 56 countries, found that one in five ever-partnered adolescent girls aged 15-19 had already experienced physical and/or sexual violence by an intimate partner in the 12 months prior to the survey.

Incidences of child marriage and female genital mutilation (FGM) may have declined in recent decades, but they are still commonplace in some regions. In 2017, around 21 per cent of women between 20 and 24 years were married or in a union before the age of 18. A third of women aged 15 to 19 in living in countries where FGM remains a social norm have been subjected to the practice. The rate has fallen from around half of women in 2000, but a practice that is now defined as a human right violation remains widespread.

Many countries still lack effective sexual discrimination legislation and where it is in place enforcement is often patchy, inside and outside the workplace. Pay gaps persist in every country, as does a lack of equal representation in senior roles. The proportion of women in national parliaments has increased from 19 per cent in 2000, but still stands at just 23 per cent in 2018.

Based on data from about 90 countries, between 2000 and 2016, on an average day, women spend about three times as many hours in unpaid domestic and care work as men, and significantly more if they have children. Data for 47 countries from 2007 to 2016, found that just over half of women aged 15 to 49 years who were married or in union were able to make their own informed decisions on birth control.

Business implications

The UN Development Programme explains how SDG5 is central to the delivery of all the other SDGs. "Ending all forms of discrimination against women and girls is not only a basic human right, but it is also crucial to accelerating sustainable development," it states. "It has been proven time and again, that empowering women and girls has a multiplier effect, and helps drive economic growth and development across the board."

At the macro and micro level the evidence is in. Improved levels of gender equality lead to lower birth rates, which will make all of the environmental-focused SDGs easier to achieve. It also drives higher levels of economic growth and improves education and skills across the workforce.

Similarly, at the organisational level there is a growing body of evidence that diverse teams, free from discrimination, make better decisions and perform better than teams marred by gender inequality.

The focus of SDG5's targets on government policy and development outcomes arguably undersells the critical role the private sector has to play in tackling discrimination and shifting cultural norms in favour of gender equality. Put simply there is no way to "end all forms of discrimination against all women and girls everywhere" without massive input from the business community.

However, target 5.A to deliver reforms to give women equal rights to economic resources and target 5.C's pledge to "adopt and strengthen sound policies and enforceable legislation for the promotion of gender equality and the empowerment of all women and girls at all levels" have obvious direct implications for businesses everywhere.

Business Risks

There are significant practical risks that will arise for businesses that fail to engage with SDG5 and respond to the policy shifts that it heralds. The primary focus of the goal may not be on the business community with most of the targets worded so as to be aimed at governments, but the implications for businesses of all sizes and across all industries are obvious, especially when you consider their central role in entrenching economic and pay imbalances between the genders.

In terms of direct impact on businesses, the pledge to "promote shared responsibility within the household and the family as nationally appropriate" points to yet more momentum behind the trend for shared parental leave, while the target to "adopt and strengthen sound policies and enforceable legislation for the promotion of gender equality and the empowerment of all women and girls at all levels" suggests more demanding anti-discrimination legislation is on the cards in most jurisdictions.

More generally, the target to ensure equal opportunities for female leadership at all levels of decision-making in political, economic and public life may not prescribe specific policy interventions, but it points to more affirmative action style initiatives and more robust enforcement of discrimination rules.

The legal risks for businesses that fail to adopt and enact impeccable equality policies are obvious. At the same time the reputational risks are also likely to become ever more pronounced as customers and employees increasingly expect leading businesses to take a more proactive stance in tackling the pay gap and discrimination. Particular industries face significant risk of legislative, investor, and stakeholder action as they continue to either willingly or unwittingly entrench discrimination.

The global nature of SDG5 suggests businesses could also soon face supply chain risks if they operate in countries where opposition to the targets set out by the UN remains the norm.

Business opportunities

Progressive businesses clearly have a critical role to play in supporting SDG5 and demonstrating that an end to discrimination based on gender is possible. And there are also significant commercial upsides associated with improved equality policies.

Specifically, providing the infrastructure that allows more women to enter the workforce is key to efforts to address the skills shortages faced by the transition to a low carbon and sustainable economy. At the same time there is ample evidence diverse teams make better decisions and create healthier and more productive workplaces.

Moreover, 'enabling technologies' that promote the empowerment of women are likely to create major new markets, especially in the IT sector, while equal opportunities in the workplace that encourage more women into the workforce are similarly likely to drive economic growth for all businesses.

Finally, the values that underpin SDG5 are increasingly second nature to young people around the world, meaning that businesses that publicly engage with them should find it easier to recruit and retain new customers and talent.

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