By David Lawrence
The #MeToo movement has fundamentally altered how society is dealing with sexual harassment and abuse at the workplace. But other forms of gender-based violence, such as domestic abuse, often affect victims in the workplace, making gender-based violence a complex issue for companies.
What can CEOs and other company executives do to address gender-based violence?
Today, many firms have policies in place to protect employees from sexual harassment in the workplace, often backed up by the legal system. But outside the workplace, at home, gender-based violence can be less visible. Perpetrators rely on fear, coercion, and control to keep their victims from speaking out. Many company officials wonder whether they can take action on a problem outside of the workplace.
It turns out they can—by putting policies in place that support employees.
Dr. Jane Pillinger, an independent researcher and policy advisor, said in an interview that globally about one in three working women experience gender-based violence in their lifetimes—often at the hand of a partner. But companies can help their employees by instituting policies to create a safe space without incurring high costs.
Policies on gender-based violence can drive productivity, profitability, and performance. © Peter Rae/IFC
“Companies can provide paid domestic leave, train managers, offer support for victims, and hold perpetrators accountable,” she said. “For example, if anyone were to use workplace resources to perpetrate domestic violence—such as mobile phones, tablets, computers—it could lead to automatic dismissal.”
She also advocates prevention measures, including putting security measures in place to prevent assault or stalking (for example, in parking lots); changing workplace phone numbers or email addresses; or offering flexible work hours.
The Business Case for Addressing Gender-Based Violence
The steps that companies take to protect at-risk employees also affects the bottom line, experts said.
Shabnam Hameed, an IFC Operations Officer working on gender-based violence in the East Asia and Pacific region, said that implementing workplace policies on gender-based violence can “drive productivity, profitability, and performance.”
For instance, an IFC client in the Solomon Islands, Sol Tuna, reduced absenteeism by 25 percent through a range of gender-smart initiatives, including putting policies in place for creating a respectful workplace, addressing sexual harassment, and supporting employees affected by domestic violence. It also trained women and men in financial literacy and opened new, better-paying job opportunities for women, including some in jobs traditionally held by men such as electricians and plumbers.
Increasingly, global firms are coming on board.
Male-dominated traditions in countries like Solomon Islands have curtailed women’s earning potential. © Peter Rae/IFC
“OneInThreeWomen,” a network of large, multinational companies established in 2018 by the FACE Foundation and the Kering Foundation, has a requirement for each CEO joining the network: A commitment to preventing gender-based violence. Last November, it published a survey exploring issues around gender-based violence in six participating firms—BNP Paribas, Carrefour, Kering, Korian, L’Oréal, and OuiCare. The study also provides concrete, actionable recommendations that companies can take to address the issue, including policies, tools, and training.
Kering, an international luxury group that owns brands such as Gucci and Saint Laurent, began tackling gender-based violence more than a decade ago. In 2008, CEO François-Henri Pinault established the Kering Foundation, which has taken a multifaceted approach to tackle the issue. The foundation supports local NGOs and social entrepreneurs, dismantles stereotypes, and provides training on the complexities of domestic violence and its impact on the workplace to Kering’s 35,000 employees. It also emphasizes prevention, including outreach to men and boys.
“Respect and openness are core values of the group,” said Caroline Courtin, Head of Diversity & Inclusion at BNP Paribas. “When you have victims who work in your company, the victims not only suffer from the violence—it also affects their day-to-day work. It is important for us to understand the root cause because we know that this violence is a reason for inequality at work. It also has an impact on colleagues, the organization, and the productivity of the company.”
Victims not only suffer from violence—it also affects their day-to-day work. © Peter Rae/IFC
Addressing Gender-Based Violence at the Global Level
International organizations are also engaging on the issue. Last June, the International Labour Organization (ILO) adopted the Violence and Harassment Convention to provide a framework for addressing violence and harassment in the world of work, including a provision on domestic violence. In January, Uruguay became the first country to ratify the convention.
“The convention says that governments have a responsibility to require employers to address the risks of domestic violence in the workplace and to mitigate those risks, for example, by developing workplace policies on violence and harassment at work, including domestic violence,” said Pillinger.
The World Bank Group also is active in this space. It supports over $300 million in development projects to address gender-based violence in operations that it finances. In the Pacific, IFC works directly with companies to address gender-based violence in the workplace. The World Bank Group also screen potential investments for the risk of workplace sexual harassment and abuse.
The World Bank Group supports over $300 million to address gender-based violence in operations that it finances. © Peter Rae/IFC
“In the last three or four years, I’ve seen a high level of interest in the issue,” she said. “Companies realize there is a business benefit for doing something around it. And some very enlightened employers genuinely see that they have the potential to make a difference.”
As research and corporate experience shine light on the importance of combating gender-based violence, more companies feel empowered to act.
“There is a growing awareness that everyone has a role to play in addressing gender-based violence, including the private sector,” said Hameed. “There is a lot of appetite for supporting staff affected by violence and mitigating the risks.”
Céline Bonnaire, the Executive Director of the Kering Foundation, added: “It’s key to have senior leadership involved and engaged on this topic. Our CEO was one of the first to say that violence against women is an important topic and that the company should be engaged in combatting it. It sends a very strong signal. It is part of the responsibility of the company to tackle this issue.”
Published in March 2020