New UN Gender Guidance is a reminder that real equality requires tackling discrimination

25/6/2019 - Nora Götzmann, Danish Institute for Human Rights

Nora Götzmann argues that the UN Working Group on Business and Human Rights’s Gender Guidance underlines how a gender-neutral approach is insufficient.

On 26th June, the ‘Gender dimensions of the Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights’ will be presented to the United Nations Human Rights Council. The Gender Guidance makes the case for specific attention to the rights of women and girls in UN Guiding Principles (UNPGs) implementation, and for addressing the structural gender discrimination that underpins workplaces and communities globally.

The Gender Guidance is structured around a common framework for states and businesses that calls for gender-responsive assessment to inform gender-transformative measures and remedies, providing a range of illustrations of how to put this into practice. The Gender Guidance is unequivocal that implementation requires responding to the "differentiated, intersectional and disproportionate adverse impacts on women’s human rights", and steps "capable of bringing change to patriarchal norms and unequal power relations that underpin discrimination, gender-based violence and gender stereotyping". 

This is significant as much of the current business and human rights discourse, frameworks and practice remain alarmingly weak or altogether silent on the rights of women and girls. For example, it has been noted that National Action Plans on business and human rights almost exclusively address women’s rights in the area of employment.

Frequently, gender is at best treated as a good practice ‘add on’, rather than an integral part of UNGPs implementation. Rarely is the structural nature of discrimination against women and girls addressed, including the pervasiveness of sexual and gender-based violence throughout all aspects of women’s working and family lives. In this context, the Gender Guidance provides a welcome reminder as to why explicit attention to the rights of women and girls is so important. Three aspects are arguably worth noting in particular:

Recognising the centrality of women’s rights 

The Gender Guidance clarifies that women’s rights are relevant to business and human rights in all circumstances; and that exercising due diligence requires businesses to work towards achieving ‘substantive’ gender equality (i.e. achieving equitable outcomes in practice, which requires more than ‘formal’ equality measures that treat women and men alike). This challenges more selective interpretations of the relevance of women’s rights in the UNGPs, such as the idea that considering sexual and gender-based violence is only relevant in conflict-affected areas.

The re-iteration of women’s human rights as a normative value (notwithstanding that there may be a business case), coupled with the emphasis placed on the need to address systemic discrimination, provides welcome arguments for business and human rights practitioners who face narrow company understandings of gender discrimination that limit analysis and action to formal equality measures.

Instead, rooted in international human rights law standards and principles, the Gender Guidance reminds all actors engaged in business and human rights that a gender-neutral approach is insufficient and that proactive steps, including through special measures and affirmative action, must be an integral part of protecting and respecting women’s rights in working towards substantive equality. 

Sex-disaggregated data and setting progressive targets 

The Gender Guidance calls on states and businesses to set progressive targets, and points to the need for measurable sex-disaggregated data to show steps taken and  evaluate their effectiveness. As the illustrative actions provided in the Gender Guidance indicate, if states and businesses are to get serious about the rights of women and girls, they need to back this up with real change in terms of women’s representation in government institutions, on company boards, in unions, all the way to engagement with women workers and community members on the ground.

While this point is somewhat obvious, its importance cannot be overstated. Hopefully, rather than reinventing the wheel, the business and human rights community will work with well-established women’s rights organisations, and other actors versed in the design and application of such targets and data. 

Involving women and women’s organisations 

Importantly, the Gender Guidance stresses the need for increased involvement of women and women’s organisations in UNGPs implementation. The role of partnerships and collaboration both within institutions and between different stakeholders is also elaborated. This emphasis on direct engagement with women affected by business-related law, policy and activity is critical, given that women are all too often ‘represented’, or worse still simply taken to be represented, by male voices.

As pointed out, however, it is impossible to gauge a full and comprehensive picture of business-related impacts on women and how these might be addressed, without actively engaging women directly. 

Further development and ways forward 

All that being said, the Gender Guidance should not remain without its critics. By and large, for instance, it remains within established structures. For example, it is recommended that gender be integrated into trade and investment agreements and women involved in their negotiation, rather than positing a more fundamental feminist analysis of the very structure of the international investment regime.

While intersectionality is acknowledged, the concept of gender itself is not interrogated. The important role of men, including male champions for women’s rights, in addressing adverse impacts on women and girls and contributing towards the realisation of women’s rights, might have been usefully considered. 

However, overall the Gender Guidance is an important step forward. It provides a clear reminder as to why a gender-neutral approach is insufficient and the call for states and businesses to take proactive measures to address systemic discrimination against women. The Gender Guidance should be taken as an opportunity by all actors to put women’s rights at the centre of business and human rights frameworks and practice, with the view to avoiding and addressing adverse impacts on women and girls and realising substantive gender equality.

Nora Götzmann is Senior Adviser in Human Rights and Business at the Danish Institute for Human Rights

Read more about the Danish Institute for Human Rights’ work on gender in business and human rights here: https://www.humanrights.dk/projects/gender-business-human-rights