Why gender equality is not a business interest: opinion piece from Enact’s Ruben Brunsveld

March 2019

Today, on March 8th, we celebrate International Women’s Day, a day when we highlight the importance of equal opportunities and women’s rights. We celebrate the progress that has been achieved over the years, while not losing sight of the fact that there is still a long way to go before true #balanceforbetter is achieved.  

This year the website of the official International Women’s Day states that “balance is not a women’s issue, it’s a business issue.” I believe, however, that framing it like that is not only counterproductive but possibly even harmful. 

Let’s be clear. The business case for gender equality is there. The 2015 McKinsey Global Institute report found that at least $12 trillion could be added to global GDP by 2025 by advancing women’s equality. And for that to happen we do not all have to become Sweden. All that countries need to do, is match the rate of improvement on gender parity to the fastest-improving country in their own region. We also know that companies with at least one woman on the board structurally outperform companies with all male boards. And we know that companies with the highest representation of women on their top management teams experience better financial performance than companies with the lowest women’s representation. 

So, what can possibly be wrong with framing women’s rights as a business issue

If we see women’s rights as a business issue, that means that ignoring women’s rights should be seen as a business risk. And that is where things go wrong. Equal opportunity and non-discrimination are two sides of the same coin. The right not to be discriminated against on the basis of your gender is a fundamental human right. When we start to identify human rights as “risks to the business” instead of “human rights risks” on their own merits, we make the wrong decisions. If we see the neglect of women’s rights as a “risk to the business” (instead of a “risk to the woman)”, all we need to do to insure ourselves against that risk, is to make sure that the business is protected (not the woman). And that is exactly when organisations force women to sign NDA’s; when testimonies get bought and stories remain in the dark. All to make sure we are protected from the business risk of abusing women’s rights. 

It is not until we shift the focus from the “risk to the business” to the “risk to the rights holder” that we can prevent gender discrimination from happening. Every business must take the right measures, regardless of whether there is a risk to the business. We must change the narrative and acknowledge that gender equality is about non-discrimination and the protection of fundamental human rights.

Equal opportunity and non-discrimination are fundamental principles which are enshrined in national legislation and international treaties. They are rights on their own merits. We must change our businesses, not because of the interest to the business but because women’s rights are human rights. And human rights are, by their very nature, universal and inalienable.  

Does that mean that we should not communicate the business case of gender equality? Of course not. In order to mobilise your target audience, you must speak a language they understand. So, if you need the business case to start moving the needle, by all means start there. There is enough proof out there to convince the most conventional and stubborn CFO.  

But in doing so, we should never forget that even though women’s rights are in the interest of business, they are not a business interest.

-Ruben Brunsveld