I’ve written previously that there is business case for companies to empower women; what I didn’t mention was that even if there were not, there would still be a strong legal case for them to do so.
The global standard for the responsibilities of business vis-à-vis human rights is the U.N. Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, known more commonly as the Ruggie Principles. The Ruggie Principles reconfirm that States are responsible for protecting human rights, including women’s rights, but also formally establish that companies are responsible for respecting human rights and for remedying any violations which may occur. Though widely misunderstood, there is one point in the Principles that comes through clearly: in order to respect human rights, companies must undertake due diligence in areas of high risk.
Despite the fact that there exists no agreed-upon standard for what comprises adequate due diligence under the Ruggie Principles, there is one risk that will arise quickly from any system adopted: women’s rights. Simply put, this is while the nature of the challenge varies across geographies and across industries, discrimination against women is a universal factor, and thus a universal risk. In fact, Pillar II of the Principles explicitly names women as a group “that require[s] particular attention”. This implies that, in order to be compliant with the Ruggie Principles, all companies must put women’s rights front and centre in their due diligence processes.
Because gender so greatly influences the fulfillment of other human rights, this alone would go a huge way to making women’s empowerment less of a buzzword and more of a reality. We could also take this a step further. Recall that companies have to respect and remedy human rights, and that remedy should be proportionate to the harm caused and the level of company involvement. In terms of remedy and women’s rights, there is precedent to provide compensation in cases of harassment or wage disparities, at a bare minimum.
The future of business and gender?
Imagining a future where companies actively take on the role of empowering women as a matter of course may seem like a purely academic exercise; however, nothing outlined above goes beyond a logical reading of the standards that the Ruggie Principles already contain. These standards include the note that corporate responsibility “exists independently of States’ abilities and/or willingness to fulfil their own human rights obligations”. Initiatives are already underway to operationalize the Principles; as these gather momentum, advocates should insist that the human rights of women take centre stage.