It wasn’t your typical business conference: youth from around the world danced in silent discos, Native women shared sacred words, and the Prime Minister of Canada made a 10-year commitment to women’s health.
For a week this past June, Vancouver’s population increased by nearly 8,000 as attendees of Women Deliver 2019, the world’s largest conference on gender equality, came together to celebrate the progress of women—and collaborate on solving current and future challenges. Amid this environment of women’s empowerment, BSR and Women Deliver convened a unique day-long event, bringing corporate leaders into the mix for a discussion on the role of business in building a ‘future of work’ that works for women.
Automation, artificial intelligence, the gig economy, and demographic and social shifts are defining a 'future of work' that is already affecting companies, supply chains, and workers around the world. This changing nature of work has unique implications for women: disruptive technologies are affecting both the quantity and quality of women’s jobs while systemic constraints impact the ability of women to transition into new sectors; workplaces are increasingly requiring new skills and calling for experience in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), but the lack of women in STEM fields and gaps in technical skills could hold women back; contingent work and new gig economy opportunities are disrupting traditional work models, which present new challenges for women due to violence and harassment, unpredictable hours, and unequal wages and benefits.
The question businesses must face then becomes: How can we navigate the broader changes taking place in the world of work in a way that accelerates women’s workplace participation?
This is the very question that BSR set out to answer in its latest report, How Business Can Build a ‘Future of Work’ that Works for Women, published today in partnership with Women Deliver. The report provides a framework for companies on how they can act, enable, and influence in order to ensure that women can not just participate, but lead in the workplaces of the future.
Business can ACT by updating their own policies and practices
Companies must take action to prepare for the ‘future of work’ with an eye towards addressing potential inequities that could result from the changing nature of work. By using a gender lens to prepare for job losses due to automation and AI, investing in employee reskilling and upskilling efforts with an emphasis on digital skills training for women, and assessing AI products and solutions for gender bias, companies can adopt new workplace models and technologies associated with the ‘future of work’ without contributing to further gender inequality.
Unfortunately, at the same time, issues such as stereotypes and biases, care burdens, unequal pay, and workplace harassment continue to plague working women around the world and prevent them from joining high-growth industries and high-powered roles.
Business can ENABLE progress for women
Beyond their own operations and supply chains, companies can contribute to addressing shifts that may further hinder women’s economic participation. By partnering with corporate peers, civil society organizations, and academic and government institutions, business can make an impact on areas critical for women’s future economic success.
In particular, the ‘future of work’ will require all workers to be fluent in technology. Women, who are currently underrepresented in STEM fields, will need to advance not just to achieve equity but to survive in the new era of work. Business can help to close these gaps by addressing the various ways in which women and girls are behind on the digital curve through STEM programs, accelerating women’s access to digital tools and mobile connectivity, and ensuring women are safe online.
Business can INFLUENCE gender equality
Companies, particularly multinational corporations with budgets dedicated to public relations and government relations, can affect the overall conversation on gender equality on a wider scale. Be it producing an ad on toxic masculinity or signing on to a public letter on issues like abortion, companies’ public relations and marketing efforts can jumpstart cultural conversations on women’s issues—and in the process, challenge gender norms related to what constitutes “women’s work.”
Business can also leverage its existing government relations efforts to influence policymakers to address discrimination against women through laws and policies. In many countries, existing laws prevent women from working or severely limit their freedom to reach their full economic potential. On the other hand, new legislation can be introduced to equalize care burdens and close gaps in benefits presented by new work models.
The report includes input gathered from over 125 representatives of corporations, civil society, and government at BSR’s private sector side event at Women Deliver 2019. Together, we concluded that companies need to design inclusive future of work strategies that address both systemic challenges faced by women at work as well as the new challenges presented by new work structures and gaps in social protections.
Taking action would benefit companies by ensuring they attract and retain the best talent and build a highly skilled and innovative workforce positioned for future success. Furthermore, gains women make in employment benefit societies and economies overall.
Businesses cannot wait for the future to arrive; rather, companies need to begin their efforts today. Decisions made now will bring significant consequences for women’s advancement long into the future. Without action, companies risk prolonging gender disparities in the workplace, but with intention and focus, companies can shape a radically different future for working women.
Photo: Alia Youssef, Getty’s Project #ShowUs collection