Gender inequality remains a complex issue that demands our attention. Last year’s Millennium Development Goals Report published by the UN showed that while great improvements have been made in the areas of poverty reduction, access to improved water sources and parity in primary education, persistent discrimination and violence against women worldwide is still undermining efforts to reach all Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).

Oxfam Novib’s recent Behind the Brands campaign has evaluated the CSR policy of the ten leading food and beverage companies in seven key areas: land, farmers, workers, climate, transparency, water and women. With an average score of 2.2 out of 10, the companies’ gender equality policies are the second worst on the list, only leaving their efforts to counter land grabbing behind it. ‘Only a minority of the Big 10 are doing anything at all to address the exploitation of women small-scale farmers and workers in their supply chains. […] Today women small-scale farmers in Africa, for example, own just 1 percent of agricultural land, receive only 7 percent of extension services, and less than 10 percent of agricultural credit is offered to women.’

The responsibility of big companies to help tackle these issues is of growing importance, both in ‘doing well by doing good’ as well as being positioned to set standards for good practice because of their size and influence. The UN Women’s Empowerment Principles, a set of principles for business offering guidance on how to empower women in the workplace, marketplace and community, attests to the fact that the private sector is increasingly recognised as of vital importance to the empowerment of women worldwide.

So what’s keeping companies like Unilever, Nestlé and Coca-Cola from actually doing so? According to Oxfam Novib, the lack of effort is based mostly in a lack of information. ‘None of the 10 knows or is attempting to find out how many women farmers are involved in their supply chains or in which types of farming activities they are engaged.’ This knowledge gap could be remedied fairly easily by tapping into one of the most rapidly growing markets in developing countries: telecom. Companies like Text to ChangeMAMA and Labor Link, all three recently shortlisted for the GSMA Global Mobile Awards, have shown that mobile phones can be an excellent tool for the empowerment of women. Although currently women are 21% less likely to own a cell phone than men, that percentage is coming down. The aforementioned mHealth companies have a broad history of collaborating with both NGO’s like Oxfam and multinationals like Nestlé and Pepsico, and a broad range of experience in gathering social data, providing health content on maternal health and nutrition and empowering women by stimulating entrepreneurship. Following these initiatives, SMS texting could be a vital tool to reach the hard to identify women in the Big 10’s supply chains and find out what these women are up against.

The Big 10 have responded to Oxfam’s claims in different ways. The worst performer, Associated British Foods, has deemed its findings ‘ridiculous’, whereas PepsiCo’s CEO Indra Nooyi personally met with Oxfam staff, expressing her surprise at the company’s low scores. Most of the Big 10 have at least reiterated their commitment to the companies’ respective CSR policies, and vowed to review the report’s findings more thoroughly. Whatever the outcomes may be, let’s bear in mind that there could be a fast and effective way to start gaining insight into the issues that the women involved in their supply chains face.

There is no evidence that suggests the information gap is a deliberate strategy to put off or delay further policies of empowering women in the workplace. But with the tools so readily at hand, there really is no excuse to not bridge the gap and move on!

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