Impact Voices | October 18, 2021

Taking action against violence and sexual harassment at work through gender-lens investing.

Ayesha Khanna, Virginia Schippers and Minh Nguyen-Hiltunen
Guest Author

Ayesha Khanna

Guest Author

Virginia Schippers

Guest Author

Minh Nguyen-Hiltunen

In the past eighteen months, the global community has clearly seen that the COVID-19 pandemic has had a disproportionate effect on women. The corresponding health and economic crises have threatened to reverse some of the recent global gains made in gender equality and have exacerbated the negative impacts on vulnerable people around the world.

The crises have also created an opportunity to truly consider what “building back better” might look like, and how we might create an inclusive and resilient private sector that has gender equality at the core – not just because it is the right thing to do, but because it will attract investment and growth. CARE’s for-profit investment arm, CARE Enterprises, has been thinking deeply about this and is excited to invest in a network of healthy, growing businesses that believe, as we do, that gender equality is an asset and value-creator as these businesses rebound from the pandemic.  

As a core part of this strategy – and in addition to boosting the economic empowerment of our companies’ women employees, consumers, and suppliers – we are committed to working with each of our investees on combatting gender-based violence and harassment in their workplaces as the foundation upon which other critical gender equality gains can be achieved.

There is a growing number of global impact investment funds deploying their capital with a gender-lens, and over 15 OECD governments have committed to mobilizing and deploying over $11 billion of investment capital to promote gender equality from 2018-2020, with a goal of an additional $15 billion by 2022. As in any emerging sector, there are, however, varying definitions of what applying a “gender-lens” to investment means, ranging from funds that invest in women-led or owned ventures to a more comprehensive approach that considers impacts for women all along the economic value chain – from women at the top in leadership positions to lower-level employees, to women consumers and suppliers of an investee business. Yet our recent analysis of gender lens investment funds identified only nine investment managers that that are considering one of the most pervasive issues facing women at the home but also the workplace: gender-based violence and sexual harassment. In addition, our analysis of gender lens funds identified only 17% that provided technical assistance to work alongside businesses to support achieving gender impact goals. 

We believe this is a missed opportunity for impact investors to impact the safety and success of women in the workforce, both through the provision of financing and gender expertise. Our CARE-SheTrades Impact Fund will provide both to help our investee businesses implement policies and practices that address these issues and urge investors to do the same. The fund will provide debt financing to growth stage companies that are creating value for women as employees, consumers, and business owners in South and Southeast Asia.

Economic costs

As we recognize the 30-year anniversary of Anita Hill’s testimony to the US Senate Judiciary Committee in Clarence Thomas’ nomination to the Supreme Court, the issue of sexual harassment in the workplace remains relevant and troublesome. Research suggests that as many as 40-60% of women experience workplace violence and harassment during their lives, but only a small minority report it. It is even more prevalent in informal work environments in developing countries. While gender-based violence and harassment-free economies are foundational to the wellbeing of any society, according to World Bank estimates, some 500 million working women live in countries lacking legal safeguards from violence and harassment at work. Though many hoped that working from home could increase protection for workers, the global coronavirus pandemic of the past 18 months showed us that even in the virtual workplace, harassment is real.  

Gender-based violence and harassment in the workplace has been linked to significant harms in health and well-being for workers, workplaces, and the economy overall. Studies indicate that people who have experienced workplace harassment report deep emotional scars, and many struggle with health problems and negative impacts on their interpersonal relationships, even decades later. Being harassed can alter professional career trajectories and can limit lifetime earning potential. While these statistics make it clear that eliminating gender-based violence and harassment is the right thing to do, it also makes equally good business sense. The personal harm to affected workers comes at a significant cost to companies since GBVH compromises a worker’s productivity, turnover, and absenteeism.

A study conducted by CARE in Vietnam showed that the 1 in 3 women who face violence earn 35% less than their male counterparts, due to productivity loss at the workplace. Another CARE study in Cambodia showed that the productivity loss in the Cambodian garment industry due to sexual harassment was estimated to be USD $89 million annually. That same study showed that absences due to gender-based violence and harassment (a total of 69,550 work days missed or 102 days/factory/year), resulted in a loss of approximately USD $545,000 across the industry. Thirteen percent of workers reported their productivity was significantly affected by sexual harassment, estimating that they were able to work an average of 47% less effectively. A recent report from Deloitte in Australia estimated that workplace sexual harassment costs an average of USD $2.6 billion in lost productivity.

Gender justice

Sexual harassment in the workplace is often poorly understood. It includes sexual, physical, psychological abuse directed at people because of their sex or gender and can take many forms, both verbal and non-verbal, ranging from displays of pictures objectifying individuals, to jokes or disparaging remarks about individuals based on their gender or sex, to unwanted sexual advances, physical contact, or sexual assault. Too often, there is a tendency to downplay this abuse as trivial or to keep it quiet when it does happen. Fortunately, awareness about this critical issue has grown significantly across the past decade and momentum has been building towards action. 

It has been 15 years since Tarana Burke founded the ‘Me Too’ movement, and four years since the hashtag #metoo went viral. A groundswell of popular support for survivors of sexual harassment in the workforce and targeted advocacy by CARE and others propelled the passage of Convention 190, along with Recommendation 206 by the International Labor Organization in 2019, which recognize the right of everyone to a workplace free from violence and harassment with gender-based violence and harassment at work constituting a human rights violation.  

While this is ground-breaking as the first global binding treaty to address workplace gender-based violence and harassment, only six countries have ratified it so far.. As capital providers for many businesses that could strongly advocate for more action to protect women’s human rights, we believe the impact investment industry should use their influence to step in and take concrete action where governments will not. 

We have built upon these insights and learnings, and CARE’s experience over the last two decades, to incorporate this critical issue in the design of the CARE-SheTrades Impact Fund. CARE and CARE Enterprises, and its partners, Bamboo Capital Partners and International Trade Centre’s (ITC) SheTrades Initiative have designed a new gender-justice impact investment fund whose strategy is designed to tackle root causes of gender discrimination by addressing systemic barriers that keep billions of women from thriving. The fund will deploy much-needed capital and robust impact technical assistance to integrate gender equality into enterprises that are committed to positively impact their women employees, consumers, and suppliers in emerging markets in South and Southeast Asia. 

Core to our fund’s strategy is creating a safe, gender-inclusive workplace through the elimination of gender-based violence and harassment across all the fund’s portfolio companies. We are building upon CARE’s experience in addressing gender-based violence and harassment while working with businesses and nonprofits and through advocacy and policy changes with governments. Our approach covers four essential areas for action: (1) Building awareness across leadership and staff; (2) Designing effective and appropriate workplace policies, (3) Implementing workplace norms and practices that foster a safe environment; and (4) Delivering workplace training to all levels of the business to build capacity and to encourage early intervention and prevention. CARE’s experience shows that after implementing these strategies, management and workers better understand what gender-based violence and harassment is, and women feel safer reporting cases at work.  

Our insights into gender-based violence and sexual harassment solutions can be seen in the STOP program, which CARE implemented in Southeast Asia’s garment sector from 2017-2020, with an aim to prevent and address sexual harassment. This initiative demonstrated positive impact on participating garment factories’ awareness of sexual harassment and allowed factory management to set up clearer guidelines and mechanisms for dealing with and preventing sexual harassment. It empowered female workers to report incidents and built awareness about their rights. Stakeholders in the industry confirmed that the STOP set of interventions – including the training approach, material, and model sexual harassment policy – was effective. One garment worker in Myanmar said: 

Before we started, no one talked about sexual harassment in our factory, but after we did the training, we now remind each other of behavior. We can discuss, learn, and avoid. Such discussion consciously strengthens our awareness of sexual harassment. I think the biggest achievement is the awareness in our factory. 

In addition, a garment factory HR Manager in Cambodia said:

The sexual harassment training and policy has made my job easier. When women feel safe at work they don’t quit. Sexual harassment prevention training can help improve the production of every factory in the garment industry. 

Technical assistance 

We are eager to apply these evidence-based lessons and tools from CARE’s deep expertise to the gender-justice CARE-SheTrades Impact Fund. We have structured the fund’s investment strategy and operational model so that each investee company will receive tailored technical assistance from CARE’s in-country gender experts who have experience implementing these strategies with private companies, and with coaching business leaders in applying proven gender-based violence and sexual harassment prevention practices. Our gender-based violence and sexual harassment technical assistance will incorporate the following resources for investee companies: 

  1. Gender lens business assessment, which provides a comprehensive organizational review for senior leaders of their companies to better understand their highest risk and opportunity areas as it relates to both gender impact and business performance, and the important link between the two.
  2. Design and delivery of a safe workplace policy. Our experience tells us that a policy is a good first step, because it clarifies the company’s expectations for a safe workplace culture. But a policy is not enough – implementing the policy takes thoughtful planning and execution.
  3. Training. We will provide training for managers and employees in gender, equity and building safe workplaces so that the policy can be embedded in the culture from top-to-bottom. We have seen first-hand how this training for management and workers on what is considered sexual harassment, how to report and handle cases, and how to ensure safe workplace practices, are all core components of a successful approach to building safe workplaces.
  4. An implementation guide for how each business can practically implement the safe workplace policy, based on its specific business model, strategy, stage, and growth trajectory. This includes reporting mechanisms to ensure that everyone in the company and their supply chain knows how to report concerns; how to develop communication and campaign materials to ensure everyone is aware of the policy and reporting processes; tools and guidance for the human resources and management teams for handling cases when they arise; and monitoring tools to track the rates of reports and subsequent actions taken.
  5. Coaching and support to human resources managers and to the Safe Workplace Committees that are responsible for implementing these tools is also critical, to help people learn how to problem-solve issues as they arise.

CARE’s experience has proven that addressing and preventing gender-based violence and sexual harassment at work through the above set of tools is critical to building safe and productive work environments, and results in direct benefits for management, workers, and the company’s business growth. It can pay off in higher levels of employee morale, productivity, and cost savings to the company, and improved health and well-being for those affected. We are confident that this provision of gender technical assistance from CARE’s locally based gender and business experts – alongside our financing – will improve both our investees’ business performance and the lives of their women stakeholders. 

While applying this transformative gender lens to an investment strategy is an important first step, we know that one fund will not move the needle for all the women who need it. A world without violence is possible, but deep commitment and joint action is needed to make this vision a reality. We need partners in this bold mission, so we are therefore asking the impact investment industry to join us to include gender-based violence and sexual harassment as part of a gender lens approach to investing. Let’s join forces and take action together to create safe and inclusive workplaces for women all around the world.

Ayesha Khanna is managing director, Virginia Schippers is principal and Minh Nguyen-Hiltunen is technical assistance facility director at Care Enterprises.