Business for Social Responsibility (BSR) published “Gender Equality in Social Auditing Guidance” in September 2018 looking at the issue of gender in social auditing.


With between 60-90% of labor-intensive jobs being performed by women, this is a topic that is going to have a major impact on supply chains. In this article, we look at how social audits can improve gender equality.

The status of women in society and in the workplace is one that many companies and authorities are beginning to address. The United Nations Development Program has identified major global discrepancies between the way women and men are treated. For example, globally, women earn only 77 cents for doing a job for which a man would be paid one dollar. In addition, 35% of women will experience physical or sexual violence in their lives, less than 20% of landownership is female, and only 22.8 percent of all national parliamentarians are women (June 2016).

Things are improving. For example, the final statistic represents an improvement – in 1995, it was only 11.3% – and around the world, more girls are now in school and more women are now paid for agricultural work.i These improvements would not happen, however, without outside pressure.

Western consumers are now looking for demonstrations of equality in the production of the goods they buy. Pressure upon authorities has already meant the creation of regulations relating to forced labor, trafficking and exploitation. Reducing inequality between the genders is part of a broader focus on creating better and fairer supply chains.

“Gender Equality in Social Auditing Guidance”

Funded by the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs, BSR brought together standards bodies, audit companies and a wide range of stakeholders to consider the issue of gender in social auditing and has published this report. With approximately 190 million women being employed in labor-intensive roles in global supply chains, it is clear that the health and wellbeing of our supply chains is inextricably linked to the wellbeing of women.

The BSR HERproject found that companies reported a decrease of around 4.5% in turnover when the countries their factories were situated in undertook women’s empowerment programs – based on 37 factories in six countries. Conversely, BSR and the ISEAL Alliance have also shown that businesses benefit greatly when they are the agents of empowerment, because it strengthens motivation and improves productivity.ii

In the report, BSR analyzed the data from 87,000 Sedex audits conducted over a three-year period, on a wide variety of industries, in 150 countries. The results showed 235,000 non-compliances were reported during this period. When BSR searched the non-compliance data for gender-related issues, it identified 1,200 non-compliances that were predominantly in 65 countries – UK 15%, India 13% and China 10%. The spread of non-conformities ran from washroom and toilet facilities (46%) and a lack of policy relating to discrimination (19%) and sexual harassment (13%), down to actual sexual harassment (2%). It should be clear, however, that these statistics only reflect the non-conformities identified and there is a significant difference between obtaining evidence to report a lack of adequate toilet facilities and sexual harassment.

The Role of Social Auditing

BSR states that with 105,000 audits being conducted each day, this provides 105,000 opportunities to contribute to change, and the estimated 2,500 auditors can easily become advocates for gender equality. The problem is, most social auditing schemes do not focus on gender elements. Instead, the audits tend to look at issues that impact the entire workforce because they are either:

  • Certification-based – to drive economic, social and environmental improvements
  • Business-to-business assurance systems to assess compliance to a broad range of Code of Conduct requirements

In part, this reflects the fact the majority of social audits were developed many years ago.

The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals has recently looked specifically at gender equality and the empowerment of women. It is expected the United Nations Guiding Principles working group will soon present its recommendations to the Human Rights Council in the hope of creating better integration and greater prominence for gender issues in the corporate due diligence process. This will raise expectations and compel businesses and stakeholders to address the areas where women’s human rights are most at risk.

In the meantime, some audit schemes are already reviewing their codes from a gender perspective. This will provide clearer guidance on specific checkpoints and metrics to be included in their audits, which will better capture both risks and impacts, and good practices.

At the most basic level, audits are expected to verify:

  • Existence of policies promoting gender equality
  • Training and awareness of key requirements
  • Implementation of correct policies and procedures
  • Outcomes and impacts in changing gender norms

The first three points reflect inputs and compliance to general legal and code requirements but do not measure the effectiveness of the systems that are present. All players in the assurance and verification sector will have a part to play in moving from a practice-based to an outcome-based reporting approach to performance.

Moving Forward – The First step

BSR believes the first step towards achieving better gender equality recognition in the auditing process is greater gender focus in terms of specific checkpoints and the collection of data. To do this, the auditor must win the trust of the interviewee and so it is vital that the auditing process includes more gender sensitive interviews. To achieve this, they are promoting the inclusion of more women in auditing teams and the use of focus groups rather than one-to-one interviews. They are also keen for assurance schemes to look at better approaches to worker engagement and the integration of such processes into the audit process.

This approach would require more time in the auditing process to be allotted to interviews focusing on gender issues. This is at a time when auditors are also being asked to prioritize other serious issues – forced labor, trafficking and exploitation through fees demanded by agencies, labor brokers, etc. Greater focus on interviews would also require larger auditing teams to cover the gender and language mix required. This approach may, therefore, not be universally acceptable to organizations more focused on the cost-effectiveness of the audit process.

On a positive note, the Association of Professional Social Compliance Auditors (APSCA) has reported that approximately 3,500 auditors are currently enrolled and 41% of them are female. The figures do not, however, breakdown the split between countries. We cannot be sure, therefore, if the correct capabilities will be in place to perform gender-appropriate interviews in the correct local language.

Moving Forward – The Long Term

BSR has already published a draft Gender and Data Impact Framework that covers women’s issues at an individual level as well as in the workplace. It is expected this will be published in the second quarter of 2019.

They hope it will allow:

  • Better and disaggregated data concerning women’s issues
  • Monitoring of effectiveness of current efforts and progress towards gender equality
  • Greater collaboration among companies and multi-stakeholder initiatives to track and communicate on collective progress

The effects could be significant in some industries. The ISEAL Alliance estimates 80% of all workers in the global garment industry are female.iii Improvements in their conditions will affect supply chains but, as studies have shown, better health and safety, and ethical and legal compliance, all lead to strengthening in staff motivation and improved productivity which in turn provide business benefits to their employers.

SGS Solution

SGS is constantly evolving its audit methodologies and protocols to incorporate the latest changes required by schemes and clients. We understand the importance of creating the correct balance of gender and skillsets in our teams to provide you with accurate and efficient auditing services.

As the topic of gender equality alters the auditory landscape, you can be certain SGS will be ready to assist your business. To learn more about SGS Audit Services:

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For more information, please contact:

Effie Marinos
Global Technical Governance Manager, Supply chain Assessments & Solutions
t: +44 (0) 203 008 7860

i Goal 5: Gender equality
ii, iii Gender Working Group for Sustainability Standards