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If cultures subdue, work can liberate

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"That could actually kick-start a process of development which would really empower women. And the benefit for the multinational companies would be tremendous.... [Productivity] and quality would improve, and, hopefully, as these women move through the career path, they would become full-fledged consumers in their own right," Mr. van Heerden says. "It would really be a virtuous circle."

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The best improvements in working conditions come when the private sector and government work together, says Sandra Polaski, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. US trade agreements with Cambodia in the 1990s led to the first-ever factory inspections by the International Labor Organization (ILO), which benefited a predominantly female workforce.

But US trade agreements in recent years have put less emphasis on workers' rights, which makes it incumbent upon companies to take more initiative, Ms. Polaski says. The broader problem is a global oversupply of labor: "As long as there's a long queue of people waiting to apply for jobs, there's less labor-market pressure to treat employees well," she says.

When companies aren't held to high standards, women can run into a range of problems, from basic unfairness to extreme violence:

• In some countries, women are routinely tested for pregnancy and then fired if the test is positive.

• In Mexico, more than 300 women who worked in border-town maquiladoras have been murdered over the past decade, in some cases after having been raped or tortured. Women need access to safe transportation to their jobs, said Amnesty International executive director William Schulz in an impassioned speech at the Calvert event June 23. "It's time to insist," he said, "that there is no 'Men Only' sign on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights."

• In Kenya, interviews with 400 women working on coffee and tea plantations and in textile plants revealed that 90 percent had experienced or witnessed sexual abuse on the job.

"There's such a silence, sort of a blame-the-victim mentality, that the women workers have to deal with," says Bama Athreya, deputy director of the International Labor Rights Fund in Washington, which published the Kenya report in 2002.

Although workplaces in the US have come a long way on the gender-equity front, they, too, are a target audience for the Calvert principles, which encourage more representation of women in top jobs and frown upon sexist images in ads.

The Women's Equity Mutual Fund (WEMF) in San Francisco already screens with such factors in mind, and cofounder Linda Pei says she's starting to think more about what role the fund can play outside the US. A Japanese woman asked her recently to help pressure Japanese companies for more gender equity. Ms. Pei is also considering investing in institutions that give microcredit to women.

The main challenge is verifying what companies say they're doing on behalf of employees. "You've got to try to discern what is genuine, because there's also a lot of feel-good talk that happens," says Heidi Soumerai, director of social research at Walden Asset Management in Boston, which screens companies for WEMF. "We say [to companies], 'Great, we love to hear that things are going well. Now, show us the documentation.' "