If cultures subdue, work can liberate

Little by little, global companies are responding to the growing demand for empowering their female workers.

• In Jordan, Cisco Systems reoriented its training to boost female enrollment. Now, 63 percent of trainees at its Networking Academies are women preparing for information-technology jobs. While women represent 16 percent of Jordan's overall workforce, they make up 30 percent of the IT sector, which has smaller wage gaps between men and women than industries such as textiles.

• In Indonesia, female factory workers took personal-finance classes offered by the Global Alliance for Workers and Communities - a partner with apparel companies such as Gap and Nike. Instead of coming to work distracted by worries about their debts, they formed a cooperative and started saving money.

• In Saudi Arabia, a firm that distributes products for Cummins Inc., a US-based engine company, was among the first to hire women after the country relaxed rules restricting the types of jobs they can hold.

These examples are still the exception. In agriculture and in export-processing zones where multinationals operate, the face of labor is overwhelmingly female, yet those workplaces rarely take into account women's issues such as discrimination, harassment, and hazards to reproductive health.

Now, a growing number of advocacy groups are moving those concerns to the top of the agenda - not just by monitoring factory conditions, but by working with companies to create an internal commitment to improving women's position in society.

The latest move came last week when Calvert, a major player in socially responsible investing, unveiled its "Women's Principles," an unprecedented four-page code of global corporate conduct. The code addresses everything from pay equity and safety to a need to foster women's civic and political engagement.

Calvert will assess progress toward these goals as part of its investment screening.

"While different countries and cultures present challenges, the goal of gender equity is universal, and the oppression of women undermines economic growth and progress," says Barbara Krumsiek, Calvert's president and chief executive officer.

One of the biggest hurdles is that businesses often cite cultural traditions to justify women's subordination. In a factory in Bangladesh, for instance, men may get paid more to operate heavier cutting machines, while women are segregated in sewing jobs. But "the corporate community [should] be brave and challenge least-common-denominator norms about the role of women," Ms. Krumsiek says.

One reason: the bottom line.

"A lot of the suppliers in [developing countries] see labor as a cost [that needs] to be limited, not as an asset to be developed," says Auret van Heerden, executive director of the Fair Labor Association in Washington. Instead of having a woman always do one isolated task, a company could teach her a wider range of skills, he says, and it could offer a savings plan so she can perhaps start her own business someday.

"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."

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.' "

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