This summer, reports of workplace gender discrimination rocked world headlines: from BBC's salary release that ignited calls for pay equality and transparency to Iberia airline's repealed requirement that women take a pregnancy test when submitting job applications and Uber's sexual harassment scandal that ultimately played a role in CEO Travis Kalanick's departure.
Workplace discrimination plagues workplaces worldwide. In some cases, the discrimination is built into the law. Indeed, one hundred economies still have gender-based job restrictions on the books. For example, in Argentina, women are legally prohibited from working as machinists, selling distilled or fermented alcoholic beverages, polishing glass, and producing flammable or corrosive materials, among other restrictions.
Many times, however, gender discrimination is more a product of culture than of law. And, in fact, a lack of law is at the heart of this issue of workplace discrimination.
According to a 2017 report by the International Labor Organization (ILO), there is no universally accepted definition of "harassment" or "violence" with regard to the world of work. The absence of a global regulatory framework to address sexual violence and harassment in the workplace has left companies to define for themselves what constitutes appropriate behavior. Likewise, workplaces are left to curtail inappropriate behavior — often with women saying not enough is being done. In South Africa, an overwhelming 77 percent of women report experiencing sexual harassment in the workplace, as do 40 to 50 percent of women in the European Union. In national surveys conducted in Austria and Luxembourg, that number reaches as high as 80 percent.
This matters not just because eliminating violence and harassment at work is the right thing to do. It also makes economic sense.
The ILO notes that eliminating sexual violence and harassment from the workplace increases a firm's productivity and competitiveness. It lowers costs associated with absenteeism, employee turnover, and litigation. Put simply, it allows women employees to focus fully on the job at hand and reduces the likelihood that they will leave. It also permits the company to avoid both legal fees and a tarnished reputation should a woman decide to bring her sexual violence and harassment case to court.
Empirical research indeed supports the ILO's findings. One study, for example, showed that among large Chilean manufacturing firms, greater gender equality was associated with increased productivity. Another study suggests a negative relationship between prevalence of sexual harassment in factories in developing markets and those factories’ profitability.
With more and more stories of workplace harassment and violence garnering international media attention, there is no better time to address this type of gender discrimination. The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development calls for "full and productive employment and decent work for all women and men...and equal pay for work of equal value." One place to start is by creating a standard that nations can agree on to govern sexual violence and harassment in the world of work. Until gender discrimination in the workplace is fully addressed, potential will be lost, lives will be harmed, and money will be left on the table.