Innovative. Trendy. Fast-moving. These are all concepts that tend to be associated with the fashion industry. And yet, the World Benchmarking Alliance’s (WBA) first-ever Gender Benchmark found that, when it comes to the most influential apparel companies, they might be fast on fashion, but are still slow on gender equality.
Women make up two thirds of the 60-75 million people employed in the apparel sector globally. So this industry has the potential to drive transformative change and help millions of women to thrive; but also the potential to hinder their opportunities and affect the full enjoyment of their rights. WBA’s Gender Benchmark, launched in June 2021, assesses how the 35 most influential apparel companies are responding to the most salient gender issues in the industry, and driving progress towards gender equality. The findings are troubling: on average, these companies scored only 29 points out of a possible 100, signalling a concerning lack of action taken to move the needle on gender equality and women’s empowerment. Adidas, Gap Inc and VF Corporation are the only three companies to score above 50 points, topping the ranking.
Gender data is still invisible
In September 2020, our Gender Baseline Report looked at publicly available information, and found that companies were disclosing just a fragment of what stakeholders expect to be able to see regarding gender equality. Nearly a year later, despite inviting companies to submit additional information, there are still massive data gaps.
Companies are not being transparent enough about their gender efforts and impacts. Basic information about the actions that apparel companies are taking to promote gender equality and women’s empowerment, is not being collected, and if it is, then it is not being disclosed. The indicators of our benchmark build on existing international standards and consultation with over 300 gender experts. Yet, no company discloses more than 55% of the information stakeholders expect to see.
Regulation plays a key role in this: nearly half of the companies assessed (49%) report on their gender pay data for their operations in France or the UK, where it is required by law. However, only two companies – Inditex and Adidas – disclose their global gender pay gap. The problem is, of course, that the ambition, as set in SDG 5 and the 2030 agenda, is not about equality just in the UK and France. It is about equality for women everywhere.
One insight gathered during WBA’s engagement with companies through the research process, shines a light on how there are systemic failures at play that go deeper than the companies themselves. Several of the assessed companies mentioned that they were not aware of stakeholder interest in this amount of detailed and global data, and therefore had not considered publishing it. It seems that we are not asking enough of brands, or the right questions.
Setting the trend on gender equality
We know the fashion industry can work quickly to turn around new, cutting-edge ideas. It is time this creative way of thinking is applied to their gender policies and practices too. The industry has a duty to empower the women it depends on in ways far beyond what they wear. But where do we start?
- We need companies to collect and disclose sex-disaggregated data. While numbers alone will not solve gender inequalities, data is necessary to shine a light on problems, so that solutions can be identified. It will enable companies to revisit and revise old strategies, and make better decisions that lead to better outcomes.
- We need willingness to learn and improve. Our Gender Benchmark offers a roadmap that can be used by companies to understand where there are gaps in policies, practices and/or disclosures, and take steps to address those gaps. Additionally, the examples of leading practice by some of these companies, set out in our Insights Report, demonstrate action to drive gender equality is possible – we need companies to take inspiration from their peers, and explore new ways towards women’s empowerment.
- We need high ambition and a strategic approach. Transformative change is vital to the achievement of SDG 5 and beyond. Companies need to stay ahead of the regulatory curve, set ambitious commitments and bold targets, and match those with timely and meaningful actions and dedicated resources. These measures cannot be restricted to one dimension of a company’s operation, as gender is not just an issue of board representation, gender-based violence or gender pay gap. It is a cross-cutting issue, relevant to all areas of the value chain, and therefore should be addressed through strategic, holistic action.
- We need all stakeholders to drive a movement. It takes a village to raise a child, and it will certainly take a system to help women rise. The call to action for investors, government, civil society organisations, consumers and media is to make sure we ask enough of companies, celebrate good practices and hold laggards accountable. We invite you to use the results of our benchmark to inform your own decision-making about investing, policymaking, consumption or advocacy. Only then will it be possible to set the trend on gender equality, and help women thrive everywhere.
Author: Sofía del Valle, Engagement Manager at the World Benchmarking Alliance