How investors can increase gender equity in the food sector

Anna Triponel

February 16, 2024

Our key takeaway: In global food systems, women “are an integral part of companies’ supply chains, in some cases being the majority of workers. Yet, they remain marginalized, invisible, discriminated against and unrecognized” according to Oxfam. And companies are not yet moving at the speed needed to change inequality and disempowerment in food systems. Oxfam points to six main risks to women, namely discrimination, unequal access to resources, unpaid care responsibilities, unequal compensation, health and occupational safety, and gender-based violence and harassment. This is where the power of investors comes in to influence change in their portfolio companies. Oxfam recommends that investors engage with companies to ensure that they make a commitment to advancing gender equity in the supply chain; track and disclose gender-disaggregated data; embed a gender lens into human rights due diligence and human rights impact assessments and take action with the particular experiences of and risks to women and gender-diverse people in mind; ensure that workers have access to gender-sensitive grievance mechanisms; and seek to mainstream gender into other company initiatives like addressing climate change and diversity, equity and inclusion efforts.

Oxfam published Towards Achieving Gender Equity in the Food Sector: What Can Investors Do? (February 2024):

  • Current food systems are not working for women: Women make up the lion’s share of workers in global food systems: “[a]mong all working women globally, about one in three works upstream in the food value chain.” Beyond upstream work like farming and seasonal picking, women also work in food production and distribution, while also making primary decisions about food consumption in many households. According to Oxfam this role will only grow over time as men are exiting the sector, causing women’s roles to expand. Yet women and gender-diverse people are disproportionately impacted by the negative effects of food systems. “[T]heir rights to representation, remedy, equal pay, and occupational safety, are violated at every stage of the food value chain. Especially in the supply chains of food and agriculture companies, they face increasing barriers to safety, recognition and advancement.” They also face more precarious work situations, as many work part-time, at piece-rate, seasonally or even unpaid on family farms to allow for caretaking responsibilities. These impacts are compounded for Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) women and non-cisgender people, women with disabilities and migrants. Oxfam summarises these issues into six main risks for women in global food systems: (1) discrimination, (2) unequal access to resources, (3) unpaid care responsibilities, (4) unequal compensation, (5) health and occupational safety, and (6) gender-based violence and harassment.
  • How companies can take action: Traders, processors, agribusinesses, food and beverage companies and food retailers and supermarkets all have a part to play. For one, Oxfam finds that companies need to ramp up their efforts to address women’s rights and human rights more generally in their value chains, as most of the action now is being driven by governments, foundations, civil society and international organisations. While companies are making progress in diversifying their supplier base to include more businesses owned by women and other marginalised people, these efforts “have not yet meaningfully expanded to mitigate gender risks or drive value more comprehensively upstream in their supply chains.” One key approach for companies in the midstream and downstream is to use their buying power to drive both risk mitigation and value creation for women, especially in areas where women “have proven to use their limited resources to increase agricultural yields, improve productivity and drive resilience.” In addition to standalone efforts to improve the landscape for women and gender-diverse people, companies across the food value chain should also be integrating a deliberate gender lens into efforts to address diversity, equity and inclusion and climate change.
  • Investors as accelerators for company change: Oxfam recommends top areas for investors to focus their investee engagement; companies in the food system should also take note, as these areas are poised to become the subject of greater focus by investors and other stakeholders. Investors should ensure that portfolio companies are making commitments to improve gender equity in their supply chain; tracking and disclosing gender-disaggregated supply chain data; embedding a gender lens into existing human rights due diligence including meaningful engagement with women and gender-diverse people; conducting human rights impact assessments (HRIAs) focusing on impacts to women in the chosen commodity; publishing a time bound gender action plan based on HRIA results that addresses issues around “gender-transformative approaches, gender mainstreaming, gender and social equity, women’s access to resources, grievances and corrective action”; and ensuring that workers have access to gender-sensitive mechanisms to raise concerns.

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