• Adrien Book

Who should reduce discrimination: governments or corporations?

Let’s get the basics out the way : gender discrimination harms productivity, business, the bottom line… whatever the latest acceptable term for PROFIT is. There is some solace to be found in this sort of pragmatism, regardless of the moral dilemma this may pause. When women are stifled and discriminated against, the world faces dire consequences. This is a pervasive, and expensive pandemic for economies and societies at large: globally, countries lose $160 trillion in wealth due to earnings gaps between women and men.

This alone is reason enough for businesses to seek to tackle this issue on their own, burdened as they are by financial necessities (People. Make. Profit). However, on a much larger scale, gender discrimination harms “the people”, and as such governments cannot let this issue fester as it currently does. Hence, the question remains : does policy come first or last? Is inequality a business or governmental concern? What can business do to behave more ethically in this regard? We, of course, have an innate sense of what the answers to these questions are, but as any lawmaker will argue, the argumentation is often as important as the answer.

On the one hand, gender discrimination is a global threat which affects, one way or another, each and every layer of society and all sectors of the economy (some more than others). We’re talking about trillions unearned (read: untaxed), something that only a large governmental entity as the capacity to track, unhindered by private stakeholders. As such, governments should be seen as the entity in charge of those matters, burdened as they are by macro-trends. We know that discrimination affect people economically and financially. But it also harms them physically, mentally, and emotionally, aspects companies are not expected to take care of beyond the bare minimum. We know this because we’ve been made aware of concepts such as discrimination’s mental health costs by government statistics. Furthermore, prejudice does not only affect workers. It also has an impact on the workers’ families, their children, their community, for which business are not necessarily responsible for. The government, however, is supposedly a “parent” to all, and as such bears this burden.

This is not about thriving, this is about surviving, as has been made abundantly clear by recent protests throughout Europe.

Businesses, have also not helped their cause, far from it: 71% of women who experience discrimination or sexual harassment in the workplace (one of society’s most glaring inequality) don’t report it, and 40% don’t think their company cares. Furthermore, businesses have emboldened the bullying of whistle-blowers, and given harassers incredibly large golden-handshakes (a.k.a severance package). We know that profits drive the sector unless the media shines the light on these practices. It’s just the way the system was built. Even when a business fires someone for unethical (or downright illegal) actions, that person is likely to just find another role in his field, potentially continuing the circle of abuse. Only governments have the power to inflict heavy punishments to repeat offenders.

There are, however, some arguments to be made for business intervention.

Primarily, discrimination is a local problem with a global passport.

As such, action is needed at all levels, something only businesses can arguably do, as they are some of the only transnational entities large enough to tackle these issues (though NGOs might argue otherwise, and rightly so).

Furthermore, governments are, by their nature, rather slow to action, and continue to be despite the urgency of many of the issues discussed here. Even when change does come, it may not have the impact hoped for. As a matter of fact, there already are many laws against systematic discrimination in the workplace, yet it continues to exist in varying degrees, highlighting a failure on the authorities’ part.

The laws exist, but are not implemented. Strike one for governments.

Yet, imagine signing a contract with a company with some sort of a harassment clause. No, seriously. Imagine it.

Scary, right ? This dystopian though experiment highlight the fact that though laws may not be perfect, they currently are the best thing we have at this time.

Another argument for greater company responsibility is that as boards are not elected, they may be able to undertake projects which may not appeal to all without fear of immediate reprisal (this can have both a positive and negative impact, as we’ve all witnessed). It is, after all, the board’s job to be accountable for the business, a standard which, if upheld, could lead to broad change. And it has, mostly thanks to public opinion and social media, which has shined a light of corporate dodgy dealings for more than a year now. Governments, on the other hand, are subject to regular (too regular) and drastic changes (looking at you, US & UK).

Nevertheless, we cannot forget that most gender discrimination is in fact the work of men towards women, and that as boards are not elected, so are they not representative. It is men who both attack and protect their peers, too often without retaliation. Well there is retaliation: the women face it. And most managers are men, unsympathetic to the cause, as are government officials (need we name the Harasser-In-Chief?). Asking those men to help is often like asking the pope to offer you good birth control advice. This is why so many believe that corporate policies are pages upon pages of un-nuanced drivel. Furthermore, most small companies (the backbone of the economy), don’t even have a decent HR department per say! It so often is the CEO who handles this role, and who is also the most likely person to exert power over others.

Yet, businesses have money for action, which is something governments lack as funding repeatedly get cut (arguably, governments would have more and companies less if the latter would pay their taxes…). But this financial aspect works two ways: as governments are vastly unburdened by the bottom line, they can make more wide-ranging investments such as education, prevention, policing… Governments are also less inclined to keep talent at all cost, and as such can show no tolerance to infractions (again, this may work in theory but practice is always complicated). The money issue is nevertheless wide-ranging within the government : even though women are overwhelmingly not coming forward with their complaints, the U.S still has only 500 investigators for 90.000 yearly complaints. And they add up. Trust me, I know math.

Businesses are suffering from a crisis of trust, as we can see everywhere we go, and are asked to take a stand to prove their honesty. It doesn’t mean replacing the state, but taking a bigger role. The government, on the other hand, is too inefficient to tackle the issue head on. So where does this lead us? Some sort of halfway point between local laws and multinational corporations? How about one major international framework, as was proposed at the 2018’s women’s Forum? Such efforts have so far been in vain in the public sector, but have started to yield results when private companies band together, something which was also highlighted at the 2018 Women’s Forum. We would however need guidelines from a strong and unified framework, something which most international entities have struggled to provide.

The conversation is also futile until we decide very precisely what rules, what norms, what laws need to be put in place. Both men and women should be included in this conversation, as group-think has been proven not to yield maximized results. Finding solutions is about the collective, even in a gender discrimination context.

The impulse, however, often has to come from the top: CEOs must lead by example and help accelerate the ideas that need to be discovered, creating a culture where one dares to speak up if needed. As highlighted during the Women’s forum, there are no bridges to build, because there are no two sides within the gender discrimination issues. There is one side which needs to work as a whole. It is interesting to see how many companies have recently understood this and are working towards more inclusion. Actions that may have seemed unthinkable a decade ago are now being put in place and results are showing.

The pressure should come from society ON businesses and governments, and not the other way around (despite what Denmark seems to think).

In the meantime, we should continue to vote. We should continue to use tools such as social media. So that we may name and shame not because of GDP or bottom line, but because it’s the right thing to do.

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