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Taking a Fair-Trade Approach to Gender Equality at Work

As a growing number of governments and employers look to tackle inequality in the workplace, Chris Grieve of the EDGE Certification Foundation says companies need to cut to the core of what’s behind their gender bias.

Written by Jumana Farouky, Jihii Jolly Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes
Women and men gather in London to call for equal pay on International Women’s Day 2018. Some governments and companies have started making workplace equality a priority, but progress is still painfully slow.John Stillwell/PA Images via Getty Images

The issue of gender equality in the workplace is becoming more of a priority for governments and corporations around the world. In recent months, we’ve seen countries like Iceland and the UAE make moves to ensure women are paid the same as men, while British companies were obliged to report and publish their pay gaps.

But inequality and gender prejudice are age-old problems, and progress has been painfully slow. The latest Fortune 500 featured a record 32 women CEOs – but that’s still only 6.4 percent of the entire list.

As executive director of the EDGE Certification Foundation, part of Chris Grieve’s job is to help companies hold themselves accountable for the gender gap in their ranks, and figure out the best way to close it. Launched at the World Economic Forum in 2011, EDGE – which stands for Economic Dividends for Gender Equality – is to workplace culture what fair trade is to food. It offers companies a way to measure their progress towards a global standard for fairness, and rewards them with recognition when they reach it.

EDGE looks at factors such as a company’s gender balance, the size of its pay gap, and the policies it has in place to ensure women employees have the same opportunities as men.

“What we’re aiming for is equal opportunity to bust stereotypes about who’s allowed to be a caregiver, and who’s allowed to be a breadwinner in this world,” Grieve says.

Women’s Advancement Deeply spoke with Grieve about workplace bias, the power of the private sector to influence policy and the need to think beyond pay equity.

Women’s Advancement Deeply: What does EDGE certification mean for a company?

Chris Grieve: EDGE Certified Foundation is the creator and overseer of the EDGE Certification System, and there is our sister organization called EDGE Strategy. We have a shared mission and vision around creating equal opportunities for women and men. Particularly in the workplace, but also in all walks of life, be it social, economical, political. Our mission is to use the EDGE Certification System as an organizational-level system to help organizations measure and understand their gender equality status, and then work towards closing any gender gaps that might be revealed.

It focuses on using data and information that are within the company, and using a system that can independently verify and certify their own assessment of where they’re at.

The outcome for an organization would be that they end up making a visible commitment to and progress on – and then, ultimately, achievement of – a strong gender balance at all levels. They would be managing pay equity in their organizations, they would have a solid framework of effective gender equality policies and practices, and an inclusive culture that would be reflected in terms of employees’ protections and experience.

The certification system makes that commitment very visible because organizations are rewarded with the certification mark, and they can display that and use it as part of their communications and branding that ultimately would lead to them being an employer of choice or an investment vehicle.

Women’s Advancement Deeply: Right now you focus on major corporations based mainly in developed nations. Can the EDGE certification process be translated over to the developing world?

Grieve: The regional companies [we work with] have more of a presence in developed countries, but we are very focused on targeting companies that also have a presence across different geographies, different industries, different sectors of business, companies that have large operations going on in multiple countries. We are targeting multiple regions so that we can demonstrate that it is applicable regardless of culture, language, geography or industry, because what we have is a standard that is applied at a global level. We don’t vary that standard by region or by country. We don’t vary that standard by level of development.

Women’s Advancement Deeply: What are the main external factors, outside the walls of a company, that dictate the success or failure of that company to achieve gender equality?

Grieve: It depends on the country and the industry. It depends on the cultural biases. One of the challenges about creating a standard that measures this sort of thing in organizations is cutting to the core of what might be going on that creates gender inequalities in a workplace.

It isn’t just about representation in terms of the number of women, it’s also about what’s going on within an organization around a pipeline of opportunity. What are the recruitment or promotion processes going on within a company? What sort of development training, particularly leadership development training, and mentoring do people have? What’s going on in allowing flexible working arrangements, so women or men can choose to engage as caregivers with their family?

And what’s going on within a company culture that contributes to conscious or unconscious bias in how women and men are treated when it comes to the pipeline? When it comes to promotions? When it comes to things that make a critical difference in whether someone can have a career or just a job – a low-paying job at that, one that keeps them stuck at low levels in organizations?

Women’s Advancement Deeply: Say a small business is trying to achieve gender equality. Besides equal pay for equal work, what other fundamentals does it need to address?

Grieve: There’s the pay equity question. There’s the question of how people get hired. How people are promoted – depending on the size of the company, is there an opportunity for progression? How do they invest in the development of their staff so that they are ready for higher levels of responsibility and ready to become leaders in time?

And this is one of the key ones: flexible working arrangements. What’s the company’s approach to allowing for the flexibility that’s needed if a person is going to have primary care responsibilities for their children? It’s not just about access to maternity leave or paternity leave, whether they’re allowed by law or by company policy or both. It’s about genuinely asking, what’s the company’s attitude to it? What’s the leadership’s attitude to flexible work options?

And the final piece is really about how aware people within the organization – and I’m talking mostly leadership now – are of those potential issues around gender equality. How visibly committed are they to overcoming conscious and unconscious bias and stereotype?

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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