At a recent forum hosted by the city of San Francisco, companies gathered to share their best gender-equality practices. These ranged from online employee forums for parents, to shared resources and suggestions on improving work-life balance, to tips on how to reduce stereotypical imagery in marketing communications.

The efforts were inspiring, but also led us to wonder: Shouldn’t companies develop more holistic, integrated and systematic approaches to gender equality? We believe “gender mainstreaming” – improving coordination by removing structural siloes, and sharing commitments, accountability and messaging – is critical for companies to move forward on gender equality.

In the mid-1990s, the UN introduced gender mainstreaming as a strategy for achieving progress on gender equality, and the approach has evolved considerably since then. Today, it provides a useful framework for companies aiming to increase their engagement with female employees, consumers and community members.

Taking this approach means that gender diversity can’t be considered as simply something “nice to have”; instead, women and men should play an equal role in planning and implementing new projects, to ensure that this work does not have a negative impact on either gender. At best, it will help companies gain the maximum benefits from engaging women across different corporate roles, internally and externally. At a minimum, it will protect against the erroneous, and common, conclusion that an issue is “gender-neutral” – for example, if internal recognition or promotion processes require self-nomination (which depends on a more “masculine” leadership style), or if supply chain codes of conduct require employee interviews but don’t consider cultural sensitivities regarding a male interviewer interacting with a majority female workforce.

Most corporate leaders today understand the need to get the basics right, by implementing non-discriminatory hiring procedures and fair promotion policies, investing in community programmes that are important to women, and developing safe and healthy products aimed at women.

Some companies are quickly moving beyond this and leading the way for more comprehensive gender-equality strategies. For example, both ANN INC. and Symantec have made public commitments regarding the importance of gender equality to their business and have formed cross-functional teams to implement programmes and ensure company-wide accountability. Symantec has focused on building a diverse workforce, in particular to increase the representation of women in technical positions. In addition, the company is a founding signatory to the UN Women’s Empowerment Principles (WEPs), and uses these principles as a framework to ensure that its efforts address the various impacts the company has on women, from marketing to recruitment. Just this week, ANN INC. announced a major commitment to promote women’s empowerment in its supply chain, expanding participation in BSR’s HERproject programme, signing on to the WEPs, and “mainstreaming gender” into the company’s supplier codes of conduct. This new commitment is exciting, even more so because it builds on an existing foundation of commitments to women and girls.

Gender mainstreaming provides a useful framework for all companies, regardless of where on the gender leadership spectrum they fall. Companies can start with five steps:

  1. Acknowledge that gender is a mainstream issue and that gender equality must be a shared primary goal for everyone. To be done well, this requires senior leadership engagement and cross-functional collaboration, to ensure consistent messages are sent throughout the company.
  2. Analyse your company’s current efforts. Enlist key departments, including sales, human resources, government relations, community affairs, legal, supply chain and marketing to form a cross-functional gender council to review current efforts and progress on gender to date.
  3. Benchmark your company’s performance against partners, competitors and leaders to understand the gaps and opportunities in your current practices. A useful tool for this could be the WEPs, which provide a seven-step framework on how to empower women in the workplace.
  4. Broaden your commitments. Building from this assessment, companies should choose new areas to invest in and make public commitments to achieving progress. Focus on areas where you feel the company can have the greatest impact, but don’t ignore issues that are challenging or less marketable. The key to successful gender mainstreaming is establishing consistent messaging and broad attention to gender across issues and departments.
  5. Monitor and report. Monitoring performance via dashboards that regularly display data on the representation and progress of women across the company can be critical for ensuring accountability. It will also help you tell a comprehensive story that consumers, potential employees and business partners can relate to.

The case for investing in women goes well beyond the “right thing to do”.  Women represent a greater proportion of college graduates than men, 80% of consumer purchasing decisions are made by women, companies with more women in senior ranks outperform those with fewer, and as much as 80% of the workforce in light manufacturing and 70% in agriculture is made up of women. It is clear that gender is a mainstream issue, and equality should be addressed as a core part of the way businesses work.

On International Women’s Day, it’s a good time to start the conversation at your company: What will it take for your company to make gender mainstream?

This blog is part of a series for International Women’s Day.

Authors: Aditi Mohapatra is associate director and Racheal Meiers is director of the HERproject at BSR. 

Image: Women board a passenger train during morning rush hours in Tokyo October 7, 2011. REUTERS/Yuriko Nakao