Invest in Women: Putting the spotlight on Achieving Gender Equity in the Food Sector and What investors Can do

08 March 2024

Women and gender-diverse people represent an important constituency in the food value chain. Among all working women globally, about one in three works upstream, meaning in farming and production, in the food value chain. These women face increasing barriers to safety, recognition and advancement. Yet very little about their experiences has been documented.

Engaging with the theme of this year’s International Women’s Day ‘Invest in women: Accelerate progress’ we asked Sharmeen Contractor, Lead, Market Systems and Investors, with Oxfam America to tell us about the recent report “Towards Achieving Gender Equity in the Food Sector: What can investors do?” and what investors, who are well-positioned to encourage companies to advance gender equity in company supply chains, can do to help reshape this narrative and encourage companies to act.

Oxfam’s recently released guidance for investors on how they can help to ensure gender equity upstream in the food sector is informed by reports and assessments by Oxfam, its partners and allies, along with one-on-one interviews, focus group discussions and workshops with women’s rights organizations, companies and investors.

Oxfam’s work is focused on the role of farmers, farm workers and those workers in the earlier stages of the supply chains of food and agriculture companies. This guidance draws on those experiences, particularly in food commodities – seafood in Southeast Asia, cocoa production in Ghana, grape cultivation and wine production in South Africa, banana and pineapple plantations of Costa Rica, and coffee production in Brazil. The publication shines a spotlight on gender inequities experienced in this context, where large agribusiness traders, food and beverage companies and food retailers can play a pivotal role in shaping outcomes for women. One in three women works in farming and production and these dependencies will grow over time, as more men move out of the sector and women’s roles expand.

Working conditions for women are worse than those of men and frequently dangerous to their health and wellbeing. They are offered fewer opportunities in the workplace and are often discriminated against or denied advancement. The precarity of their work offers them fewer opportunities for advancement and makes them particularly exposed to violence and harassment.

The guidance identifies six risks women face and includes: (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. The risks are compounded during crises (pandemics, climate change, etc.) and can have an impact on companies operating in the sector.

Food companies have the power to change the narrative, but as the guidance showcases there is still much work to be done by many of them. Of particular issue is the lack of collection of gender disaggregated data by companies that would highlight where the extent of the concerns lie.

The guidance urges investors to engage in the context of:

  • Mitigation of gender specific risks they face across food companies in their portfolio
  • Increase in the role of women in agriculture
  • Increase of government scrutiny into supply chains
  • Women’s contribution to overall economic growth
  • Gender specific value creation opportunities
  • Meeting of their own climate goals

Broadly, it outlines for investors who to engage with, what to engage on and how to engage. On issue topics, it directs investors to ask companies to collect gender disaggregated data and move away from the practice of relying on social audits. More specifically, it directs investors to start by engaging companies on specific commodities where salient gender risks are well documented, such as cocoa, seafood and/or coffee and there is plenty of evidence of company violations.

Read the report here.