Canada’s Top Eight Pensions Unite on ESG Disclosure. Brookfield’s anti-capitalist ESG reset. Improving investor returns with ESG. Goldman Sachs says ESG finance to become ‘core part’ of strategy.

These are just some of the headlines successfully cutting through the constant stream of information about vaccine shortages, travel restrictions, and new highly-transmissible COVID-19 variants.

ESG, or environment, social, and governance, may well be the hottest business trend of this decade, and it brings huge potential to positively impact gender equality. Facing mounting pressure from governments, investors, shareholders, employees, and consumers, corporations are being held accountable for their gender diversity commitments along with other ESG risks and opportunities. The shock waves are being felt worldwide and the call-to-action for meaningful inclusion and equity is stronger than ever.

That’s why the Canadian Women’s Foundation focused on Corporate Citizenship for Gender Equality for their International Women’s Day event on March 8, 2021.

Corporate citizenship is an organization’s commitment to the communities in which they live and work that goes beyond the basics of profit. It can be in the form of investment in community-based organizations, better environmental practices, equity and inclusion training, more equitable human resource practices, philanthropic gifts, and more.

It’s accessible to businesses of all sizes and industry-agnostic. Most importantly, it’s the opportunity corporate Canada cannot miss when it comes to investing in gender justice.

Are they on to something?

According to Suzanne Duncan, Vice President of Philanthropy at the Canadian Women’s Foundation, the volume of inbound calls to the organization has demonstrated that this is a priority for the Canadian corporate sector. Requests for information, partnerships, and other supports are proof that the need and desire are real and starting to take shape.

“Corporations want to do more financially and beyond,” said Duncan. “They want to give employees the tools to dig in and do more. They want to help employees become champions of gender equality in their communities. They want to ‘walk the talk’ and go beyond the surface.”

Duncan points to organizations like The Body Shop, that supports its employees to get active and equips them with tools to move important conversations forward. She notes that big and small companies in areas as diverse as tech, finance, retail, and service are thinking about the implications of what they can do to get behind social change efforts and offer incentives for employee-led action.

Employees as advocates

The framing of employees as advocates has brought corporate citizenship into a new realm.

“This is a shot in the arm that companies need and will help us get to a better recovery post-pandemic. Before the pandemic, many women were left behind in gender equality gains. And now with the pandemic, 30 years of gender equality gains are at risk and the chasms have deepened for many women and gender-diverse people, including Black women, Indigenous women, migrant women, and women with disabilities,” said Duncan. “What we are hearing across Canada from companies is that we can’t go back to ‘normal.’ Many are ready for action themselves and prepared to support their employees who are equally ready to act.”

According to Duncan, this new appreciation is one of the positive responses to the difficulties of the COVID-19 pandemic. Many more people now have a window into the lives of those living and working in unsafe, under-supported conditions, sharing close quarters, and with fewer resources to access online schools or to combat social isolation. Canadians can now more easily empathize with people without paid sick days, essential workers unable to work from home, or women who sacrificed their jobs altogether to care for parents and children.

“This new understanding of others is now being brought into meetings and built into conversations at work, and it’s driving folks to use their positions as leaders in companies and communities to make a difference,” said Duncan. “We can also see more clearly the cracks in our systems, what is and isn’t covered under municipal, provincial, federation or corporate jurisdiction, and have a better understanding of where the solutions must come from.”

Our moment to seize

Pursuing true equality means recognizing and meeting the needs of people facing barriers related to sexuality, race, gender identity, ability, age, and more. A tremendous gift is waiting for companies ready to take on citizenship responsibilities. Never has there been a more important moment for employees to take action at work, or such an opportunity for employers to build up their corporate purpose.

“While gains have been slow, they have been meaningful, and today the finish line no longer feels like an impossible dream. I believe that is why we are seeing so much rightful pressure to make change happen now.  Missing this opportunity will mean staying in  a place where women are unsafe and undervalued. It will mean gender equality will continue to have glacial gains that will not be felt by those who are most vulnerable.”

Let’s not mess this up. Now is the time for the corporate sector to face the gendered impacts of their business, invest in training and mentorship opportunities for marginalized staff, incorporate policies like pay transparency to guarantee pay equity, work alongside non-profit partners in the women’s sector, and equip employees with the knowledge and tools to get involved.

This article was written by Wendy Kauffman, Vice President, Reputation Management and FemWorks Practice Group Founder at Brown & Cohen Communications & Public Affairs Inc. in advance of the Canadian Women’s Foundation’s Corporate Citizenship for Gender Equality event marking International Women’s Day on March 8, 2021. You can watch a full recording of the webinar here.