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Gender Fair: Empowering Consumers & Benchmarking Gender Equity

In this interview, Ethisphere’s Craig Moss interviews Johanna “José” Zeilstra, CEO of Gender Fair, a public benefit corporation focused on informing consumers, employees, and investors which companies are advancing gender equality. It also encourages support for those companies in the marketplace through its Gender Fair Index. Ethisphere has just forged a partnership with Gender Fair to develop an assessment to enable companies to understand how they compare to Gender Fair standards.

José Zeilstra, CEO, Gender Fair

Craig Moss: José, gender equity in the workplace is a topic that’s receiving more and more attention. Tell us about Gender Fair and your mission.

José Zeilstra: In its simplest form, Gender Fair is the “fair trade” for women. We’re all familiar with fair trade, because we shop fair trade, or we shop organic, or we look for symbols that explain if a company is doing well in a certain category. To date, there hasn’t been an equivalent for women. So, Gender Fair was started because women still make 85% of the purchasing decisions. If they care about advancing equality they can use Gender Fair as a standard for making decisions about purchasing, or employment, or investment, or even donating to an organization. It’s another way to see which companies are progressing around diversity, equity and inclusion.

I think, especially here in the U.S, you’re not going to have government legislate gender balance. It’s going to be businesses taking it up themselves, or through market pressures. Consumers can put pressures on companies to do better. And it’s not just limited to gender and diversity, but we’re also seeing that happen in sustainability and down the supply chain. Through consumer, employee, and investor pressure, we can create a better world for everyone.

Craig: We are definitely seeing an increase in companies responding to ESG issues, and gender equity is a key portion of the S in ESG. Tell us about the rating system you have developed to determine whether a company is Gender Fair.

José: First of all, there’s no agreed-upon standard when it comes to gender equality. We have the Bloomberg Equality Index, or different organizations trying to come up with the right standard. Some use 200 metrics, others use two or three.

We looked at the UN Women’s Empowerment Principles (WEPs) to guide us. We saw a lot of publicly traded companies sign up for the WEPs. In 2016, the founder of Gender Fair Amy Cross said, “I’m going to take these guiding principles, create metrics, and assess the companies that have committed to these principles to see how they’re doing.” All the data is in the public domain—SEC reports, CSR reports, company websites, and annual reports. We assess companies on a 100-point scale. If a company has a score of 70, or higher, they’re Gender Fair.

There are five main categories of metrics. The first one is leadership. We look at a company and their gender balance on the board, including women of color. We look at gender balance in the executive suite. We look at any kind of leadership development programs in place.

The second pillar covers employee policies—things like maternity and paternity leave, work-life benefits, sexual harassment policies, and if they’ve done a pay equity assessment.

The third pillar is advertising and communication. Are the images that they project inclusive of all genders and diversity? Is it stereotype breaking, or is it neutral or objectifying?

The fourth pillar is diversity reporting. We feel it’s important for companies to provide workforce composition numbers and be transparent. Even if the numbers aren’t great, we still want to recognize companies that do that. Many companies are also publishing their internal pay equity studies.

The last pillar that we look at is CSR, and whether companies support causes that benefit women and girls. That could be supporting women-owned businesses, or STEM education.

Craig: How many companies have you evaluated, and what percent are typically Gender Fair?

José: We have actual data on 5,500 companies, but we have validated about 750 consumer-facing companies that represent about 2,500 brands. We wanted to start with a consumer push, although we do have data on all publicly traded companies.

Around 10% qualify as Gender Fair. The standard itself is not out of reach. We’re not saying that you have to have full parity. For example, you get points just for having 20% women on the board and in the executive suite. So it’s not a high bar, yet only about 10% of companies actually meet the standard.

Craig: Where are companies typically strong, and where are they weak?

José: The stronger companies are having more women on the board, but they still really struggle to get women in the C-suite, and that’s going to take time. Companies are also getting better about providing benefits, being more flexible with remote work, and providing better paid leave.

There are still struggles with making sure that companies do not have forced arbitration over claims of sexual harassment, and doing pay equity analysis. Fewer than 5% of companies have good pay and sexual harassment policies. The trend is to be much more transparent, even if a company doesn’t meet targets— only 6% of companies provide intersectional data on gender by race/ethnicity of their workforce.

Craig: Gender Fair recently released an app that lets consumers scan a product and see about the gender equity of the company behind the product. Tell us a little bit about the app and what you hope to accomplish with it.

José: This is where the consumer pressure comes in. We believe that consumers, female consumers in particular, have so much power to actually drive change. We recently upgraded the app to make it much more user-friendly. You can scan the logo of 2,500 brands, and immediately see If a company is Gender Fair. If not, it provides you an alternative that is Gender Fair.

A screenshot of the soon-to-be-released dashboard from the Gender Fair-Ethisphere assessment tool.

We recently commissioned a study of 2,400 people of all ages and genders across the country, sharing what they care about. We found that more than 70% of people will switch from one brand to another that’s Gender Fair. Men seem to want to switch more than women, which was an interesting finding. We also found what Gender Fair metrics they care most about: safe work environments, being paid fairly, and having flexibility and work-life balance. And they care about career opportunities. They least care about whether a company has a female CEO, or women on the board.

But we have non-consumer companies that are very interested in Gender Fair. They see the Gender Fair seal of approval as very valuable for them as they recruit, or from an investor perspective as well.

Craig: We are really excited to say that Gender Fair and Ethisphere are collaborating to release a new assessment that will let companies measure where they are against the Gender Fair standard, and then actually receive recommendations and resources to help them take action to improve. How does this fit into Gender Fair’s strategy?

José: What we really appreciated about Ethisphere’s self-assessment platform is that it is highly secure, and has great reporting as well. You’re not just a score, but a lot of resources and recommendations that you can take to continue to progress on your journey towards gender equality and diversity. We are very much aligned mission-wise, and trying to help companies do better.

About the Expert:

Johanna “José” Zeilstra is CEO of Gender Fair. She is an established business strategist and accomplished leader for both startups and global corporations. Prior to her current role, she co-founded GiveBack, an innovative platform that makes it easy for companies to build authentic and impactful cause marketing, workplace giving and other social responsibility initiatives. She serves on the boards of the CEO Forum, Harbor Island Conservancy, Princeton Faith & Work Initiative, and the Women Business Collective.

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