Wake up daily to our latest coverage of business done better, directly in your inbox.


Get your weekly dose of analysis on rising corporate activism.


The best of solutions journalism in the sustainability space, published monthly.

Select Newsletter

By signing up you agree to our privacy policy. You can opt out anytime.

Jan Lee headshot

Gender and Human Rights Advances in 2017

By Jan Lee

2017 was a watershed year for gender and human rights ... sort of. Landmark legislation aimed to control the migration and advancement of some of the world's poorest peoples, and an unthinkable tally of abuses has helped galvanize the call for more humane governance across the globe.

Still, the world has made progress. Businesses once again played a critical role in addressing not just the rights of people, but the environment on which they depend.

#MeToo Campaign

My mother's sage response to hearing that there had been some advances in both women's rights and human rights this year pretty much sums up the #MeToo message: "Aren't women also human?" Sometimes it takes a 90-year-old editor to remind us both of semantics and the humanity of the subject.

But the outpouring of admissions from celebrities that they too, had endured discrimination (and oftentimes, harassment) has opened the door to frank and surprising discussions about the way women have been treated in Hollywood. What hasn't been surprising, is that it's fueled discussions in other venues as well.

And it's led to business proposals, like Maria Contreras-Sweet's $275 million bid to buy the troubled Weinstein Company. Her proposal for the film company includes a 51 percent female board and four financial backers.

Dairy workers' rights get recognized

Ben & Jerry's success in negotiating better working conditions and accommodations for dairy workers may seem small, but it reset the benchmark for what dairy workers can and should be able to expect at the job site.

It took years to accomplish, but the ice cream maker, along with the nonprofit Migrant Justice, struck a deal with Vermont dairy farms to provide better pay and living conditions. Ben & Jerry's is footing some of the bill for this, proving that companies can improve working conditions within their supply chains just by speaking out.

VISA speaks up for women's rights

Microloans often serve as critical pathways for poor landowners who don't have the collateral or the business equity to get larger loans. In some cases, they are the launch point for aspiring business owners who need employment but don't have the money to start a business.

The concept of lending a small amount of money to an aspiring entrepreneur has done well in a number of underdeveloped communities in India, Ethiopia and Latin America. It's worked because nonprofits generally aren't out to make a lot of money; rather, they simply want to keep the fund going.

But the business model has been successful enough to the point that this year, VISA donated $20 million to the Women's World Banking. The money will go toward promoting funding and banking products to women entrepreneurs in underserved regions.

While some researchers have expressed concerns about a big business with a large balance sheet taking up a cause that benefits from low overhead strategies, VISA's support offers further recognition that small business owners can make a valuable contribution to developing communities and bigger businesses can help open those doors. The challenge is how to keep those small business aspirations affordable for all.

Gender discrimination: A transgender perspective

There has been much research to measure gender discrimination in recent years, but few have been able to quantify it with the fresh view of Dr. Vivienne Ming.

Ming, a theoretical neuroscientist and co-founder of the educational technology company Socos, has a long list of research and development credits to her name. But when it comes to intuitively understanding the implications of gender discrimination, she has an advantage: she knows from personal experience what it is like to be a man in today's workplace.

As a transgender scientist, she's been on both sides of the experience and has been able to poignantly describe what differences she observed after transitioning to a woman.

It is not usually the kind of data that researchers are able to add to their findings, but then, Ming isn't the usual scientist. She's already broken through barriers in a number of areas of research: data mining, predictive diabetes management and cognitive neuroscience, to name a few.

Perhaps her greatest contribution is being able to remind us that it is humanity -- not just numbers -- that define the implication of our success.

Human rights and continuing climate change

Climate change has human implications: that was the stark message for communities across the world in 2017. Mitigating the impacts of global warming will not just mean redesigning waterfronts or reclaiming dried-out forests. It will mean infusing our world with a better understanding of what assures a community's human rights.

This year, the U.S. saw populations displaced by record flooding, entire towns leveled by freak wild fires and communities that are still battling, decades on, for relocation assistance to higher ground.

As a nation and as a planet, we've come to gradually accept the weight of the expression, climate change refugees: to be a refugee, you must have a planet that can serve as a refuge.

That very topic has inspired another realization, one that is often under fire these days: That science does indeed have value, both in the decisions we make in our communities and the governments we elect. The March for Science rallies on Earth Day fueled a genuine interest to protect the very mechanisms by which we predict and mitigate climate change.

Finally, we were also reminded that to have a sustainable environment, we must have sustainable communities. Organizations including Cool Effect, which finds ways to blend carbon offsetting programs with improving the conditions of communities in developing countries, have taught us that in the end, those two aspirations are one and the same. Ensuring human rights of those less fortunate helps keep ecosystems resilient and valued. Restoring what we borrowed from Mother Nature gives us another resource for tomorrow's enduring communities.

Images: Catching.Light/Flickr; hdptcar/Flickr; Erik Jepsen/courtesy of Socoslearning.com; Molly Adams/Flickr




Jan Lee headshot

Jan Lee is a former news editor and award-winning editorial writer whose non-fiction and fiction have been published in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, the U.K. and Australia. Her articles and posts can be found on TriplePundit, JustMeans, and her blog, The Multicultural Jew, as well as other publications. She currently splits her residence between the city of Vancouver, British Columbia and the rural farmlands of Idaho.

Read more stories by Jan Lee