Iryna Alkhouka: Refusing to Comply With Gender Equality Principles Is Often Due to Ignorance of Law

How should gender equality principles be applied when a business company is planning its internal CSR strategy? How can lack of discrimination at the workplace benefit the profits? Expert Iryna Alkhouka, member of the  National Council on Gender Policy at the Council of Ministers of the Republic of Belarus and Head of International public association "Gender Perspectives", explained to us why gender equality observance and corporate social responsibility are measures helping business in times of crisis. You can read more in the interview the expert gave for the ODB website.

Iryna Alkhouka, member of the National Council on Gender Policy at the Council of Ministers of the Republic of Belarus, Head of International public association "Gender Perspectives"

- How are gender equality issues reflected today in the CSR policies of Belarusian businesses?

- There is not a lot of information about such CSR projects by Belarusian businesses. Assuming that corporate social responsibility means not only conscientious compliance with the law but also certain responsibilities out of the scope of the law, there is an example of the Belarusian office of British American Tobacco, where they have an adaptation programme in place for female employees coming back from child care leave. It's not a secret that three years of childcare leave will "knock out" anyone out of their professional life.

Speaking strictly about CSR, there are not that many examples. Many Belarusian companies regard corporate social responsibility in terms of gender equality rather as honest observance of law: if there is a requirement to provide a child care leave, we will provide it. However, that's not CSR as such. 

Employers should think about how they can create a stimulating environment. There is a successful example of CSR in Russia's Vnesheconombank, which provides a day's paid leave on the 1st of September to their employees who are young mothers with children from 6 to 10 years old. On that day employees have the opportunity to attend the annual school assembly with their child. It was important for the company to support the family holiday so that nothing distracted their staff at their workplace and reduce productivity. That's a simple example of CSR. Such a measure costs little for the employer, and it can be used for any company.

- Why aren't CSR strategies associated with gender equality that widely applied yet?

- A lot of things that legally can be called discrimination are taken for granted by the society. Asking a woman during a job interview: "How many children do you have? Who cares for them when they are ill?" is considered normal. Men are not asked such questions. Our societal perceptions are based on children always associated with the woman in the family. When employers are more flexible and more sensitive to their employee's family situations, they will understand that family is not associated with women only. Men also begin to realize that fatherhood is an important area of life. We do not have enough men willing to use their rights legally adopted in the Belarusian law: only 1% of men in Belarus uses their rights to child care leave. Taking into account family responsibilities can bring economic benefits to your business. Such an investment will be repaid a hundredfold. In accordance with international practice, when employers give consideration to providing their employees with opportunities to perform both their family responsibilities and their job responsibilities, employers demonstrate a very high degree of loyalty to their company: they rarely quit, stay in to company for longer, labour turnover and training costs are lower - this benefit is quite difficult to put in monetary terms, or economically, because the degree of employee loyalty to their company increases significantly, and this improves their job performance, since training each employee costs a lot of money.

Iryna Alkhouka (on the right), member of the National Council on Gender Policy at the Council of Ministers of the Republic of Belarus, Head of International public association "Gender Perspectives"


- Can we consider representation of women in a company's top management to be a part of gender equality promotion?

- According to the National Statistics Committee of the Republic of Belarus, 68.5% of Belarusian officials are women.

53% of women and 47% of men work at the "head / deputy head" level. There is no such data on the private sector. However, even governmental statistics show that Belarusian women earn less than men. "Patriarchal" perceptions stating that women cannot be good professionals, that they are too emotional because they're always thinking about their families, that  not only prevents women from realizing their labour rights to the full extent but also bring the risk of "limited" choice onto the employers who mainly look for "ideal" male workers.

If a company is implementing a special strategy aimed at increasing female representation at the top management level, it can be considered a part of CSR. Often a "quota" system is used, when the number of women in the company's management is increased by placing quotas on them. However, such policies are not always implemented effectively. In order for the number of women in executive positions to increase, they should start dialogue with the female employees themselves - to understand which barriers stand in the way of their professional growth, what specific interests and needs they have, and how the company can help implement them to their gain.

- What practical advice can you give to the managers of a private company that is interested in implementing gender equality principles when creating their CSR strategy? 

- First, you should talk to their female and male employees. Do they think that the climate in the company is suitable for employees with family responsibilities, do they face any challenges when combining their professional and family responsibilities, is their sex relevant in professional talent development? What problems are faced by employees with families in general, regardless of whether they are male or female? Often, as in the VEB example with the day off on September 1st, it can cost very little.

An example of a successful local CSR policy is given by Sheryl Sandberg, top manager of Facebook, in her autobiographical book Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead". She shared her personal experience. No parking spaces were allocated for cars of pregnant women at her company's car park. At the same time, another company allocated three car spaces for pregnant women so that they would take a shorter walk from the car park to the office. That's an example of how a company shows that they see the differences between their employees and wants to reduce the gap if such differences affect their job performance in a negative way. The tip is to start with simple things, from a dialogue with their employees.

- How advantageous is it to implement a CSR strategy today?

- If we speak about CSR, then today, in crisis conditions, it seems more reasonable to speak about corporate social responsibility with a minimum, or "zero" budget. These are things that a company can do with no outside assistance and would not require big money, no investments would be needed.

A good practice is to have flexible working hours, teleworking (working from home), accumulating a "bank" of working hours, creating workplaces with family interests in mind. There is already a notion of flexible employment types in Belarusian law. Timely notifications of overtime and predictability of work shifts can also be considered to be a part of CSR. For example, the programme to adapt women after they return from a child care leave would cost the company's HR a few extra working hours and would require no additional funds.

Refusing to comply with gender equality principles at the workplace is often due to lack of factual knowledge of the law. Some of Belarusian employers, for example, still do not know that child care payments are funded by the taxes and not by the company's profits.

If business responds in time to their employee's needs from the perspective of gender equality, this increases respect to company and its prestige. Gender stereotypes often prevent employers from understanding that corporate social responsibility for their companies is a part of their primary strategy, an element of their economic competitive advantage.

Iryna Alkhouka (Minsk, Belarus) - member of the National Council on Gender Policy at the Council of Ministers of the Republic of Belarus, Head of International public association "Gender Perspectives", sociologist, expert on promoting gender equality and non-profit organizational development.

Sectoral Discussion "Corporate social responsibility for small and medium-sized businesses" with Marina Saprykina, executive Head of the Center for CSR Development (Ukraine) was held in Minsk on April 29, 2015 and was organized by ODB (Brussels) and the Association of European Business (Minsk).

Read more:

International Conference on Gender Equality Held in Minsk

What Are Gender Rights and Opportunities in Belarus?

Why Do Small and Medium Businesses Need CSR?

Marina Saprykina: Development of Local Communities is One of the Goals of CSR