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UNIFEM, Investing Group Call for Equal Treatment of Women Workers - 2004-06-23


Amid a growing scandal over unequal pay of women employees at Wal-mart, one of the United States' largest retailers, a U.N. women's group has joined a mutual fund company to encourage all businesses to employ more positive policies regarding women workers.

Despite years of progress, many analysts say women face a so-called "glass ceiling" that prevents them from rising to the top of the corporate world and earning as much as men. Acording to Barbara Krumsiek, gender equity is a serious problem in today's workplace.

"I'm one of four women who are CEO's of mutual fund companies out of 400," she said. "Women have been going through business schools and had the doors of the elite educational institutions open to them for 35 years, and we have four out of 400. Twenty-five years ago I was told it was a pipeline question. I no longer believe it's a pipeline question. I believe it is something systemic and cultural within the corporate environment."

That's why Ms. Krumsiek says she is setting out to change the treatment of women in the corporate world. She heads a mutual fund company called Calvert that lists what it calls socially responsible companies, and encourages people to invest in them.

Her corporation is releasing a set of principles that calls for all companies to follow a certain code of conduct when it comes to the treatment of women employees. Among them, pay women an amount that is comparable to men, end pregnancy-related discrimination, and actively pursue the advancement of women in the workplace.

The U.N. Development Fund for Women, UNIFEM, helped create the principles for the treatement of female workers. UNIFEM director, Noeleen Heyzer, says workplace equity is important for women all over the world, especially low-wage workers.

"So you have a phenomenon, more and more women entering into the whole workforce, but at the same time they are concentrated in a particular hierarchy at a lower level," she said. "What this set of principles would do is to actively transform this workplace so they are given equal pay, they are engaged not because of their cheap labor, they are engaged because of their productive labor."

UNIFEM and Calvert released the code of conduct for corporations on how to treat women employees the day after a federal judge ruled that a major retailer in the United States, Walmart, will face a class action lawsuit regarding discrimination against women. The case, which centers on unequal pay and alleges that Walmart offered women fewer chances to move up in the workplace, could cover more than a million and a half employees, making it the largest lawsuit regarding workplace bias in U.S. history.

Ms. Krumsiek says Wal-mart is not included in Calvert's list of several hundred socially responsible companies. She says the release of the principles was not planned to coincide with the Walmart lawsuit, but she acknowledges that the timing is appropriate.

"We had no idea that this Wal-mart ruling, in terms of the class action suit, was going to occur yesterday and be front of the headlines today," he said. "But we certainly feel it is an indicator of why were are doing this, why it is a necessary activity."

In the coming months, Ms. Krumsiek says Calvert plans to use the principles to rate companies according to how they treat women employees.

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