Including a gender lens in consumer protection policies can empower women and help reduce gender disparities.
Consumer protection is fundamental for assuring consumers’ rights to information, education, safe products, protection of their economic interests, sustainable consumption, dispute resolution and non-discrimination.
Yet information and advertising are often not presented in a gender-neutral way, contributing to stereotyping and patterns that don’t support gender equality.
UNCTAD Deputy Secretary-General Isabelle Durant led a conversation on how consumer protection can contribute to a gender-equal world on 8 February, noting that many hurdles remain despite significant progress towards achieving gender equality.
Ms. Durant said some hurdles are well known, “but others are more hidden and can unconsciously contribute to stereotyping and lead to unequal opportunities, particularly for women.”
Biased adverts and algorithms
She cited the example of advertisements not presented in a gender-neutral way, saying “some ads reinforce stereotypes and contribute to misinformation or discrimination. That is where consumer protection must come in.”
Ms. Durant also gave the example of algorithms on social media platforms, which use information from users’ profiles and lead them to specific goods and services in line with assumptions of their preferences.
“Clearly, there is a risk that the consumer may not be well informed and can be misled,” she said.
UN guidelines for consumer protection
To help address this problem, UNCTAD promotes the UN’s guidelines for consumer protection, a set of consumer protection principles and policies intended for governments to introduce consumer protection laws and policies. They also address business and civil society.
The guidelines recognize the vulnerability of consumers and the imbalance in terms of economic capacity, level of education and bargaining power.
They draw attention to the importance of consumer protection policies as a tool to promote social and economic development and sustainability.
They offer recommendations on protection of vulnerable consumers, protection of economic rights, health and safety, access to justice, access to services and essential goods and sustainable consumption, among other issues.
Ms. Durant said the guidelines “consider that consumer education contributes to women's knowledge and bargaining power fundamental for their personal and professional development.”
However, she noted that sensitivity and progress on this issue is not identical across countries or world regions.
Argentina blazes the trail
Argentina is one of the countries at the forefront of addressing the issue. It has produced a guide on good business practices on gender and diversity, covering sensitive issues in consumer relations.
The guide refers to human rights instruments such as the Convention for the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women and addresses sexist practices that create rigid and limiting stereotypes, which subordinate women and people of non-binary identities.
It proposes recommendations to identify and dismantle discriminatory practices through examples that generate healthy, sustainable, egalitarian and respectful consumption relationships.
Women have a decisive voice
Women can influence more sustainable, more responsible and better-informed choices when benefiting from education and information campaigns and awareness-raising initiatives, according to Teresa Moreira, head of competition and consumer policies at UNCTAD.
“Women tend to have a decisive voice when choosing goods and services for their households,” she said while moderating the event.
Panellists included Sebastián Barocelli, director of the National Directorate on Consumer Protection and Consumer Arbitration in Argentina and Betilde Muñoz Pogossian, director of the Department of Social Inclusion, Organisation of American States.
Others were Helena Leurent, director general of Consumers International and Arlin Chondro, founder of Peek.me Naturals, an e-commerce company offering health-related products across Indonesia, and a member of the UNCTAD-led eTrade for Women initiative.
Examining women’s special role
The panellists examined women’s special role in consumer protection and how policy can help curb stereotyping in advertisement. Ms. Muñoz Pogossian warned that such stereotyping in advertising can impose limitations on women.
They also discussed the evolving needs of protecting consumers in the digital world, focusing on the gender dimension. Ms. Leurent emphasized that strong female representation was not only needed in decision-making but also in data collected about women’s profiles.
Besides, they highlighted examples of where consumer protection had made a difference for women and the role of the UN guidelines for consumer protection in promoting social and economic development and sustainability.
The event was part of UNCTAD’s initiative dubbed “Les 8 du mois until we’re there”, (Les 8 du mois is French for "the 8th of every month") launched on International Women’s Day 2021.
The initiative raises awareness on barriers to gender equality and how to overcome them to create economies and societies that offer women and men more equal chances.