Empowering women workers

The majority of workers, yet among the most vulnerable

"...we have seen firsthand that investing in women’s employment is good for business.

Many of our private sector clients and partners know that supporting women’s employment is not only the right thing to do, but benefits the bottom line. These organizations are already going beyond legal compliance and putting in place strategies to enhance working conditions and opportunities for women." Jin-Yong Cai, Executive Vice President and CEO of International Finance Corporation (IFC).

The vast majority of workers in global supply chains are women; "women workers...occupy 60 to 90 per cent of jobs in the labour intensive stages of the clothing and fresh-produce global supply chains."(Trading away our rights: women workers in global supply chains. Oxfam GB 2004)

For many, jobs offer a promise of economic independence, greater equality, and the hope of a better future for them and their children.

But for millions of women workers around the world, the grim reality of work is of toiling excessive hours, often in difficult and unsafe working conditions, for wages that are not enough to make ends meet.

Women also face different challenges at work to men, including discrimination and failure to protect their maternity rights. For example, factory owners in Mexico have been accused of not hiring women of child-bearing age, or of demanding pregnancy tests as a prerequisite to employing them.

The imbalance in power between workers and managers is even more pronounced when, as in Bangladeshi garment factories, the majority of workers are women and the majority of supervisors are men. Culturally bound to obey men, women workers felt unable to refuse male supervisors' orders to return to the Rana Plaza factory building, even though they feared for their lives. Tragically, they were proved right when the building collapsed  in April 2013, killing 1,129 people and injuring twice that number.

Women tend to be concentrated in so-called ‘women's roles' such as sweeping or collecting rubbish, or in jobs that require manual dexterity, which are lower paid than other jobs. In many countries, women being promoted, even to line supervisor status, is a rarity. 

Sexual harassment of women by male managers and supervisors is commonplace in many countries. As ETI's Supervisor Training programme in South Africa's horticulture sector proved, this takes many forms, ranging from inappropriate comments and sexual jokes, to being forced to provide sexual favours in return for being hired, being threatened with sexual violence, and at worst, rape.

Women also suffer to a greater extent than men from the consequences of a lack of access to other rights, including the right not to have to work excessive overtime. For example, as childcare responsibilities in many countries fall to women, working long hours also means not being able to pick children up from school, or getting home too late to cook supper or put children to bed. Travelling home from work late at night can also increase the threat to their physical safety.

Women are also particularly vulnerable as workers as they are less likely than men to be aware of their rights. As they tend to be concentrated in small, unprotected workplaces, for example in subcontracting facilities or at home, they are largely overlooked by official trade union structures and often invisible in the supply chain.

Frequently asked questions

Why is empowering women workers important?

  • To ensure that women's rights as individuals and as workers are not abused
  • To ensure that discrimination is not practiced within supply chains
  • To improve women's ability – through better skills, confidence and wages – to support their families and communities. "Better jobs for women—employment that leads to higher wages and greater decision-making—also have a positive influence on the ways households spend money on children’s nutrition, health, and education." ( 'Investing in Women’s Employment Good for business, good for development' IFC 2013 )
  • To help women reach their potential within the workforce;  "...we have seen firsthand that investing in women’s employment is good for business. Many of our private sector clients and partners know that supporting women’s employment is not only the right thing to do, but benefits the bottom line." (as above)

What are the challenges to empowering women workers?

  • Cultural norms: in many cultures (including Western cultures) perceptions of women and their role and status in society are deeply embedded; these may lead to lower pay, lack of voice, fewer opportunities, sexual abuse and other forms of discrimination.
  • Domestic pressures: part of those cultural norms is the assumption that the woman is responsible for child-care, domestic chores, care of elderly or sick relatives etc. This adds to women's burden of work overall and can hinder their progress in the workplace.
  • Social handicaps: In many countries women are likely to be less well educated than men, and therefore have lower literacy and skill levels and be less aware of their rights. They are also likely to be less confident to try to seek information or training.

What can brands and retailers do to empower women in their supply chains?

  • Ensure that suppliers are aware of ETI's Base Code clause on discrimination and work with them to identify abuses, explore underlying causes and work together to find ways of achieving continual improvement in the empowerment of women.
  • Support suppliers in developing and implementing robust workplace policies on equal treatment of workers, sexual abuse and harassment and grievance mechanisms.
  • Work with suppliers to implement schemes that help women workers improve their skills, confidence and opportunities for advancement.
  • Link with NGOs with particular expertise in this area and explore the possibility of programmes addressing women's empowerment issues in the community as well as the workplace.
  • Work with trade unions to ensure that women are equally and appropriately represented.
  • Link with local and national government agencies with a focus on women and work with them to improve legal protection for women workers.

Women workers: Key stats

  • Women’s labor force participation has stagnated, in fact decreasing from 57 percent in 1990 to 55 percent in 2012.
  • Women on average earn between 10 and 30 percent less than working men.
  • Women are only half as likely as men to have full-time wage jobs for an employer.
  • In only five of the 114 countries for which data are available have women reached or surpassed gender parity with men in such occupations as legislators, senior officials, and managers; namely, Colombia, Fiji, Jamaica, Lesotho, and the Philippines. 
  • Women spend at least twice as much time as men on unpaid domestic work such as caring and housework. 
  • A total of 128 countries have at least one sex-based legal differentiation, meaning women and men cannot function in the world of work in the same way; in 54 countries, women face five or more legal differences.
  • Across developing countries, there is a nine percentage point gap between women and men in having an account at a formal financial institution.
  • More than one in three women has experienced either physical or sexual violence by a partner or non-partner sexual violence.
  • In 2010-12, 42 countries reported gender gaps in secondary school enrollment rates exceeding 10 percent.
  • One in three girls in developing countries is married before reaching her 18th birthday.

Source: World Bank