From New York City to Bangladesh: advancing gender equality in the garment industry

167 years ago, a group of women garment workers protesting in New York inspired the creation of International Women’s Day. Today, the women who make our clothes continue to face barriers to fully realising their rights. This article shares insights from a recent workshop by the World Benchmarking Alliance and the United Nations Development Programme in Bangladesh. It explores the recommendations that were put forward for all stakeholders to advance gender equality in the apparel industry.

On International Women’s Day our social media feeds are often filled with posts from people and businesses celebrating the women in their lives and workplaces. A little known fact is that the day originated in the labour movement, commemorating women garment workers in New York City in 1857 who protested to demand better working conditions.

One and a half centuries onwards, the world looks very different from how it did then: from the right for women to vote, to access greater education, to female representation in leadership positions in both the public and private sectors, we’ve made strides towards a more gender-equal world. However, we still have a long way to go. According to the WEF’s 2023 Gender Gap Report, it will take 131 years to achieve gender parity. Our 2023 Gender Benchmark  assessing 1,006 of the most influential companies globally on gender issues found that women remain underrepresented at all levels of leadership in almost half of these companies. Meanwhile, just 3% of these companies disclose their gender pay gap.

The women who make our clothes

The apparel industry is an industry that has great potential to hinder or advance towards gender equality, because nearly 60% of the 94 million people that work in it are women. Today, the majority of these workers aren’t in New York City – instead, approximately 75% of them live in Asia, with the largest garment exporters being China, Bangladesh and Vietnam.

However, according to our benchmark results, the sector still has a long way to go: just 38% of the world’s biggest fashion brands have some kind of public commitment to gender equality and women’s empowerment, and only 14% prioritise gender-specific issues as salient in their due diligence process.

The few companies that do conduct a gender-responsive due diligence process have identified issues such as violence and harassment, health and safety, working hours and unpaid care, that are not only relevant for their individual operations, but prevalent across global supply chains, affecting the lives of millions of women around the world. These same issues have been linked to a steady decline in the number of women working in the garment sector in recent years, reducing female participation in the formal workforce.

Insights from Bangladesh

Earlier this week, the World Benchmarking Alliance and the United Nations Development Programme hosted a multi-stakeholder workshop in Dhaka titled “Gender-responsive due diligence in Bangladesh’s apparel supply chain”. Company representatives, suppliers, trade union members, and civil society organisations shared their views on the most important gender challenges in the Bangladesh’s apparel sector, and what different stakeholders could do to drive change.

The six main issues raised by participants were 1) violence and harassment, 2) barriers to women’s representation in leadership, 3) gender pay gap, 4) health and safety, 5) unpaid care, and 6) societal norms. Interestingly, most of these issues match those identified by the companies that we benchmarked regarding their due diligence processes. Participants highlighted how all of these issues are closely interconnected, and that advancement in one would also accelerate progress in other area. For example: if a woman is in a position of leadership, but her workplace is not safe from violence, harassment, and discrimination against women, how will that situation be sustainable?

When it came to identifying solutions, one common theme was that all stakeholders have a role to play. Crucially, participants emphasized that suppliers (the factories) and buyers (the brands) are both responsible for ensuring a gender equal workplace, while other actors such as labour unions, civil society organizations, and national and foreign governments also play a key role.

Here are key recommendations that emerged for specific stakeholders:

  • Apparel companies: support and enable your suppliers. Companies often set high expectations for factories, but few provide the support needed to help factories to meet them. This point was made in our benchmark findings. Additionally, some requirements may create the wrong incentives. Take, for example ‘zero-tolerance’ policies on violence and harassment instead of reducing instances of harassment, these tend to lead to a culture of factories hiding complaints made by workers.
  • Suppliers in Bangladesh: ensure widespread awareness of policies and mechanisms amongst women workers. Setting the right policies and having labour rights consigned to paper, while fundamental, is not enough to advance gender equality. Participants shared how too often women are not aware of the policies and benefits available to them. Sometimes maternity leave, for example, is not communicated very openly in factories; as a result, women workers do not always know how many weeks they are entitled to and end up not taking the allocated time. Ensuring awareness of these policies, effectively implementing them, and engaging closely with women workers can help suppliers to translate what is on paper into true progress towards gender equality.
  • Civil society organisations and labour unions: continue pushing the agenda, sharing knowledge, and ensure the inclusion of women’s voices. Through a combination of expertise and advocacy, civil society organisations can play a key role in keeping the momentum and ensuring greater accountability towards gender equality. The same holds true for labour unions, that, on top of this, can bring the perspective of workers into these conversations. Unions should seek to further include and empower women – not with the simple goal of having a higher number of women, but to ensure that women have a strong voice and play a central role in decision-making.

Gender equality, everywhere and for everyone

167 years after the protests in New York City, it’s not acceptable that some of the issues these women experienced are still prevalent for garment women workers elsewhere. Whether people are working in a factory in Los Angeles or on the outskirts of Dhaka – fundamental human rights and labour rights are the same everywhere.

While the road to gender equality is long, we’ll get there much faster if companies and suppliers alike approach this challenge as a shared responsibility, and all stakeholders take relevant action and ensure accountability.

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