Esprit Women in Leadership Survey
Among the UN Sustainable Development Goals, Gender Equality (Goal #5) is particularly relevant to the apparel industry, since clothing factories are well known for employing a largely female workforce. Merely employing women, however, is not enough. Women workers must also receive the same opportunities as their male co-workers to learn, thrive, and advance on the job. Esprit was curious to understand the exact distribution of women in the workforce in the factories that make our products, and in particular to confirm the percentage of women in management positions.
In January and February 2018, Esprit surveyed our supplier factories in Bangladesh and India to analyze the gender distribution of the workforce in order to see the percentages of women employed at various levels of the factories. We also gathered information from Ukraine for comparison outside the region. We chose Ukraine for comparison because, although there are problems in factories there, women are more prominent in management than in other countries. We intend to extend the work to other regions where we manufacture, but decided to limit the initial work to a manageable group of countries.
Our findings were not surprising- women are underrepresented at all levels of factory management in all factories that we surveyed. Still, the factories varied significantly in how many female managers they had, meaning that improvements are probably possible within a reasonably short period of time.
Surveys were sent to 35 factories in Bangladesh, 26 factories in India, and 6 factories in Ukraine. Factory management was asked to provide information on the number of workers and their gender in 4 levels of factory management: Top Management, Middle Management, Production Supervisors, and Line Workers. We then compared the gender distribution at each level of management with the factories’ overall gender distribution for all employees. Ideally, the percentage of women at each level of management should be roughly equivalent to their prevalence in the workforce. In fact, men were overrepresented in every level of management. The findings were largely as expected, but having hard numbers allows us to understand the magnitude of the problem, and to set concrete goals for improvement.
Given the variation among factories, we decided to separate them further by type of production in order better to see where women are most prevalent, and most underrepresented, in management and supervisory positions.
There are a number of issues that the survey did not cover. The fact that sewing apparel in many countries is considered “women’s work,” clearly indicates social inequality, as does the segregation of genders among jobs within the factories, with women generally operating sewing machines and men performing other tasks. In a few regions, women are absent from the workforce altogether and even the sewing machine operators are men. All of these issues speak directly to the status of women in their societies, and are worthy of serious consideration. For the purpose of this study, however, Esprit focused our analysis on women working within the factory, and their presence or absence in management roles. We limited the scope in this way simply because we are in a position to impact the numbers of women in management positons, but much less capable of making a difference in overall social patterns of employment. Change will come eventually outside the factory walls, but for the moment it is important to make a difference where we can exercise influence inside the factory, and to work toward larger goals in the future.
The actual data can be found HERE.
What We Found
As we looked at the numbers, we noticed more men in the workforce than expected. Statistics stating that the overwhelming majority of apparel factory workers are women are often heard, but we found this situation not actually to be the case. In cut & sew factories, there are many more women than men, but at lower tiers of the supply chain where there are fewer sewing machines and more industrial processes, the gender distribution quickly reverses. Overall, we found women to make up 44% of Esprit supplier factory employees in Bangladesh, 36% of factory employees in India, and 92% of employees in Ukraine, where all Esprit factories are cut & sew. The figures for Bangladesh and India in cut & sew factories are 55% and 58% respectively. Women are obviously an important part of the apparel supply chain workforce in all of these countries, but plenty of men work in the industry, as well.
Even though the total percentage of female workers in our factories was not as high as expected, when the numbers were broken down according to job level, women were still found to be underrepresented above entry level. For Bangladesh overall, women comprise 44% of the total workforce, but only 7% of line supervisors. India is little better, with 40% of the workforce, but only 8% of the line supervisors, being women. Ukraine does much better, yet with only 8% of the workforce being male, 24% of line supervisors are still men.
There are a number of reasons that we are focused on the percentage of women as line supervisors. Line supervisors tend to be workers who started on the production line, but gained experience and skills to move up. Seeing women at this level indicates that they are able to come into the factory as inexperienced workers and work up to a better job over time, i.e., that women are being given opportunity to advance to higher paying jobs. Line supervisors are also important because there are many of them in any given factory. As a result, they have intense contact with the larger workforce, and therefore play a significant role in the factory’s overall atmosphere and whether it is a decent place to work. In particular, certain forms of harassment are far more likely to be reported by women to women than to men, which means that female supervisors are a prerequisite for certain problems even to be reported, much less addressed. Finally, many female sewing machine operators means that there is a large number of women developing the technical skills they need to move into supervisory roles, which implies potential to make fast, concrete improvement in areas where women are underrepresented.
As stated above, Esprit wants to use our findings to make concrete improvements within a reasonable period of time. We are currently in the process of discussing our findings with each factory in India and Bangladesh, and are asking them to formulate a plan to increase the number of female line supervisors by the end of 2018. We are also asking them to develop plans to make the percentage of female line supervisors match the percentage of female workers in the factory overall by the end of 2020. Setting numerical goals for improvement is deceptively simple. These goals may appear to be just a matter of numbers and hiring practices, but they actually imply that factories develop training programs that do not already exist in order to prepare women who are already technically skilled with the communication, supervisory, and conflict resolution skills needed to manage people effectively. In other words, if factories wish to promote women into supervisory positions, they need to make sure that they are preparing their female line workers to assume that role. This implies a larger effort than simply selecting women to fill positions as they become vacant.
In coming months we intend to expand the survey to additional countries, and to develop a program to bring the presence of women in supervisory positions into line with their prevalence in the workforce overall. The goal is to have the percentage of female line supervisors roughly match their percentage in the workforce overall by the end of 2020.
Increasing the number of female line supervisors in our supplier factories will not, by itself, bring about gender equality. Still, it is a small, useful change that we can actually make happen. Beyond assuring fair treatment for women, we expect that increasing the numbers of women in supervisory roles will create additional positive results for the factories, as well.