As the world rebuilds after the pandemic, gender equality and the role of women in the economy have been high on the agenda for policy-makers, business, and civil society. This column outlines the powerful positive impact of initiatives to expand networks of women-led businesses and support collectives of informal workers. Improving women’s position and visibility in the economy will enhance their resilience – and it may be one small push forward to change the next generation’s understanding of the norms that dictate women’s roles.
Since Covid-19 containment measures began in March 2020, there has been a clear need to build more resilient and more inclusive societies. The pandemic has reminded us how inequalities can deepen in a crisis, leaving women and girls with a disproportionate burden of the adverse social and economic consequences.
But this may also be a catalyzing moment, as evidenced by calls to rebuild economies with gender equality at the core. Commitments made for the Generation Equality Forum are evidence of this potential. Women’s leadership and collective action are creating change around the world – whether through initiatives to advance education for girls, improving access to maternal and child health, or bringing global attention to widespread sexual harassment and violence.
Women’s creative powers are equally felt in the world of work, despite their disproportionate responsibility for unpaid and care work, their unequal earning capacity, their poor representation among business owners and leaders, and their over-representation in low-quality precarious jobs.
To achieve the kind of change that reshapes our economies toward inclusion and resilience, action is required from businesses as well as from public institutions and civil society. Research on women’s work in global production and supply chains can shed light on avenues to foster women’s leadership in building resilience and inclusion.
Expand networks of women-led businesses
In Southeast Asia alone, women own as many as nine million enterprises. How can these businesses be leveraged to transform the economies in which they operate?
The first lesson is to help women entrepreneurs improve their networks and their access to a range of critical business support, including market knowledge and research, management practices and skills, and finance, which are currently very limited for their small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs).
Evidence shows that a mix of virtual social networks and marketing skills enhanced the resilience of women-led rural enterprises in Iran; while in Bangladesh, business training was shown to have a positive growth impact (although this alone is not always the case – other research has found finance support to have greater impact for women, or a combination of both).
Building on the evidence, the Mekong Institute ran a training program on promoting women’s entrepreneurship for export business. The training involved packages with support in accessing business development service providers, peer learning and networking opportunities, and dedicated coaching. Participating entrepreneurs ultimately reported better knowledge of their business environment and support services available to them, more efficiency in their operations, and significant growth in their export sales.
Beyond that, six business development service providers participated to learn how best to support women entrepreneurs, enhancing the gender responsiveness of the entire system. Together, these have increased the options – or awareness of options – for women entrepreneurs to get help in growing their businesses.
Another project led by the Trade Facilitation Office Canada, building on the same evidence for women-led enterprises, achieved similar results. To bridge information gaps and increase networking capacity, a training and coaching program brought dozens of SMEs from Southeast Asian countries to Canada in 2019. During the trip, women entrepreneurs took full advantage of training, information about the Canadian market, and exposure to Canadian buyers.
As a result, some of the participants reported immediate increased sales, and others reported improved skills in communication and confidence that sales would materialize over the following year. This again reinforces research findings on the power of knowledge and networks for women entrepreneurs if they are supported and have access to the larger and more diverse markets that are so often out of reach of SMEs.
The evidence points strongly to training and support for women entrepreneurs as scalable ways for businesses and policy-makers to ensure that women-led businesses are better represented in production chains.
Support collectives of informal workers
Beyond entrepreneurs, informal home-based workers also play a critical role in global production, albeit one that is hidden far down the chain. They perform tasks such as the cutting and sewing of garments, basic assembly of goods, and embroidery. These are workers who produce goods from home, earning a low piece rate for their work without a written contract or access to social security.
HomeNet South Asia and Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing and Organizing (WIEGO) estimate that there are at least 41 million informal home-based workers outside agriculture, in Bangladesh, India, Nepal, and Pakistan alone.
Informal workers need better collective representation in global production chains to improve working conditions. There is considerable evidence that as in the formal sector, worker organizing has led to improvements for home-based workers. Innovative business models and collectivization can add value to their contributions and improve their bargaining power.
In one study looking at women in collectives that engage with Fair Trade markets, the members reported higher income, better market access, opportunities to gain new skills, ability to diversify products and source more and better materials, and greater access to finance through savings schemes. In global supply chains, collectives and networks have allowed home-based workers to connect with international and development agencies to advocate for their recognition with global private enterprises and governments.
Research by HomeNet South Asia in India and Nepal finds that social enterprises in particular play a transformative role as a link between women’s producer collectives and the rest of their production chain. The social enterprises use innovative approaches to address concerns around working conditions, including by adhering to Fair Trade certification schemes and setting up community-based work centres where women can work outside their homes.
This allows the social enterprises to apply codes of conduct, and gives women a space to work with others. They also create models where trainers or group leaders are available to clusters of workers in their community or for drop-in support at work centres, allowing social enterprises to have better quality control and to build worker capacity.
Joining a collective for women home-based workers can also be fundamentally empowering. Many workers in the HomeNet study report that working in a collective increases their sense of identity as a worker. They gain better bargaining power through group representation, leading to more confidence, and report more consistent income year-round than unorganized workers.
During the initial lockdowns in 2020, collectives mobilized quickly to respond to their members’ needs with food and cash assistance. Many began producing masks and other equipment in short supply, enhancing their members’ resilience.
Improve women’s visibility in the economy
As we rebuild from the pandemic, we need to rethink how economic activities are linked to the people who perform them. Workers and their communities need to be resilient in times of crisis, and this can be achieved through decent work and more responsive support systems.
The act of having women’s contributions made visible or having women as the face of business leadership may constitute one small push forward to change the next generation’s understanding of the norms that dictate women’s roles.
The lessons from this research – and from the history of women’s movements – can be scaled and they can shape new governance, communication, and support systems in labour markets that will not only build back stronger from the pandemic but also put us back on track to achieving gender equality.