Global Development Institute Blog


by Brooks World Poverty Institute

International Women’s Day on Sunday 8th March celebrates the economic, political and social achievements of women. Brooks World Poverty Institute research demonstrates that women play a vital role in improving global value chains – as workers, farmers, producers and consumers – which can have a significant impact on pro-poor development.

The Capturing the Gains project, led by Professor Stephanie Barrientos, shows that more equitable participation of women in the workplace can be achieved by investing in training, valuing the particular contribution of women and promoting gender equality. This enhances value chain upgrading, improving women’s lives and promoting more inclusive development.

In the value chains covered by our research women accounted for up to 75-80% of workers. Women’s contributions though are often undervalued as they play ‘invisible’ roles in entrepreneurship and production. Smallholder agricultural crops like cocoa are often thought to be cultivated by men, but in reality many depend on female family members, casual, or unpaid female workers.

Managers consistently report that women are more honest and more reliable than men, helping to reduce absenteeism and creating a culture of trust, which translates in to productivity gains. Women’s social skills have much to offer global value chains, enhancing team building and adapting to new production networks, and their perceived ‘nimble fingers’ are suited to tasks related to quality of output such as flower picking and the fermentation and drying of cocoa beans.

Women workers should therefore be treated as an asset. Women’s contribution needs greater recognition and remuneration, with training and education for workers.

Job designation is too often determined by gendered norms. These create barriers for women to progress despite their skills. 70% of tourism workers, for example, are female, but in Africa, women are not usually tour guides, so they are excluded from higher-end trips and training opportunities.

Women are also concentrated in low-status work, and even in the same work, gender pay gaps persist. In Ugandan floriculture the majority of senior supervisors are men whilst 70-85% of harvesters are women. Harvesters take home a salary of around 14% of that of senior supervisors in 2011 and in Indian cocoa, women are paid less than men for the same work.

Research also found evidence of widespread sexual harassment of women in the workplace; this is damaging to women and a barrier to decent work and a productive environment.

The recommendations from our research are that women should be offered improved promotion opportunities and career paths. Workplace policies to address discrimination and sexual harassment, and support women worker’s rights will attract and enhance women as a skilled, productive and committed workforce. Civil society organisations have highlighted women’s poor working conditions in global value chains which has helped regular workers, but casual workers (the majority of which are women) are overlooked. Buyers can have a role by creating incentives, training and helping suppliers to address demands for a ‘living wage’ and gender equality.

Gender equality legislation is often poorly implemented. Government promotion of women in global value chains can help in pursuing a ‘high road’ to economic and social development, and Government-CSO collaborations can be effective in reducing sexual harassment and promoting gender equality. Trade agreements and Aid for Trade initiatives may include social clauses, but they should have a stronger gender focus.

Working in value chains provides millions of women with jobs and incomes which can bring greater economic independence, social connections and voice. With higher incomes, women are more likely than men to support household welfare and children’s education. Promoting pro-poor development can open doors to new life opportunities. These are powerful reasons to support women and greater gender equality in global value chains.