Hiring women in supervisory roles can transform the exploitative work culture of garment factories and promote gender equality in the workplace. Photo credit: Obaidul Arif / IPS May 3 (IPS) – When you walk into a clothing factory in India or any other part of the world, you will find that the workforce is heavily female. The Indian textile and clothing industry employs 45 million people, more than 60 percent of whom are women. This makes it the largest formal employer for women in a country where 80 percent of them do not do paid work. While at first glance this might paint a rosy picture of women’s empowerment, a closer look reveals otherwise.
How did women come to dominate the factory?
Since the 1960s, women have dominated the highly labor-intensive assembly lines of global supply chains in developing countries. This is not without reason. The unequal status of women in most societies makes them a cheaper source of work, as their work is often an additional or secondary source of income in most families.
In addition, their work is considered easy to control. Research shows that women are preferred in such occupations because they are more willing to accept strict work discipline, less likely to join unions, and are conditioned to take on tedious, repetitive, and monotonous work – all of which make them more productive.
Even so, very few working women in India advance in their careers for reasons ranging from family obligations and restrictive social norms to a lack of professional networks. This also applies to garment factories – while women dominate the frontline workforce, it is mostly men who hold supervisory roles in factories.
Why are there so few female supervisors?
The apparel industry has a longstanding reputation for a culture of abuse and stress. Cutthroat competition and the high time sensitivity of the work are a possible explanation for this.
Bottlenecks caused by employees can lead to acute losses for the company. As a result, the factory floor is heavily used and the regulators are expected to maintain it.
Apparel factory executives tend to maintain the archaic belief that men are better at leadership roles and are trusted to be “strict” and get things done. Since the hiring of supervisors largely depends on management recommendations, men are inevitably selected for these roles.
A recent study of 24 garment factories in Bangladesh found that line managers, who are generally responsible for selecting supervisors, reported an average confidence level of 84 percent for male apprentices. For female trainees, this number was on average almost 10 percentage points lower.
These gender biases reflect longstanding norms and power structures that define the global apparel industry in traditionally patriarchal societies like India. Rather than questioning longstanding gender norms and inequalities, the division of labor in work areas often reinforces the association between women’s work and the definition of women as caring, gentle, self-sacrificing, and hardworking. Male work, on the other hand, is expected to embody normative male behavior: physical strength, authority, and mechanical skills.
But are male bosses really better?
While men are selected on the basis of a belief that they are best suited to be managers, there is little evidence to support this claim. In 2019, students from the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Advanced Study of India conducted an in-house study at Shahi Exports Pvt Ltd (India’s largest apparel manufacturer that Good Business Lab works with) of female supervisors in the company’s factories.
Their analysis of administrative data from 160+ sewing, finishing, and embroidery assistant supervisors found that female supervisors take 33 percent fewer unauthorized vacations, half the wear and tear rate (8.89 percent versus 16.8 percent for men), and 60 percent less over time.
Similarly, an evaluation of a six-week operator-supervisor training program to measure the effectiveness of female supervisors versus male supervisors found that male apprentices outperformed female apprentices immediately after returning from training.
However, this gap was closed completely after a few months. In addition, female trainees outperformed male trainees on average in simulated management exercises.
It was interesting that the female trainees performed below average when managing small teams, which also included a male operator. It was found that the male subordinate’s perception of the competence of the female superior due to the subordinate’s attitudes due to his negative perception also influenced their performance.
While there may not be any evidence to support the perception that men are better managers, a strong belief in them by colleagues, subordinates, and management can affect women’s ability to be effective managers.
Advocate for female supervisors in workplaces dominated by women
If men are not necessarily better managers and the gender of the team members plays a role in the effectiveness of the manager, then logically we should have more female managers in female-dominated workplaces like clothing factories.
While we are talking about different representation in parliament and senior management positions in companies, little is being done to ensure representation at lower management levels in the sector that is the largest employer of women in this country.
There is also evidence that female managers are better able to motivate employees than male managers. Male supervisors often use demonstrations of authority to get workers to keep their parts moving, while female supervisors often sit down and show how to get things done and keep things running smoothly.
Female managers are also more likely to be involved in scut work; H. The practice of voluntarily getting their hands dirty in order to carry out routine tasks of subordinates, which increases their commitment to the work. Not only does this increase productivity and improve organizational performance, but it can also help change the exploitative work culture of clothing factories.
What are the hurdles to becoming female bosses?
While the advantages of female supervisors in clothing factories are clear, there are many barriers that prevent this from happening. A survey of more than 150 workers in 17 Shahi Exports factories found three major hurdles for women to become managers:
Unsupportive Beliefs: There was a perception that female supervisors were inferior. 74 percent of male supervisors and / or FICs felt that men achieved higher batch productivity, and 50 percent of all workers (including 60 percent of FICs) felt that male managers were better than their female counterparts.
Lack of support: Although the factory only has 20 percent female supervisors, more than half of male supervisors and FICs did not want there to be more female supervisors, suggesting that even special efforts to bring in more female supervisors may not support it be or eagerly received.
Workload: Both male and female workers and factory supervisors believed that supervisors must be able to work long hours. And long hours make it almost impossible for women – who normally juggle cooking, housework, child and elderly care in addition to their daily work – to take on supervisory functions.
How can companies overcome these obstacles and hire more women managers?
The first and necessary step that companies can take to ensure better representation of women in supervisory roles is to use objective methods to recruit them (rather than through recommendations from senior management or senior management where prejudice is inevitable ). Skills and behavior tests that are common in managerial hiring can be used in the hiring of supervisors.
However, the barriers for female supervisors go beyond mere hiring. These include addressing gender norms that determine the role of women in the workplace, women’s (and men’s) beliefs about women’s abilities, lack of training, and lack of management support. We need stronger measures to overcome these complex factors.
Affirmative action could be a solution to this. In today’s world, it is not outside the mandate of individual companies to implement fair social policies such as positive action. While we see many projects run by companies for equality and gender empowerment, most of these projects are limited to training their female workforce.
Although such projects are a means of empowerment at the individual level, they do not change the status quo in terms of power relations.
Researchers have highlighted how seeing more women in leadership roles positively affects women’s belief in their own abilities and skills. In addition, such initiatives also lead to positive effects on individual households and society in a broader sense. Women who have been promoted to managerial positions have more influence on household decisions (particularly with regard to their mobility).
The extra boost from positive action promises to make these bigger changes while overcoming several obstacles that stand in the way. Hence, we see plenty of scope for evidence to support positive action in the apparel industry to address the Indian problem of “sticky ground” which is the opposite of a “glass ceiling” and relates to gender inequality in the lower rung of the workforce.
Eshan Fotedar is a research fellow at the Good Business Lab.
Nirupama V is a development communications professional who works as a marketing professional at Good Business Lab, a labor research organization
This story was originally published by India Development Review (IDR).
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