Changing perceptions of female workers in Bangladesh

This impact case study looks at what has been achieved by a DEGRP project investigating barriers to women’s promotion into management in Bangladesh’s garment sector.

Led by Christopher Woodruff from Oxford University, the project has helped shift perceptions about female production supervisors, and change promotion practices in certain factories.

The challenge

Once one of the poorest countries in the world, Bangladesh has seen dramatic improvements in poverty levels and overall development in the last thirty years.

The ready-made garments (RMG) industry has played a key role in stimulating these improvements. The industry’s rapid expansion from the late 1970s onwards helped fuel the economic growth needed to help push Bangladesh out of poverty. The industry remains important today, accounting for 80% of Bangladesh’s export earnings, and more than 12% of Gross Domestic Product. It’s also currently the largest employer in the country, providing jobs for over 4 million people.

The garment industry’s growth has been particularly important for women’s economic empowerment in Bangladesh. Before the arrival of factory jobs, opportunities for formal wage work for women were rare, with most women limited to working at home, or in the informal sector. But though garment factories employ a huge number of women – over 60% of the workforce is female – fewer than 10% of managers in the sector are women.

The DEGRP research

In response to this issue, DEGRP-funded researchers undertook to investigate why there are so few women in management positions in Bangladesh’s women the sector, with a particular focus on understanding barriers to promotion.

Their reasoning was that information on barriers to promotion would be a valuable resource not only for policy- and decision-makers seeking to redress gender imbalance in the labour market, but also for businesses seeking new sources of managerial talent.

In pursuit of this aim, the researchers teamed up with German aid agency GIZ to deliver a supervisor training programme to a sample of 286 female and 131 male sewing machine operators from across 80 different garment factories in Bangladesh. This gave them an opportunity to observe and evaluate the reactions of a range of employees to female trainees, before, during, and after the training was complete. The researchers also examined promotion rates for women trained through the programme six months after the training finished, and compared women’s post-training performance with that of their male colleagues.

Research findings

The study revealed three key barriers to women’s promotion into management: perceptions of female supervisors among other workers; low self-confidence among female operators who were nominated to be supervisors; and resistance among workers, particularly male workers.

An employee survey conducted before the training started showed that workers from across a range of factories and at all levels believe women are less prepared than men to become supervisors, particularly when it comes to technical knowledge and organisational ability. However, detailed skills diagnostics of female and male trainees showed no gap in technical skills, suggesting that reality does not always match perceptions.

The study also revealed that, prior to training, even the female trainees themselves believed they would perform worse than their male counterparts once they had achieved supervisor level.

Operators supervised by the trainees also rated the females as less able supervisors in the immediate post-training period, but the female trainees eventually caught up to their male peers, so that after a few months the male and female trainees had very similar effects on efficiency. Management simulation exercises suggested that female trainees had a particularly challenging time directing male operators.

The project’s impact

The DEGRP study has had a number of impacts, both at the factory level and more widely.

Perhaps one of the most important outcomes of the research is that the training programme helped change perceptions of female supervisors among workers at factories participating in the study. The researchers noted that once operators had had exposure to female supervisors for approximately four months, they no longer considered them less capable than male supervisors. In addition, the training course raised the self-confidence of the female trainees close to the level of their male counterparts.

The training also led to more women being promoted to management in the participating factories, with 56% of female trainees moving into supervisor roles, representing a 50%-100% increase on previous numbers of female supervisors in the factories in question.

One factory that participated in the study even began piloting an all-female production line in November 2015, around a year after the training programme ended. Impressed with the line’s productivity and the female team’s way of working, the factory then expanded to six all female-lines, and now has an all-female floor, with female supervisors and line chiefs.

The DEGRP project also attracted the attention of the Better Work programme, developed by the International Labour Organization and International Finance Corporation with the aim of improving labour standards and productivity in global supply chains. Since the original training-based study ended, the research team have collaborated with Better Work to design and implement an updated, streamlined version of the training for delivery to over 30 new factories in Bangladesh.