‘Invisible Women’ – Due Diligence Risks and the Gender Data Gap

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08.03.2021

‘Invisible Women’ – Due Diligence Risks and the Gender Data Gap

Written by Stephanie Barrientos

Women play a key role in the global textile value chain. They account for an estimated 70% of the 60 million garment and textile workers worldwide, with many more at lower tiers of production. Yet women workers are often ‘invisible’, with little accurate data or information available on their participation, roles and conditions of work.

Invisible women are mainly concentrated in non-standard jobs or lower tiers of the value chain. They include casual workers employed by large factories to deal with peaks in orders, home-based workers involved in embellishment, and contributing family labour in cotton production. Invisible women workers often face the poorest conditions, and significant risks of discrimination and gender-based violence.

Businesses are blind to these risks and unable to comply with human rights due diligence without gender visibility in their global value chains. This is critical to addressing the rights and well-being of women workers, as well as to achieving better commercial outcomes and more sustainable value chains.

Gaps in collection, recording and reporting

The Work Opportunities for Women (WOW) programme has undertaken research on gender data gaps in the garment value chain through partnerships with leading UK retailers. WOW has evidenced gaps in collecting, recording and reporting consistent gender disaggregated data. Although companies do hold some gender-disaggregated data, it is partial, often contains discrepancies, or relates to fragmented initiatives or production segments rather than across their value chain. The main gaps WOW found include:

  • Collection gaps:At upper tiers of the value chain, a large amount of data on workers is gathered by suppliers, social auditors and initiatives. But how numbers are collected varies. Data is often aggregated without a break down by gender across different worker categories (e.g. workers, supervisors and managers). At lower tiers, very little gender data is collected on workers in subcontracted production (e.g. supplied by labour contractors, home-based workers or casual workers in agriculture). 
  • Recording gaps:Even where data is collected, it is not recorded systematically, or in a way that is easily accessible. For example, social auditors may gather data in their notes, but only some is entered into social audit pdf. files, which are difficult to access. Even less data is uploaded onto social compliance data bases, and is often overwritten when new data is entered, making it difficult to track.
  • Reporting gaps:Some leading brands and retailers are now publicly reporting on their global suppliers and worker numbers (including % female) - an important advance in transparency. But without adequate collection and recording, the gender data reported is usually highly aggregated, likely to contain inaccuracies, and overlooks women workers in more precarious work with greatest human rights risks.
Women are exposed to higher risks than men

The OECD Guidelines highlight that the risks faced by women workers differ from men, and women are disproportionately vulnerable to adverse impacts. But effective human rights due diligence is impossible where women workers remain invisible or under reported.

Many businesses rely on social audits, which have helped to identify measurable issues (e.g. health and safety). But they have been highly ineffective at identifying gender issues, particularly discrimination, sexual harassment and gender-based violence. Women are more likely to be exposed to these risks in circumstances where their work is insecure, and their supervisors and managers are mainly male. Yet, it is difficult to identify or address potential risks without an accurate gender profile of all categories of worker (permanent and casual) and their supervisors/managers. 

The Covid-19 crisis has further deepened the gender risks. Women workers in textiles and garments are over-represented in insecure jobs or home-based work most vulnerable to retrenchment or loss of income. They lack social protection or means of support for their households, with many facing destitution. There is evidence women face increased gender based violence both at home and work.

Companies need to contribute

The WOW alliance has identified clear opportunities for businesses to improve transparency on women’s work in global value chains and inform strategies to leverage gender equality and women’s economic empowerment. Given the high level of resources that companies devote to social compliance, it could become an important source of evidence on the work and conditions of female workers across global value chains - if improved to capture key gender data. While it is far from a silver bullet, it provides a platform to build upon, and companies must play an important influential role in championing the consideration of women in data and reporting.

  • Data collection: Despite their limitations social audits provide an existing mechanism that could be used more effectively. Businesses must systematically and consistently collect data that allows the identification of (and subsequence action to address) risks to women. Suppliers need to request gender data from sub-contractors and lower tier suppliers.
  • Data recording: Gender-disaggregated data and information that is gathered, should be captured in a way that is useful for detailed analysis or tracking over time. Businesses must use social audits to track data that will allow them to identify and address their risks effectively over time, archiving past data in an accessible format. 
  • Data reporting: Businesses can push for reporting frameworks that take women into account and drive greater accountability. These need to be compatible across companies and organisations, in order to compare change over time and assess progress.

There are signs of positive change. Some leading retailers and brands are examining their procedures and practices to enhance the visibility of women workers in their textile and garment value chains. The Gender Data and Impact (GDI) toolhas been developed through collaboration between a number of leading organisations to conduct gender responsive due diligence in global supply chains. Sedex, a leading international ethical trade and social compliance platform, has highlighted the collection and reporting of better gender data and information as a key goal in its work.

Reliable data on women and men workers will, however, only form one dimension of attaining more effective due diligence in textile and garment value chains. Long-lasting change will require companies to analyse the gathered data, translate it into effective responses for workers and engage in large-scale collaboration with peers, civil society and policymakers. By working together, businesses can begin paving the way towards more resilient and sustainable value chains.

Further Information 

Barrientos, S. (2019) Gender and Work in Global Value Chains: Capturing the Gains? Cambridge University Press.

‘Building Back Equitably: Spotlight on Covid-19 and women workers in global value chains’ WOW Briefing Paper, October 2020.

Brief Bio

Professor Stephanie Barrientos, Global Development Institute, University of Manchester. Research lead on the Work Opportunities for Women (WOW) programme funded by UK’s Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO)

E-Mail: s.barrientos@manchester.ac.uk

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