Global value chains and gender equality: How can enterprises engage?

12 February 2016

In recent decades, global value chains have opened new job and income-generating opportunities in developing regions. However, the gains continue to be realised within gendered structures, often putting women in a disadvantaged position. Central actors across value chains can change the course. What can enterprises do to promote gender equality, and what is the role of governments and interest groups? How can Aid for Trade support this action?


Global value chains (GVCs) have created new job opportunities in developing regions, with some sectors providing employment particularly for women. Jobs in GVCs sometimes come with better wages and working conditions than jobs in a purely domestic economy. For many women, these are their first formal economy jobs. Furthermore, jobs outside home-based work and traditional agriculture have in some instances increased women’s independence and agency in their own homes.

However, the benefits discussed above have been achieved within the existing gendered structures, rather than through breaking or questioning them. GVCs are strongly gender-segregated. Women are more narrowly concentrated in certain sectors and occupations, and are more represented in low-skilled jobs and low-productivity sectors. Beyond this, the concept of productivity may not be adapted to measure output in certain female-dominated sectors, such as the care economy. Women across the world earn on average less than men. At times women may be employed as part of cost-reduction strategies.

Aid for Trade interventions can help key actors governing GVCs to achieve better gender equality results. States can be assisted to review their trade, economic, and social policies and make them more supportive of gender equality. Relevant civil society organisations—in particular business associations and trade unions—can be supported to represent the interests of both women and men, irrespective of the type of activity they are engaged in, and to address gender equality concerns. Enterprises at different levels in GVCs—the focus of this article—can adjust their policies towards increased gender equality. Improving gender equality can help to enhance the economic performance of nations, noting that research has constantly shown that apart from preventing people from achieving their full potential, inequality leads to economic losses.

Address gendered patterns reproduced in GVCs

Feminisation of GVCs has mostly concerned manual work. With the uptake of technology, jobs tend to become male-dominated again. Modern globalisation emphasises skills and education as opposed to earlier periods where countries with abundant resources of manual labour were attracting foreign direct investment and jobs. Some researchers have suggested that female workers, perceived to be “dexterous, kind, and submissive”, have been used in global production as a buffer against the volatility of orders, including demands for high quality, timely delivery, and low prices. 

Women in developing regions generally lag far behind men on key factors determining individuals’ economic status. These are the issues that key actors in GVCs should take into account and act on. Gender differences concern:

1) Time: Women have much less time at their disposal to take advantage of economic opportunities, since unpaid domestic work depends on them. This also leaves women with little or no time for rest and recreation;

2) Production Factors: Women often do not have the same access to factors of production, such as land and credit, due to discriminatory laws, or requirements which de facto put women in a disadvantaged position vis-à-vis men;

3) Discriminatory Institutions: Institutions may be built to uphold existing social norms, thereby repeating discriminatory patterns and distorting women’s possibilities in economic life.    

Case studies from African countries show how these gender gaps are concretised for numerous women in the region. In the tourism sector’s GVCs, for instance, men occupy key functions and are significantly more represented in the industry, although women are found in all subsectors. In Kenya, an investigation into the tour operator segment in Nairobi reveals high gender segregation of the enterprises: only six percent of them are owned and led by women. Women are lagging behind on key success factors in the industry; compliance with standards set by global lead companies is a prerequisite, yet women often do not have the ability to access the necessary training or undertake travel to meet with lead firms due to restrictions of time and production factors, particularly credit. At times social norms inhibit women from travelling to certain places or travelling alone. As such, access to international markets and players, including attendance in global trade fairs, is restricted for women.

Research in the textiles sector in Lesotho confirms the general tendency of gender segregation of jobs. Women make up about 70 percent or more of the sector’s workers, tend to be employed in lower-skilled tasks, and gain very limited skills, making it difficult to find another job or start entrepreneurship activities. This combined with low salaries, low job protection, and non-existent social security put textile sector workers in a vulnerable situation. An example from the fruit and vegetable industry in Honduras—with clear relevance for African countries—shows that women tend to be employed in the higher value added activities of the sector, but again based on perceptions on women’s forte in activities related to food, while jobs having to do with machines and management are mostly reserved for men.

Support enterprises in changing the course

Enterprises at the top of the value chains that often attract most value added are called lead firms in GVC literature. Their influence may reach through their entire value chain, enabling them to improve gender equality through HR policies and procurement practices and reach even smaller actors down the line.

Recruitment should clearly be based on merits and skills, not on perceptions and social norms. Through their supplier contracts, lead firms can also involve their first-tier suppliers in promoting gender equality by requiring certain selection principles to be followed when further suppliers are selected down the chain, and by promoting gender equality objectives in recruitment processes within first-tier suppliers. This must involve training of supplier SMEs to fulfil the standards. In selecting their marketing strategies, lead firms can put a stop at depicting women and men in certain tasks based on perceptions, thus allowing room for the recruitment of both sexes more broadly in different functions and different levels.  

Promoting gender equality extends beyond a fair recruitment process. Lead firms together with first-tier suppliers should make sure that training and advancement possibilities are equal for men and women, and take due account of the fact that household work restricts women’s available time. This means that training should be organised during working hours, and flexibility in work arrangements allowed for women to meet their simultaneous demands in homes. For instance, hotels have successfully experimented with training to make employees able to perform various work functions, and thereby to work in shifts that can be combined with household duties. Taking one step further, initiatives encouraging sharing of household duties could be promoted, such as providing both maternity and paternity leave for parents.

Existence of child-care facilities is a prerequisite particularly for women’s work, and enterprises can play a leading role in providing such services in the employment package when public child care services are not yet widely available. Lead firms and first-tier suppliers can in their respective supplier contracts accommodate women-led SMEs by providing access to credit or other factors of production, taking into account women’s weaker possibilities to obtain affordable loans from banks. Companies should also ensure that uptake of technology does not exclude women from jobs, but rather encourages training that enables women to take up new technology-enabled functions alongside men.

Channel government policies, interest group action, and Aid for Trade towards gender equality objectives

Government policies are central in supporting gender equality. They can also go a long way in supporting enterprises in their efforts to promote gender equality. Education and training policies should promote a more balanced choice of careers between the two sexes, and should be designed in consultation with the employer and worker representatives to facilitate later employment. Lifelong learning should be supported, including training that enables women to take up new technology-enabled jobs. Private sector support institutions should be organised so as to promote gender equality objectives, including enabling both sexes equal access to credit and business development services taking into account the identified constraints that particularly affect women. Industry-specific policies may be a factor in whether jobs and advancement possibilities are created for women and men in a balanced manner. For instance, in the tourism sector, community tourism appears to be favourable for women’s employment, while there are certain types of tourism that tend to allocate women jobs based on stereotypes and could even put them in danger of exploitation. Infrastructure allowing women to work is crucial, among them probably most centrally child care facilities. Trade policies can affect sectors and products differently, and specific rules can thus work for women’s (or men’s) employment or against it. Therefore, trade policymaking should also become conscious of the choices made in this regard.      

Business associations and trade unions can further gender equality objectives by first recognising the need to ensure equal opportunities for representation and provision of services to both sexes. With this conscious effort, industry associations can design specific approaches to support often marginalised women entrepreneurs, such as provision of relevant training within suitable timetables and options for organised child care; advocacy for improved access to credit; and negotiations facilitating market access for products and services produced by women. Further, they can support enterprises through training to allow for the adoption of HR and other firm policies with specific gender equality objectives. Trade unions can adapt their negotiation agenda such that beyond direct benefits—such as wages—they focus on different facilities enabling women to work better. These include institutions such as maternity protection and child care, but also different ways to address gender segregation of jobs, such as negotiations for internal training that enables women to take up new technology-enabled jobs. Both interest groups and the wider civil society should embrace gender equality objectives when advocating for policies to be adopted by the government. 

Aid for Trade can be channelled to support governments in reviewing their policies from a gender equality angle, and to help interest organisations to better represent their members, including the often marginalised women. Aid for Trade can also be directed through international organisations that work directly with companies to help improve the gender equality aspects of their policies.



Author: Johanna Silvander, researcher, International Labour Organisation.


Based on the report Gender equality in global value chains and the role of Aid for Trade in promoting gender equality and women’s employment in developing countries, funded by Ministry for Foreign Affairs of Finland (2013). Any opinion expressed or conclusions drawn represent the views of the author and do not necessarily represent ILO views or ILO policy. The views expressed herein should be attributed to the author and not to the ILO, its management or its constituents.

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