The Gender Dimensions of Global Value Chains

13 June 2017

Policy makers are increasingly turning to integration and upgrading in global value chains (GVCs) as a means of driving development. How can they ensure that both men and women can access and benefit from GVCs?

Picture this: A group of young women, dressed alike in trendy uniforms, step out from a high rise office building on their way home from work. These women are first generation college graduates who have landed their first jobs in the Philippines’ growing call centre industry. In a country where GDP per capita is under US$3,000, and many are struggling to seek out a living, or simply move abroad in search of work, the country’s emergence as a leading offshore services provider has offered a very welcome opportunity.

Similar stories have frequently been used to highlight how increased globalisation has brought about important change and opportunity for women in the developing world. Other well covered examples are how the growth of ready-to-eat fresh fruit and vegetable exports in East Africa, or of apparel exports in Asia and some African countries, brought with it a boom in employment for young female workers – their first experience with remunerated work. Policy makers are increasingly turning to integration and upgrading in global value chains (GVCs) as a means of driving development, including by generating employment and raising incomes.

Yet, at the same time, reports of appalling working conditions in many export sectors such as those that led to the Rana Plaza tragedy are stark reminders that this is not always the case. For policy makers, this leads to an essential question: How and under what conditions can engaging in GVCs support economic and social development as well as gender equality?

Viewing GVCs through a gender lens

In order to understand how they can contribute to sustainable development goals, it is crucial to view GVCs through a gender lens. Access to and benefits from GVC participation are closely related to gender-specific issues. Below, we highlight five key lessons from the analysis of GVCs in different sectors.

First, participation in GVCs generally does have a positive impact on employment, and female employment, in particular. This constitutes an important step towards economic independence. As with the call centres offering young female graduates a chance to work in a global business, apparel factories provide women with jobs in manufacturing production, and the expansion of fruit and vegetable trade opens the door for female packers. Indeed, on average, 60-80 percent of production workers in apparel are women, while in horticulture 70-80 percent of packing jobs are female. As early as 2000, a large share of the female-dominated pack house workforce in Kenya and Senegal were also first-time employees.

Second, gendered division of labour in economies is largely perpetuated in GVC employment, rather than altered. Applying a gender lens in policy making and implementation is required to identify the positions and roles women and men have in GVCs, and what their specific rewards, opportunities, and constraints are. Most of the jobs created in GVCs do not challenge or dismantle gendered job segregation and related stereotypes, but are based on and use these gendered structures. This appears to be deeply rooted in social constructs and perceptions of what is considered appropriate male and female work. For example, men are typically favoured for positions that require physical strength, technical know-how, and supervisory and management skills, while women are preferred for jobs that depend on finesse, attention to detail, and social and caring competencies. In the safari business across East and South Africa, for example, the all-important role of “driver-guide” – which pays in excess of US$100 a day - is reserved for men, with women rather being confined to housekeeping, restaurants, and administrative work. As one study puts it “women are antithetical to the driver-guide imagery.”[1]

Third, gender inequality with respect to wages remains an important issue in GVC employment. Jobs where women are concentrated are often perceived as low-skilled jobs and are paid accordingly. This is related to gender perceptions of what is perceived as skilled and un-skilled.  While this is in part a reflection of women being concentrated in lower value activities, there are numerous examples where women receive lower wages than men for the same work. Such is the case in the Indian cocoa sector. In the apparel sector, product segments within apparel may be paid at different rates, such as in Bangladesh where knitters receive higher wages than weavers, with men being concentrated in the former group.

Fourth, operating in global industries requires firms and workers to have access to a host of resources to provide them with the capabilities to meet the demanding standards of export markets. These include access to credit, land, education, skills, and infrastructure, among others. Access to these resources thus shapes the possibilities of both men and women to participate in different activities in any industry. However, women as a group share similar gender-intensified constraints to participate and upgrade in GVCs. These include unequal access to productive resources, training and skills development, and networks and information, as well as being more time constrained than their male counterparts due to reproductive work responsibilities. For example, in the manufacturing sector in Asia, the more technologically sophisticated country exports became, the lower the ratio of women to men in the sector. In Kenya, female-owned safari companies are still few and far between as women are often excluded from male-dominated sales networks. The same is evident in Egypt’s offshore services sector where men dominate the higher paying information technology positions, while women are concentrated primarily in call centre agent positions. 

Finally, this is not a one-way relationship, however, with economic participation affecting the social conditions in which men and women work. Gender inequalities can both facilitate and inhibit industry competitiveness. Low wages and flexible employment of predominantly female workers help reduce costs for employers, enabling them to offer cost-competitive, flexible, and high-quality products. But there may be a trade-off between short-term gains and longer-term upgrading. The gendered constraints highlighted here can undermine a country’s competitiveness to engage in GVCs. In small economies such as Costa Rica, women form a formidable part of the country’s offshore services workforce; without engaging and educating these women, the country would effectively be trying to participate in a highly competitive industry with just half the available labour. Similarly, restricting women’s access to land and capital in the agricultural sector can undermine access to higher returns and high quality products. In Senegal’s successful French bean exporting sector in the early 2000s, less than 1 percent of contract farmers were female as they lacked access to land and resources. Exporters in Honduras, however, found that once they opened outgrower programs to women, their credit repayment rates were almost 100 percent, while the quality of the output was superior to that of their male counterparts.

Policies need to take into account gender issues

Policies need to ensure that trade is used as an enabler of sustainable development by increasing the value captured from participating in GVCs, securing equal access to the benefits for both women and men, and creating a gender-inclusive and sensitive environment by reducing gendered job segregation and gender-intensified constraints.

Most importantly, trade, industrial, export promotion, and GVC intervention policies need to take into account gender aspects to make policies more effective drivers of sustainable development based on gender equality. Otherwise, the development outcomes of GVC integration and its contribution to the SDGs may be well below its potential. Policies have to take the following issues into account to ensure that both men and women can access GVCs, improve their positions, and gain from upgrading: 

First, as a basis for policy interventions, a gendered GVC analysis is essential as this improves understanding of the roles men and women play in these chains, how access to and exclusion from particular activities differ by gender, and the gender-intensified constraints and opportunities in GVCs. Without including gender-based differences, policies may address the wrong issues and actors.

Second, economic upgrading should be supported, taking into account gender-based segregation and constraints. Economic upgrading is crucial for long-term development and also to ensure sustainable and high-quality employment and better bargaining power of supplier firms. In order to ensure that economic upgrading also goes along with positive gendered outcomes, a dual policy strategy should be used: first, to improve the conditions for women in occupational and sectoral activities they are already concentrated in, and then to open new opportunities for women that counter traditional gender roles and stereotypes.

Third, the quality and nature of female work should be improved by supporting social upgrading. Given that women are the majority of workers and producers in many labour-intensive stages of GVCs, especially in low income countries, securing social and labour rights is key. Social upgrading initiatives should include ensuring enforcement of core labour standards, non-discrimination, and equality in wages, working conditions, career mobility, and job opportunities between women and men.

Fourth, actions by all GVC actors, including governments, lead firms, industry associations, trade unions, and NGOs should be leveraged. Particularly, lead firms can play a pivotal role, as their production and sourcing policies may reinforce gender issues. These firms can drive change by including a gender lens to their employment, training, sourcing, and corporate social responsibility policies, as well as supporting their suppliers to adopt gender-sensitive policies.

Fifth, trade-related policies should mainstream gender aspects. Leveraging multilateral trade interventions, such as Aid for Trade, is particularly effective to help countries mainstream gender issues into trade support through information sharing, capacity building, and targeting aid programmes at areas where women are concentrated and/or face particular challenges.

Sixth, complementary policies focusing on overcoming gender-based segregation and constraints embedded in laws or in socially constructed gender norms need to be aligned with trade-related policies. Most important are improving access to information and networks for women; increasing access to training, as well as finance, and productive resources for women; and reducing the burden of reproductive work on women.

While there is no “one size fits all” approach, combining economic and social upgrading as well as gender equality often requires multi-stakeholder collaboration between public, private, and civil society actors within GVCs to ensure competitiveness, value addition, labour rights, and gender equality are not viewed as mutually exclusive but as reinforcing objectives. This is required if GVC integration should lead to upgrading and sustainable development.

This article is based on a longer study published by ICTSD.

Authors: Penny Bamber, Senior Researcher, Duke University Center on Globalization, Governance and Competitiveness; Staritz Cornelia, Senior Researcher, Austrian Foundation for Development Research (ÖFSE).

[1] Christian, Michelle. “Kenya's Tourist Industry and Global Production Networks: Gender, Race, and Inequality.” Global Networks 16, no. 1 (2015).

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