Ambuja Cement Foundation (ACF), in association with Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) South Asia, recently organised a virtual roundtable on ‘Gender equality in manufacturing sector’. The initiative was to draw attention to women’s empowerment and the opportunities in the manufacturing sector in order to advance gender equality and inclusive development.
The event was witnessed by several speakers from the industry, including René Van Berkel, Representative UNIDO, UNIDO Regional Office India; Rubana Huq, President, Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers & Exporters Association; Dr Aditi Haldar, Director, GRI South Asia; Suhas Joshi, Head – Sustainability & Business Stewardship, South Asia Bayer Group; Pratima Kirloskar, Promoter Group, Kirloskar Brothers and Magali Anderson, Chief Sustainability Officer, Lafarge Holcim.
Diversity & inclusion
Commencing the event with an enthusiastic note, Pearl Tiwari, Director & CEO, Ambuja Cement Foundation, shared certain important observations regarding women in the manufacturing sector. She said, “The issue of gender equality in the workforce has been discussed at a global level. Women participation is lesser in developing countries – problems such as wage gap and skill gap exist. The manufacturing industry is a vital sector for the development of any economy. This sector is mostly male dominated. Therefore, manufacturers need to rethink their hiring strategies. Diversity and inclusion are imperative for us in building a peaceful & prosperous society.” Dr Haldar also threw light on the gender gap. She asserted, “We, as a society, need to come up with affirmative steps and a legal framework to create a safe working space for women. The mind-sets, notions and practices need to change, which will help create equitable workplaces.”
The keynote address was given by Berkel on ‘Towards gender equality in manufacturing’, where he spoke about gender employment gap. “Manufacturing share of female employment is higher than of male employment, except for Pakistan, with most profound being in Afghanistan, Maldives & Sri Lanka,” he informed and continued, “Women in manufacturing are disproportionally represented in low wage, semi-skilled and at times, precarious manufacturing jobs, and constitute the majority of workforce in labour-intensive, traditionally lower technology sectors. Also, women are underrepresented in decision-making positions – in managerial roles and on boards.”
Later on, Huq addressed the audience, talking about how women empowerment looks in Bangladesh. She cited that Bangladesh has 4.4 million workers, of which 65% are now women. “Women empowerment has happened in Bangladesh at the fastest possible rate because the readymade garment industry created the job opportunity for all these women. Also, in South Asia, we are at a good standing as far as gender equality is concerned – our Prime Minister is a woman and we also have many women in the cabinet and parliament. However, the mind-set is still there because of which many women cannot make it even to the supervisory level or the top positions. So, for them we are working hard to make sure that these women also get education support,” she averred.
The stereotypes attached to women
Then, Pallavi Atre, a sustainability expert at GRI South Asia, took over, who gave an overview of gender practices in the manufacturing sector. Atre revealed, “While we collaborated with ACF on this particular issue, we found some observations which I’d like to put before you. We identified around 50 leading businesses from nine countries in South Asia in the manufacturing sector. We also took a look at the progressive practices and we found that not necessary that the bigger the company, the more progressive the practices. We found that there are around 64% of the companies that we studied are actually reporting on Sustainable Development Goal 5 (SDG 5).”
It was then time for the virtual roundtable, moderated by Haldar, and the participants were Joshi, Kirloskar and Anderson. Haldar put her first question, asking the participants about stereotypes and what holds women from having a career in manufacturing. To this, Kirloskar responded, “The stereotype is that only women are asked about work-life balance and men are rarely asked this question. Hence, women take to desk jobs rather than shop floor jobs. From the management point of view, they fear that there could be a lower level of productivity due to physical limitations or also, women are less likely to match up with the business pressure due to a male dominated manufacturing set-up.”
Improving gender representation
Sharing her views, Anderson said, “It’s important for companies to help break stereotypes. The key learning is that we should accept true diversity and accept women with their true capability. If anyone questions a woman’s capacity then that should not be tolerated.”
Joshi further talked about improving gender representation in the entire economy. Pointing out the agriculture perspective, he highlighted that 50% of the workforce in this country is still dependent on agriculture. “The total working women employed in agriculture is around 80%. Therefore, if we are not making an impact on this sector, then our work in the manufacturing sector becomes quite meaningless – because 80% of the women are here and they need empowerment, support and help with their livelihoods & careers,” he explained and went on, “If we have stereotyping in cities, it’s no wonder that we would have stereotyping in agriculture. Women are seen as someone who can do low-skilled work and not being able to manage trade & transactions or decision-making of investments.”
Actions taken by organisations
The participants were then asked actions taken by their organisation to support women on the shop floor or at the decision-making level. Kirloskar replied that they recruit school dropouts (mostly eighth standard) and also include differently-abled women (20-25 years old) as part of the production line. “Our policy is to take raw hands, get them trained and then suited for our manufacturing process,” she informed.
Anderson informed that they have 30% of women in the executive committee at Lafarge Holcim which shows great diversity at the running of the company. “Our CEO signed a WEP principle with the UN which shows his commitment to personally engage in ensuring women empowerment and the focus of the company,” she revealed and continued, “We have also established a gender equality goal to have 25 women in a senior leadership position by 2025 which is a challenge to achieve, comparing our industry. But it is exciting because it is measurable.”
Joshi further said that they have been consciously pushing diversity at all levels of the organisation for the last many decades. “We are working with farmers and incentivising the participation of women in the value chain. We have started working with universities and also established specific education programme, incentivising & motivating women participation," he said.
The need for opportunity & skilling
The final question was what the driver for change is that organisations are looking at. Speaking from the legal side, Kirloskar said, “There should be two things – a woman’s right to property and a woman’s right to finance. The law has to take care of women. In today’s day and age, we are talking about teamwork and there has to be teamwork, which is important in collaboration & leveraging each other’s skillsets. All women need is the opportunity and the skilling. At the same time, balance is also important, without which this growth is going to be very lopsided.”
Speaking about how disclosures & reporting will help nudge organisations to love inclusivity & diversity, Anderson highlighted that having equal rights from birth is what is important and needs to be done. “In France, around 10 years ago, the government imposed a law for large companies to have 35% of women on board which made the country the second highest in women empowerment,” she cited and went on, “Another area is maternity leave, which is a show stopper of a woman’s career but more & more companies are now also imposing paternity leave. It is equally important for a father & child to build a relationship and get involved as it is for a mother, and this again should go into law.”
Women can consider a career in manufacturing
The virtual roundtable showed that the manufacturing industry has come a long way in terms of gender equality. Many companies are clearly making an effort consciously to infuse more women at the top level. We are already seeing change and while we still have some way to go, women today can confidently consider a potential career in manufacturing.