Women can’t shout loud enough… and other myths around female leadership

by 20th Oct 2020
A garment factory in Bangladesh A garment factory in Bangladesh

Women make up approximately half of workers in global value chains, yet their representation in leadership positions is poor. Through the FCDO-funded Work and Opportunities for Women (WOW) programme – of which CARE is an alliance member – M&S is seeking to understand where the women leaders are in their value chains, what are the barriers holding them back, and how M&S can work with their suppliers to help more women progress. This blog shares some of the insights from our research so far.

Why women’s leadership?

Globally, the role of women leaders in the economy has been increasingly in the spotlight with mounting evidence on the importance of women’s equal participation. Research shows companies can maintain a competitive edge, attract and retain talent, and improve productivity by boosting gender inclusivity in the workplace.

The global COVID-19 pandemic has increased conversations about women leaders. Countries led by women have responded more positively to the crisis than their predominantly male counterparts, potentially due to their leadership style. However, women are still underrepresented in leadership roles and the pandemic has exacerbated the barriers that women face, including the unpaid care burden which has skyrocketed during the pandemic. It’s now more important than ever for employers to support and recognise women leaders.

The M&S and WOW partnership

M&S believes gender equality and women’s empowerment is an essential part of doing business. This has prompted M&S to set an ambitious target for women in management positions for both their Food and Clothing & Home first-tier manufacturing sites. Lydia Hopton, Ethical Trade Manager at M&S Clothing & Home, says:

“We recognise it is difficult to fully understand the challenges faced by the women in our value chain and this contributes to perpetuating gender inequalities. Our work with WOW will help us better understand the barriers to progression women are facing with the objective of implementing a framework to overcome these.”

M&S and WOW are working initially with women in four garment factories in Bangladesh, addressing management systems that hold women back, and working with individual women with aspirations towards leadership to support more women into supervisory positions. Where the garment industry has been so affected by the COVID-19 outbreak, we know that the outcomes of this work will be impacted by the pandemic, but also know that if we are to build back equal, it’s more important than ever that this work is prioritised.

Pre-COVID-19, WOW worked with M&S to carry out research in the garment value chain to understand the current situation regarding women’s leadership in the industry, and what is holding women back. In this blog, we share some of the data insights, and take a look at some of the key myths around women leaders in the garment sector.

The data

The research conducted in four factories that M&S sources from in Bangladesh defined a leader as someone working as a line leader or in a supervisory role. The four factories had on average 11% of women in leadership roles. Interviews with senior management revealed that they thought women should have equal access with men to leadership roles, yet 73% of these managers did not feel that women are as capable leaders as men, citing women’s lack of confidence, technical skills and family support as barriers. 87% of female workers felt that co-workers have a positive attitude towards women in leadership positions compared to 77% of men, and 38% of women reported they would like to be considered for a leadership position.

A number of myths emerged through discussions with garment workers, as to why women are not in leadership positions.

The myths

“Women can’t shout loud enough”

Garment workers told us that effective leadership in supervisory roles requires shouting to make yourself heard and to instil respect amongst workers. Why is this myth bad for women? Apart from the obvious challenges of shouting supervisors, women also tell us this dissuades them from aspiring to and applying for leadership positions. We found that the entrenched idea of a “masculine” management style in the industry also means that women leaders who do not conform to these leadership traits face stigma and criticisms by other managers – and also from workers – that they are not competent. Not only are these myths bad for women, they are bad for all workers.

“Women just don’t want to lead”

An often repeated “truth” by factory management is that women workers are simply not interested in taking on leadership roles. Many of the women we spoke to, however, do aspire to leadership. The issue is that the barriers are often so high they don’t even put themselves forward. Despite improvements in factory HR systems, we still see cases where processes around promotions and career advancement are informal. This is particularly bad for women as informal mechanisms tend to benefit men. Predominantly male management teams are more likely to promote people who look, and act like them. We found men are more likely to proactively ask for performance appraisals and better placed to network for positions. Women are often unaware that appraisal requests can even be made and remain locked out of informal networks. These challenges are exacerbated by the additional expectations placed on women – that of looking after the home.

“Women should look after the home”

The expectation of women to have sole responsibilities for home and family is the same across many parts of the world, including the urban centres of Dhaka, Bangladesh. This covers housework, childcare, as well as helping the elderly and the sick. How does this impact work? Firstly, women are expected to prioritise their role at home and leadership is seen as a ‘bad fit’ with women’s household responsibilities. Secondly, many women simply do not have the hours in the day to take on additional leadership opportunities. For more on this, see The Double Day report from the WOW alliance exploring unpaid work and care for female garment workers in Bangladesh.

These stereotypes also change the behaviour of management. In the garment sector we found women fearful that the role of women as care givers discourages management from bringing more women on board.

“Women are known not to stay long in the sector…[so]… management avoids considering women for supervisory roles as they might not stay.”
Female workers, Bangladesh

These myths are only some of the barriers that women face on a daily basis in global value chains. Women continue to face a huge number of challenges including gender-based violence and lack of representation in unions and other worker committees. Getting women into leadership positions is only half the battle. In order for women to be fully economically empowered and for businesses to reap the full benefits, women should have the same opportunities to be heard and respected. We found that even when women got promoted, they rarely got the same respect or opportunity for influence as other men.

Although some of these myths and barriers may appear insurmountable, there are many things that retailers, brands and suppliers can do to support more women into leadership positions with the support of managers, colleagues, friends and family.

What happens next?

M&S now wants to work with its suppliers to bust some of these myths that make it harder for women to progress and to support meaningful change

M&S is working closely with WOW to identify and test solutions to some of the myths and barriers that women face in the garments value chain. We will continue to share updates and lessons as we progress. Our aim is to share what we learn so we can encourage more companies to support women’s leadership in their value chains – which, as M&S recognises, is not just great for women’s economic empowerment, but is also great for business.

The FCDO funded Work and Opportunities for Women (WOW) programme aims to enhance the economic empowerment of 300,000 women working in global value chains by 2022. If you are interested in collaborating with WOW, please contact Joanna Howarth at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Jo Howarth

I joined CARE in June 2020 and alongside providing technical advice and support across the confederation on Women’s Economic Justice, I also project manage CARE’s engagement in the FCDO funded Work and Opportunities for Women (WOW) programme. This involves research, design and delivery of interventions with private sector partners so as to drive women’s economic empowerment in their global value chains.

Prior to CARE I worked with the Ethical Trading Initiative, and studied for a Masters in Globalisation, Business and Development, where I researched how a circular economy affects workers, environmental upgrading of value chains, and what difference a living wage makes for garment workers. I spent some of my best years prior to that working in Ethiopia, Tanzania and Kenya in business development, communications, and programme design.

I am proud to be on the board of trustees for a Sierra Leonean civil society organisation, AdvocAid, which works to strengthen access to justice for women and girls in contact with the law. I’m driven by a firm belief in women’s rights, am passionate about increasing the role of business in development, and am a feminist in constant progress.

One good thing I’ve read

Kate Raworth’s Doughnut Economics is a really enjoyable read, and she does such a good job of showing why the existing economic system doesn’t work, and how we can build a new global economy that respects people and planet. I always enjoy the daily From Poverty to Power blog landing in my inbox, and recommend Emma Gannon’s very small handbook – Sabotage – for anyone needing to silence their inner critic.

Email address: howarth@careinternational.org
Twitter handle: @jo_howarth