By Rebecca Webber
Imagine if you were told that you couldn’t go to school after the sixth grade. That your opinion didn’t count. Or that no matter how hard you worked, your earnings would always be much less than a man’s.
That’s the situation for many women in countries that are still developing like India, Cambodia and Bangladesh—countries where much of the world’s clothing is produced.
“People don’t realize how disenfranchised women are in many parts of the world—how little they have and how excluded girls and women are,” says Helene Gayle, president and CEO of CARE USA, in a video published on halftheskymovement.org.
And that’s bad news not just for the women involved but for their families, their communities and their countries. Study after study has shown that women use their earnings to feed their children or pay their school fees or provide healthcare. In other words, their income lifts everyone up.
In India, writes Sheelah Kolhatkar, gender inequality “suggests why the country’s economic miracle has stalled. The continuing exclusion of India’s female human capital from professional life is something that the country can no longer afford.”
TEACH A WOMAN, LIFT A FAMILY
One thing holding women back in these countries is that they often lack the skills to find good-paying work.
Enter programs like Gap Inc.’s P.A.C.E. (it stands for Personal Advancement and Career Enhancement.) It teaches female factory workers technical and life skills, such as literacy, communication and problem-solving. “It gives them the knowledge they need to advance both personally and professionally,” says Dotti Hatcher, Gap Inc. P.A.C.E. executive director.
Those who complete the 65 to 80-hour program often move from the lowest skilled jobs on the sewing line to higher skilled sewing roles. Some become line supervisors, or take jobs in the human resources department. One evaluation of the program found that its participants were four times more likely to be promoted than non-participants.
While the most astonishing transformations are seen in the women themselves, the factories benefit as well, because their workers become more efficient and productive. “Good for women, good for business,” says Hatcher.
“The P.A.C.E. training has changed me as a person,” said one female garment worker who completed the program in India. “It has helped me decide the direction in which I want to go. More importantly, it has helped me set my priorities.”
Hatcher remembers what happened when another program graduate received a cookstove from her factory as a reward for perfect attendance. “She asked: ‘Why are you giving me a cookstove? Why not books so I can continue my learning?’” recalls Hatcher. “She explained that, ‘the stove represents where I am today but P.A.C.E. has given me a greater understanding of where I can be tomorrow.’” (The factory now gives books to reward perfect attendance.)
More than 14,000 women in seven countries have participated in the P.A.C.E. program since it started in 2007. Evaluations by the International Center for Research on Women found that these women report better workplace relationships; their communications skills in the work environment have improved by 57 percent; and their belief in themselves and their abilities has grown by 81 percent.
They apply their newfound skills at home too—helping their children with their homework, saving more money and voicing their opinion on how their households should be run. “Women have told me, ‘my mother-in-law listens and respects what I have to say now,’” says Hatcher. “I don’t think it’s because the woman is saying anything different, but she’s learned to communicate better or present herself differently. That’s very, very important in the developing world.”
There’s plenty of evidence that boosting women can have a huge impact Deloitte, in a 2011 report called The Gender Divided says that in the developing world, women’s incomes are growing faster than men’s (8.1 percent compared with men’s 5.8 percent.) And research cited by the World Economic Forum in their 2008 Global Gender Gap Report shows that investments in women drive GDP up and mortality rates down across the globe.
A COMPANY MISSION
Investing in women makes perfect sense for Gap Inc. Seventy percent of its employees are female. Women also make up the majority of the company’s customers. In addition, 80 percent of garment workers worldwide are women.
“Gap has historically invested in the communities where we work and do business,” says Hatcher. “It’s just a natural fit for us.”
The P.A.C.E. program has been so successful that Gap is now expanding it into local communities in Cambodia, India and Bangladesh, in partnership with CARE. This means that even women who are not employed in factories will get the chance to burnish career-building skills.
Global poverty—and its attendant miseries—will continue to fade as women gain clout in the workplace. “Simply put, no society can truly flourish if it stifles the dreams and productivity of half its population,” President Bill Clinton recently wrote in a Time magazine article called The Case for Optimism. “Happily, I see evidence all over that women are gaining social and economic power that they never had before.”
As Christine Lagarde, managing director of the International Monetary Fund, recently told attendees at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland: “The evidence is clear, as is the message: when women do better, economies do better.”