By Rebecca Webber
The idea that work can empower women is not new. In fact, International Women’s Day, March 8, began over 100 years ago as a celebration of working women. It put the world on notice that one of the best paths to women’s equality is through job training, education and economic independence.
“I think the girl who is able to earn her own living and pay her own way should be as happy as anybody on earth,” feminist icon Susan B. Anthony told a newspaper in 1905. “The sense of independence and security is very sweet.”
The years since have shown that when a woman succeeds in the workplace, everybody benefits—the woman, her family, her company, her community, and her nation. But today, although women make up 40 percent of the global workforce, in many countries their jobs are usually unskilled ones, clustered at the bottom of the pay ladder.
“Women have tended to be sidelined,” says Desmond Tutu, the South African social rights activist, in a video on halftheskymovement.org. “The gifts that they have often are not developed.” People frequently explain this away as custom, or tradition. “They speak as if those were things that were dropped from heaven,” says Tutu, “whereas they were man-made. And because they were man-made, they can be changed by us.”
CHANGING LIVES, SAVING LIVES
But who is the “us” who can change things for women in developing countries? Who can help ensure women get the training that will get them the jobs that use their full potential?
One program aiming to do just that is Gap Inc.’s P.A.C.E. (it stands for Personal Advancement & Career Enhancement), which started in 2007 as a way to help female factory workers employed by Gap’s suppliers. Developed in partnership with the International Center for Research on Women (ICRW) and India’s Swasti Health Resource Center—and implemented with the support of respected nonprofit CARE—P.A.C.E. provides 65 to 80 hours of education on topics like communication, problem-solving, time management, health, and legal and financial literacy.
More than 17,000 women have participated in P.A.C.E. — with encouraging results. “You can look into the women’s eyes and see the excitement and joy they have around learning, a joy that turns knowledge into action,” says Dotti Hatcher, Executive Director of P.A.C.E. Global Programs.
The impact is immediate. The women find themselves sitting down to help their children with their homework or purchasing different vegetables at the market to improve their family’s nutrition, for instance. They focus more on their own health, too: “I have a wheezing problem, but before I was not concentrating on this,” says Nethravathi, who works in a factory in India. “Now I am giving proper care to myself.”
Sometimes the changes are truly dramatic. Take Venkatlakshmi, a machine operator who had abandoned her formal education 10 years before joining P.AC.E. From the program she learned how to speak her mind without fear, and how to deal with difficult situations. “I had lots of family problems,” she recalls. “My relationship with my husband was not proper and I thought about suicide. P.A.C.E. gave me hope to lead a better life. I changed myself and became stronger. Because of P.A.C.E., I am still alive.”
Other benefits are clearly quantifiable. According to the ICRW:
- 81 percent of P.A.C.E. graduates reported a higher level of confidence
- The factory retention rate of women who have completed P.A.C.E. is 31 percent higher than the overall retention rate at the factory
- In India, in the first P.A.C.E. facility, women who participated in P.A.C.E. were promoted at 4.3 times the rate as other women at the same factory
And research shows that programs like P.A.C.E. can have a huge ripple effect. According to the World Bank's 2012 report "Gender Equality and Development," when women in India earn more, their children stay in school longer. When Chinese women increase their earnings, more female babies survive to adulthood. The World Economic Forum, in its 2012 Global Gender Report, says that increasing women's equality, including their participation in the labor force, is tied to both a higher GDP for a country and international competitiveness.
AN EVER-WIDENING CIRCLE OF IMPROVEMENT
Businesses benefit, too. In one factory in India, the women who completed P.A.C.E. were 15 percent more productive than their colleagues who were not in the program. And 57 percent of program graduates said they were able to have a positive impact on their co-workers.
“The way I work has improved,” explains P.A.C.E graduate Sushma, a factory tailor. “I have developed the habit of not compromising the quality of whatever I do.”
“I got the importance of my job,” says Savitha. “Earlier, I was giving only importance to house-related matters. My job is equally important.” After completing P.A.C.E. she was promoted from tailor to technical assistant.
As a result of the program’s success to date, employers are eager to expand the program to more of their workers. And in 2013, Gap Inc., in partnership with CARE, will take P.A.CE. into communities, so that women who are not factory workers—the small entrepreneurs and family laborers—can also make strides.
It seems like the world is finally waking up to the fact that educating and training women is a boon for everyone.
“I see lots of sprouts of hope all over,” says Judith Rodin, president of the Rockefeller Foundation, in a video on halftheskymovement.org., pointing out the gains made in “capacitating women, empowering women, enabling women to do what they do well. I am most impressed by… how much they are doing despite adversity and how much they are succeeding despite adversity. So if we can mitigate some of the adversity, just imagine how profoundly the world could change.”