If cultures subdue, work can liberate
Little by little, global companies are responding to the growing demand for empowering their female workers.Skip to next paragraph
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• In Jordan, Cisco Systems reoriented its training to boost female enrollment. Now, 63 percent of trainees at its Networking Academies are women preparing for information-technology jobs. While women represent 16 percent of Jordan's overall workforce, they make up 30 percent of the IT sector, which has smaller wage gaps between men and women than industries such as textiles.
• In Indonesia, female factory workers took personal-finance classes offered by the Global Alliance for Workers and Communities - a partner with apparel companies such as Gap and Nike. Instead of coming to work distracted by worries about their debts, they formed a cooperative and started saving money.
• In Saudi Arabia, a firm that distributes products for Cummins Inc., a US-based engine company, was among the first to hire women after the country relaxed rules restricting the types of jobs they can hold.
These examples are still the exception. In agriculture and in export-processing zones where multinationals operate, the face of labor is overwhelmingly female, yet those workplaces rarely take into account women's issues such as discrimination, harassment, and hazards to reproductive health.
Now, a growing number of advocacy groups are moving those concerns to the top of the agenda - not just by monitoring factory conditions, but by working with companies to create an internal commitment to improving women's position in society.
The latest move came last week when Calvert, a major player in socially responsible investing, unveiled its "Women's Principles," an unprecedented four-page code of global corporate conduct. The code addresses everything from pay equity and safety to a need to foster women's civic and political engagement.
Calvert will assess progress toward these goals as part of its investment screening.
"While different countries and cultures present challenges, the goal of gender equity is universal, and the oppression of women undermines economic growth and progress," says Barbara Krumsiek, Calvert's president and chief executive officer.
One of the biggest hurdles is that businesses often cite cultural traditions to justify women's subordination. In a factory in Bangladesh, for instance, men may get paid more to operate heavier cutting machines, while women are segregated in sewing jobs. But "the corporate community [should] be brave and challenge least-common-denominator norms about the role of women," Ms. Krumsiek says.
One reason: the bottom line.
"A lot of the suppliers in [developing countries] see labor as a cost [that needs] to be limited, not as an asset to be developed," says Auret van Heerden, executive director of the Fair Labor Association in Washington. Instead of having a woman always do one isolated task, a company could teach her a wider range of skills, he says, and it could offer a savings plan so she can perhaps start her own business someday.