For the past 30 years, China has in many ways been known for its manufacturing capabilities, with “Made in China” appearing on products around the globe. The manufacturing industry in China absorbed millions of people from the workforce, attracting them to live far away from their hometowns in exchange for incomes that exceeded what they could earn from farming and agriculture.
However, in the past five to 10 years, the manufacturing environment in China has greatly changed, as has the working population and its needs. This in turn has changed the issues that companies are focusing on in their supply chain sustainability efforts and the specific challenges that women face at work.
On one hand, the factories that have survived surging labor costs are finding it harder and harder to retain workers; on the other, with workers’ increasing awareness of their rights, strikes, labor unrest, and other grievances are more and more frequent in public and visible on social media. The younger generation is very different from their parents, and today, they make up a greater percentage of the workforce. As compared to their parents, these workers attach more importance to the factory environment and their working conditions, including their superiors’ management styles, the presence of a support network in the workplace, and recognition and acknowledgement. In light of these traits, in many cases the outdated management style of senior leaders and the diverse needs of young workers come into serious conflict.
While both young women workers and young men workers share these qualities, women are confronted with greater challenges than their male colleagues. Equal access to opportunity and development at work remain challenging for women to attain. At the factory, the common management perception that male workers are more capable and concentrated can lead to unequal training and promotion opportunities for women workers. In the era of automation, this is especially problematic, as women workers are sometimes considered less capable than men at operating machinery—a skill that will be critical for the future workforce in China.
Workplace programs to enable women workers to reach their potential presents an opportunity to improve quality of work and make factory jobs more attractive. Over the past 10 years, BSR has collaborated with more than 30 international brands to implement HERproject™ in China to improve the health awareness, well-being, and confidence of female workers. This workplace-based program was created 11 years ago to respond to the huge gap in reproductive health knowledge and behavior of vulnerable female workers working in supply chain factories; through these efforts, we have reached more than 180,000 female workers in 160+ factories in China.
While we are thrilled that HERproject has greatly improved the ability of women workers to take charge of their own health and demonstrated business impact, there is more we can do to contribute to stronger workplaces and enhanced worker well-being. Today, workers “vote by foot” by flowing to the better workplaces, and the benefits of an improved workplace can benefit both the workers and factory management. Here are a few recommendations for companies looking to promote gender equality and sustainability in their operations and supply chains in China:
- Strengthen worker agency: HERproject has demonstrated that building up the capacity of female workers through its peer-to-peer model resulted in numerous stories of improved confidence, better communication skills, and strengthened self-esteem. This will be increasingly important in the era of automation, where stronger “soft” skills will likely be expected of workers; it is an important area of focus for women’s empowerment efforts in China and around the globe.
- Apply a gender lens to factory policy: While workplace-based training can directly reach women workers, it is equally important to help factories review their existing policies with a gender lens. Only when women’s empowerment efforts are included in day-to-day operations can their impact be long lasting.
- Address social norms: Social norms and expectations about the work that women and men do could prevent women workers from realizing their potential. Women workers may not get the same promotion and training opportunities as men, and companies can do more to recognize and address the impact of social norms to create lasting change.
- Integrate technology: Almost all factory workers under 30 have smartphones. These workers have more access to the outside world through the internet, but there is still opportunity to better connect this to their welfare. BSR has developed an app for HERproject in China, in which the health curriculum and information of some health access service providers was digitized. Companies can explore this and other technology resources that support worker well-being.
HERproject will continue to explore how to create a brighter future of work for women in China. Please contact us if you’d like to explore opportunities to collaborate on these important issues.