Rethinking: Ways to ensure gender equality in supply chains

Even though in the past few decades, organizations have committed to increasing the female workforce in managerial positions, yet, businesses are far from achieving a gender-equal supply chain.

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April 13, 2022

There have been several encouraging improvements to ensure gender equality in the world, but progress in closing gender gaps has stalled. The disparities - equal pay for work of equal value, representation of women in high-paying occupations and senior leadership positions, and unpaid care work distribution, are still prevalent. In the past two years, the Covid-19 pandemic has amplified barriers by deepening these pre-existing inequalities. During this time, women took a larger burden compared to their male counterparts, with many more losing their jobs, several leaving the workforce, or taking additional work at home.

Global supply chains are expanding at an exponential pace but as consumer demand continues to grow and industries encounter challenges like ongoing worker shortages, lack of access to raw materials, inventory reductions and price inflation, supply chain leaders have struggled to keep up. Studies have also shown that up to 90% of an organization’s impact on social factors is located within its supply chain activities. This means that organizations have a great opportunity to increase their positive impacts by looking into their supply chain’s activities.

To introduce flexibility in today’s complex supply chains, organizations need more diverse, collaborative workers that can streamline operations and make critical decisions when needed. One group that can act as a catalyst in this change, is the underrepresented women in the supply chains.

Even though in the past few decades, organizations have committed to increasing the female workforce in managerial positions, in line with the Sustainable Development Goals, yet, businesses are far from achieving a gender-equal supply chain.

The scale of the issue

Women comprise 41% of the supply chain workforce in 2021 according to a recent survey by Gartner. Gender parity exists in various stages of a value chain in the business ecosystem. It begins with existing gaps in major activities- research and development, raw material production, manufacturing, operation and services, and distribution. As per the Grandthornton report, India has closed two-thirds (66.8%) of its overall gender gap but the prevalent economic gender divide has hindered its progress the most, ending up at 112th position in the latest World Economic Forum (WEF) Gender Gap Report. Thus, a revised approach to how gender is represented across the supply chain is the need of the hour.

Amid a prevalent wage gap, unequal access to economic means can hinder a woman’s ability to own and control her own financial assets. Data released from the Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia (HILDA) panel study regularly demonstrates the significant economic differences experienced by men and women in retirement- nearly 24% of single women aged 65 or over live in entrenched income poverty compared to 17.4% of single men in the same age group.

Apart from economic hindrances, violence and harassment, including sexual harassment at the workplace is still a reality for many women. Women workers in supply chain often face adverse working conditions- lesser wages, more working hours, no social protection, and a lack of support for unpaid care work.

How to ensure a gender-equal supply chain?

Develop a gender-sensitive management system

Companies can integrate a gender lens into the supply chain strategy, supplier codes of conduct, due diligence approach, and sourcing practices. These actions will ensure visibility of women workforce, identification of challenges they face, and accordingly, remediation measures can be designed keeping gender specifications in mind. Companies can also develop gender-sensitive management systems, and inspire positive gender norms.

Skill development

The introduction of specific skill development policies for women will give impetus to women’s learning and overall development. Knowledge creation and robust gender analysis prior to designing community interventions can support better integration of gender concerns in supply chains.

Companies can ensure the inclusion of women-led SMEs in supply chains, and invest in and develop their skills where necessary. Prior to developing gender-specific SME development programs, companies must understand the local socio-cultural context, women’s strengths and vulnerabilities within it.

More women in leadership roles

The topic of gender parity in business leadership has been long debated. McKinsey reports that companies with more gender diversity on executive teams were likely to be 21% more profitable and have 27 % better value creation. They also reported that the highest performing companies on profitability also had more women in line positions than in staff positions on their executive teams.

To bridge the gap, companies can either collaborate with other organizations or develop in-house mentorship programmes to mentor young women for future leadership goals. Gender equality needs to be more than just a CSR initiative or a corporate motive, it needs to be fully embraced by supply chain leaders to foster growth and profitability.

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