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Women in Global Supply Chains Still Face Sizable Challenges, But HERproject is Helping

Confidence and the ability to speak up for one’s self is hard for many women in low-income countries, and much has to do with local social norms where cultural expectations put the female population at a distinct disadvantage compared with their male counterparts.

That’s where BSR’s HERproject, which started in 2007, is hoping to make the difference. BSR kicked off the celebration of International Women’s Day Thursday night with a panel discussion about unlocking the potential of women working in global supply chains.

HERproject is a collaborative initiative aimed at empowering low-income women working in global supply chains. Through the initiative, BSR has worked in more than 800 workplaces across 14 countries, helping to improve economic conditions and the confidence of more than 900,000 women. Nordstrom Inc., Deckers Inc. through its UGG brand and Williams-Sonoma Inc are among the project’s supporters.

Latha Ramakrishnan, a women’s empowerment expert from India, spoke Thursday about barriers women face due to what she referred to as “gender norms and stereotypes in India.”

Women, she said, are forced to work to help feed her brother and educate him. It’s a world where male children are allowed to go outside of the home, but their sisters are expected to stay at home. And when it comes to meals, the boys eat first and the girls eat afterwards. He gets educated, but her education is limited.

Ramakrishnan also explained about cultural norms: “If she faces a harasser, she doesn’t say anything. If she says [something], she is asked ‘What did you do?'”

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There’s also little choice for women when it comes to what work they do, and the job must be close enough to home that they can return by a decent hour, Ramakrishnan explained, adding that it wouldn’t be unusual for a 17-year-old girl to be accompanied by a 5-year-old boy as her guard. The society has women under the”voice of parents, then husband, then son. She is always in the shadow of someone,” Ramakrishnan said.

Through BSR’s efforts, that is changing, albeit slowly. According to Ramakrishnan, these days women are beginning to feel more comfortable asking for better working conditions. But key for change for a safer workplace is explaining to the men that change is necessary so “your family and the next generation can be safe, and then they accept it,” she said.

Nancy Mahon, senior vice president, global corporate citizenship and sustainability, The Estée Lauder Cos., who also spoke on the panel, pointed to the fact that her company was founded by a woman, and that the percentage of women now in leadership roles is over 50 percent. The company has also embraced initiatives to work with the women who make its beauty products and provide services to the women workers. “We work with our suppliers as partners, not as the police of the supply chain. When we work as a partner, we can better source in these communities,” she said.

At Deckers Brands, more women are stepping into leadership roles, too. Andrea O’Donnell, president of fashion lifestyle at Deckers Brands said the the vice president of logistics, the person who runs the supply chain, and the individual who heads sustainability, are all women. But times have changed since the early stages of her career, when a man once told her she’d need to get better at office politics and self-PR if she wanted to get ahead.

Mandy Seidel, vice president of sourcing at the Pottery Barn division of Williams-Sonoma, said one of her company’s priorities is the support of women in leadership roles. Both the chief executive officer and chief financial officer are women, and the CEO started at the company as a senior buyer 25 years ago, she said.

“Sixty-seven percent of our team overseas [is led by] women, and that DNA extends to the factories we work with,” Seidel noted. That doesn’t mean men are at a disadvantage, only that equality is a substantial part of the company’s values, as is ensuring a “level playing field for everyone,” Seidel said.

And as for the collaboration with the HERproject and its impact, Seidel noted that one of the factories the company has invested in saw a 100 percent retention rate after the Chinese New Year versus 80 percent last year. Once that awareness is there, whether its finance or health, the workers are happier and you have better retention, Seidel concluded.

Separately, other companies are also finding ways to honor International Women’s Day.

For example, fast-fashion firm H&M will donate $200,000 to support the Girl Up leadership development programs. The initiative at Girl Up helps to empower young women who defend gender equality. Customers can also donate to the group at the register of any H&M location in the U.S. during March, which coincides with Women’s History Month.

And direct-to-consumer intimates brand Harper Wilde is offering a limited-edition purple bra to celebrate International Women’s Day. The bra, priced at $50, is embroidered with “Together” as a reminder of the BalanceforBetter celebration in the push for gender equality. For every Better Together bra sold, the brand will donate 5 percent of sales to the National Organization for women.