Training women for management in the Bangladesh ready-made garment sector

10 April, 2017

Last year, Bangladesh reached an important milestone when it left the World Bank’s list of low-income countries, and gained lower-middle-income status. This advancement is the result of three decades of GDP growth of nearly 6%. The rapid expansion of the ready-made garment sector, which accounts for 80% of exports and around one-eighth of economic activity, fuelled this sustained growth.

The RMG sector has transformed the labour force, too, by drawing women into the wage-labour market in large numbers. Around two-thirds of the sector’s 4.5 million workers are female. On the sewing floor, 80% of production workers are female, but 95% of managers are male.

Over the past five years I have worked with a diverse set of partners to understand why women have not moved into management. Managers typically responded to this issue by explaining that they do not invest in women’s training because women drop out of the labour force when they marry and have children. Our survey data, which now include information from several thousand production workers, indicate that this is not the case.  Around 80% of female production workers are married, and half of those who are married have children. These women continue to work in the sector.

Together with colleagues, I evaluated a project to train women to be supervisors, comparing the performance of the female trainees with that of similarly trained men. We worked with the German bilateral aid agency GIZ and a training programme they developed several years ago. Working with more than 80 factories, we trained female and male workers selected by the factories as potential supervisors.

Our research reveals several barriers hindering the advancement of women into management. The first is that workers at all levels of the factory hierarchy believe that men make better supervisors. Workers expect men to outperform women in each of eight key traits we identified as characteristic of effective supervisors. The largest gap concerns technical skills, with men almost universally viewed as having better knowledge of machines and production processes. You may not find it surprising that these beliefs do not always match reality: in an extensive diagnostic, we find no gap in technical knowledge between the female and male trainees.

One area where we do find a gap concerns self-confidence. Male trainees expect themselves to perform at a level equal to a typical supervisor in their factory within three months of promotion, while female trainees expect themselves to perform significantly worse. Perhaps the most important outcome of the training is that it closes this confidence gap.

How do workers respond to the trainees once they return to the factory as supervisors-in-training? Surveys of and detailed production data from factory administrative records show the same pattern: in the first two months, operators rate male trainees as equal to other supervisors, and female trainees as significantly worse. Productivity data also show an initial outperformance by the male trainees. But four months later, the female trainees have caught up in terms of both the production data, and the opinion of operators under their direction. A series of exercises we conduct with the trainees indicates that women’s initial underperformance reflects not a gap in skills, but a gap in beliefs of the production workers they supervise. Female supervisors face resistance, especially from male operators working for them.

Participating factories responded to the trial in various ways. Several factories decided not to promote any of the female trainees. But some made radical changes. One set up an all-female production line with the trainees as supervisors. When that line became the second-most-productive line out of 60, managers decided to promote more women, and to create more female lines. Now 10% of supervisors are women. Given their performance, we are optimistic the barrier is broken, at least in this factory.

The ILO/IFC Better Work programme took note of the results, and asked us to develop a more compact and scalable version of the training. Together with ODID alumna Hannah Uckat, now a DPhil student at Oxford’s Economics Department, I am working with 30 factories and Better Work to design and implement a new version of the training programme.  

Bangladesh’s RMG sector has generated its share of negative press in recent years. But the sector has also played a fundamental role in nearly three decades of rapid growth. It has transformed both the economy and the role of women in the labour force. This project has given us an insight into the ongoing evolution of the industry. As the economy continues to grow, competition for talent in local labour markets will increase. Our work demonstrates that a key overlooked pool of future talent exists in the factories themselves.


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About the author(s)
Christopher Woodruff
Professor of Development Economics