The Gender Maze in African Supply Chains


Louise Donova and Refiloe Makhaba Nkune, for the Fuller Project tell the story of 30-year-old Anna, a former seamstress who, losing her job in a garment factory in Lesotho to the pandemic, turned to sex work to fend for her family. For five years, Anna worked hard stitching Levi’s jeans, but the pandemic – sweeping through countries, crippling economies and companies – soon saw her company crumble and her jobless.

Globally, garment workers like Anna faced continued pandemic-era fallouts from disrupted financial markets, upended supply chains and clogged ports. As the virus kept consumers at home and shuttered shops, people bought less, and Western fashion brands canceled or delayed billions of dollars worth of orders. At garment factories around the world, staffers were laid off. Anna is one of over 6,000 garment workers who lost their jobs in August 2021, the majority of whom are women.

Inequalities are as old as systems, and gender disparities have been bare and virtually unchanged since time immemorial. The World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap report says that the world is now going backwards on its long road to gender equality. The time required is now forecast at 136 years as opposed to the 100 years slated in 2020. A closer look at the report shows that economically, it will take 268 years to close the gender gap between men and women, and 14 years, educationally. It would also take Africa 140 years to achieve gender parity. 


Typically, women have the shorter end of the world’s growth, innovations, development, and recognition. And like the economic and education sector, women are majorly at the lower rung of every sector. In South Africa, for instance, three million people lost their jobs as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdown. Of these 3 million job losses, 2million were women. 


Writing about Anna, Fuller Project says that “The women who work in these industries are very marginalized. They are dependent on their incomes and really vulnerable. And so nobody really bothers about them. These women are not just invisible, it’s like they don’t exist.”


In Global Supply Chains, Inequalities Are Rife

A McKinsey study published in July estimated that around the world, women’s jobs are 1.8 times more likely to be cut in this recession than jobs held by men. 

Anna’s story gives us a glimpse into the lives of low-income women in many African countries whose jobs are hanging by a thread. A slight “world setback” and poof, it’s gone. It is a tale of a world where women bite the bullet the most, economically, when epidemics, pandemics, or crises of any sort arise.

Like Anna, when the Ethiopian government moved toward industrialization in the last decade, tens of thousands of women made the journey to the factories of Hawassa, a large city in the country’s south where a sewing job was waiting for them – a rare chance at a formal job and a steady paycheck. In the Hawassa Industrial Park, 30,000 people were employed, the majority of whom were women. But as the pandemic spread its tentacles into countries, garment orders were canceled, factory work slowed, and in a twinkle of an eye, thousands of these women were let go. 

Morgan Hardy, assistant professor of economics at NYU-Abu Dhabi, explains that the Hawassa women are being affected in an indirect market way – one we might not have thought. A canceled prom in New Jersey can mean women in Hawassa don’t have enough to eat. “The women of Hawassa are kind of operating at the margins of the global value chain, they’re trying to eke out a better life,” Morgan says. But the more these women struggle for a better life, the more they are being treated disproportionately.

A recent research from the World Bank shows that while millions of men have lost jobs too, COVID-19 is having a disproportionate effect on women’s work. One factor responsible for this is that we have fewer women in leadership positions and the decision to retain or let go of the services of women in lower-income jobs are majorly made by men.  


While it seems we now live in a world that is more conscious of gender representation and parity. More women are getting into the workforce, being recognised in their field of work, climbing the executive ladder, and attaining higher positions, more women seem to be plunged deeper into poverty, their names unknown and their works unaccounted for. And while every leadership level has seen an increase in representation through the years, the executive level has seen a decline in recent times. 

For instance, the Gartner survey shows women comprising 41% of the supply chain workforce in 2021, up from 39% in 2020. In the same vein, women account for 15% of executive level roles in 2021, down from 17% in 2020. Reports from SCM World’s poll of global universities also show women accounting for 37% of students enrolled in university supply chain courses. Yet when you analyze Fortune 500 companies, only 5% of the top level supply chain positions are held by women.  56% of businesses also have fewer than one in five supply chain supervisor positions filled by females.

For WeForum, Philippe writes that millions of impoverished women are responsible for the collection of biomass energy, such as animal dung, agricultural waste and fuelwood, but these same women remain unaccounted for in big data. 


For women in global supply chains, the statistics are bleak. Compared to men, women are working at the bottom of global supply chains. Christian, Evers and Barrientos (2013) write that Women tend to be more concentrated in low-status work and men in higher-status jobs. In horticulture, women dominate in poorly paid/insecure casual work. In apparel, they make up the majority of lower-status assembly workers and seldom rise above supervisor level into management; the vast majority of line, production and senior managers are men.”  A 2019 report from Global Partnership showed that not only are 70% of women excluded financially in Africa, the continent also has a US$42 billion financing gap between men and women.


On one hand, we probably can rejoice that we have more women joining the workforce, on the other hand, more women – across every sector – are being stunted, do not have an equal and level playing field with their male counterparts, and cannot attain higher levels. It is not enough to have women integrated into global supply chains, it is important to ensure that they are involved in top decision and policy making.


Getting out of the maze

As women sink deeper into poverty, they are forced to look for other means of survival. Anna, like many former garment workers in Lesotho, has since found a way to make ends meet: sex work. Now, it pays her roughly $6 to $19 per night. It is not enough, but it puts food on her family’s table. 

Anna’s fortune could have been changed if she had There is only one way to get out of the gender maze in supply chains: give women a seat at the table. 

Building a women-at-the-top inclusive supply chain isn’t rocket science; most importantly is  building a system where women are equal partners, with an equal share of opportunities, power and participation. To start, businesses that are serious about empowering women in supply chains have to take stock of the  specific risks and impacts on women in the company’s supply chains. Another is to increase the number of women in leadership, and amplify the work and power of those who are already at the top. One way to do this is to foster partnerships with women-led businesses to increase diversity in the supply chain and facilitate better economic opportunities for female entrepreneurs.

It is also important to ensure regulated incomes for women, and close the gender pay gap across sectors across the world. This entails strengthening governance structures and capacities in the deeper supply chain, especially where women are exposed to specific risks and where businesses have the potential to achieve positive changes for women while improving their own security and quality of supply.  These measures can be designed to improve women’s economic situation or quality of life. Or they can be aimed at addressing a specific risk faced by female workers or women in local communities – for example, improving preventative measures and complaints procedures relating to sexual discrimination.

Getting out of the gender maze in the African supply chain also means questioning and challenging cultural nuances and belief systems that hinder women from getting to the peak of the value chain. For instance, in some African cultures, women do not have the right to own lands, even though statistics show that women produce 60-80 percent of the world’s food production. If gender dynamics shaping the value chain are taken into account, achieving gender equity in value-chain development won’t present difficulties. Truth is that we cannot have rapid and intense change without women. More than ever before, it’s time to put women at the top of supply chains.

Sara Beysolow Nyanti, Resident Coordinator, Nepal, United Nations, at the Reykjavík Global Forum says “there’s no ground zero without women; ground zero represents a place of rapid and intense change, and we can no longer have it without women.”