Women’s leadership in Fair Trade Enterprises

Carol Wills,
Honorary Member 

Women’s leadership in Fair Trade Enterprises

What a surprise!  Statistics produced by WFTO on women’s leadership[1] show that women are four times more likely to be promoted to a leadership role in a Fair Trade enterprise than in a conventional business.  Why is this and why does it seem extraordinary? Shouldn’t gender equality in senior appointments be the norm?  Surely the question that really needs to be asked is why so few women are promoted to senior positions in conventional businesses?  If we can analyse the underlying reason for this, we will begin to understand why Fair Trade has more women leaders than other enterprises. 

Findings of the gender research

Men and women are not the same and their experiences of the work place are different and subject to differing cultural and social norms.  In most countries in the world, women continue to be expected to carry the burden of child care and responsibility for the home and housework even if they are working outside the home.  This can add many hours to their working day and may discourage them from seeking promotion and more responsibility at work.  The World Economic Forum – the place where 3,000 of the world’s leaders meet each year at an exclusive Swiss resort, Davos, to discuss the world’s problems[2] –  are concerned about the failure to achieve gender equality in the work place.   This is probably due to the volume of research available that proves diversity in the work place makes good business sense.  McKinseys (the US management consulting company) has discovered that gender diverse businesses outperform others by 15%.  

A couple of years ago, the WEF contacted the human resource directors of 350 businesses to find out why there were not more women leaders in the work place[3]. Five key reasons emerged.  The first is what they described as ‘unconscious bias’ among male managers. This was followed by lack of female role models and mentors, lack of work-life balance, lack of qualified incoming female talent and women’s own lack of confidence and aspiration.

Let’s try to unpick these.  Firstly, what is ‘unconscious bias’?  It is a learned stereotype that influences a person’s behavior without them being aware of it. Men may unconsciously favour job candidates who are also male and from a similar background. Unconscious bias helps to explain why inequality continues to grow and why the world is still such an unfair place for women.

Here’s a story from a gender workshop that took place at WFTO’s 2017 Delhi Conference.

“We were discussing the need for female supervisors in factories. One of the participating men thought this was a radical suggestion, and declared that productivity in the factory would decrease. In fact, we countered that productivity would increase because female workers would feel safer and free from sexual harassment and abuse.”

 This experience just goes to show that unconscious bias still exists, even in the Fair Trade movement.

The lack of female role models and mentors is a major problem.  There are few women in positions of leadership for aspiring women leaders to look up to.  Added to this is the issue of women having male mentors.  A man proposing that he should mentor a (younger) woman may be suspected of having bad intentions.  A young woman manager seeking to relate to an older male mentor may be misunderstood.

The problem of work-life balance has been touched on above.  Lack of qualified incoming female talent must be a problem of perception.  All over the world, women are becoming better educated and professionally qualified.   But isn’t something missing here?  If businesses are truly committed to gender balance, what about providing training and support to potential women leaders? 

Women’s perceived lack of confidence and aspiration may be a result of male leaders not recognizing the challenges women face in the work place.  Many women find the conventional business workplace stressful, unfriendly and often unsafe.  Is it surprising that many give up the struggle to attain a leadership position?

Now we can begin to understand why there is gender balance in the leadership of Fair Trade Enterprises.  They may be considered to have “conscious bias”!  They are all driven by a mission, rather than just profit maximization and shareholder value.  They uphold the values of Fair Trade as expressed in the 10 Principles.  They must have a gender policy in place to ensure that women, as well as men, take part in decision-making and take up leadership positions. 

These social enterprises do all they can to empower women and make training available to them.  They have systems in place to enable confidential reporting of violence, harassment and sexual abuse, and they encourage women to become visible and recognized in their communities.  Fair Trade Enterprises foster a workplace where women feel appreciated, respected and encouraged.  Many of them were established by women for women. 

Here are two stories from the women we interviewed for the gender reports:

Rinku Mishra“ My problem with getting an employment was that I was uneducated and unskilled. I couldn’t find a job anywhere. Amazing enough this was the criteria for taking in women at CH[4]. I learnt to stitch at the training center. ...I saw here that women were working at all levels:  supervisors, designers, production managers. I wondered how it is that I was always told that a woman could amount to nothing. I quickly became a good tailor… My confidence as a woman is increasing. Here we have regular training on issues of gender equality and gender base violence… For the first time in my life I felt that I was in a place where I was understood.”

Yeshiwa, Sabahar, Ethiopia: “I like to give my opinions and my ideas in meetings. I can talk openly with my supervisor, which I really like. …When I got the promotion and when I went to India, I have learned so much. …I went to India with the General Manager. She treated me like a person, like an equal which made me feel like a real person. I am being treated with respect. It is not even about the salary. People respect me. People talk to me as a person… I am more confident.”

To explore the issue of women’s leadership more thoroughly, I asked a number of women why they had chosen to work in Fair Trade.  This is what Sujata Goswami of Sarba Shanti Ayog and Sasha in Kolkata, India, said in her reply: For me, personally, it was a professional choice. … SSA and Sasha were the best fit I could opt for…….. (I) was convinced that this was a unique model – of market–oriented development through a social enterprise …and the theoretical framework that the social business operated was that of Fair Trade which was both a philosophy and a tool.  And this philosophy was all-encompassing.  It was extremely exciting for me.”

In short- there are more women leaders in Fair Trade Enterprises because they fundamentally nurture, support and empower women in ways that conventional businesses do not. Women are recognized as having as much potential as men; they are encouraged to advance their careers and participate in training opportunities; they work in an environment where they feel safe and respected and critically, they are provided the flexibility needed to meet their family commitments.

The UN says that “societies and economies can only thrive if they make full use of women’s skills and capabilities.[5]This philosophy is at the very heart of Fair Trade, and it is why we inspire so many women leaders.  

Carol Wills


[1] See the two reports being published by WFTO this February 2019:  “Gender Equity and Women’s Rights in the Workplace:  Women at the heart of sustainable development” and “Business Models that Empower Women:  Insights and Inspiration from Fair Trade Enterprises”

[2] The WEF announced proudly at the start of their January 2019 gathering that female attendance had grown to 22%

[3] The Future of Jobs:  The real reasons there are so few women leaders – WEF, Davos, 2016

CH – Creative Handicrafts, Mumbai, India

[5] UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development 2015