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Taking the Lead: Working for Women's Empowerment

My most recent visit to India gave me an incredible opportunity to speak firsthand with the growing number of women who spin, weave, sew, and inspect the quality of our products. Meeting these women in person gave me a much deeper understanding of their diverse—and often trying—circumstances. It was also a chance to learn how they are taking advantage of so many of the opportunities for growth offered by their employment. In very real ways, these women are challenging the status quo and taking charge of their futures.

Although women have traditionally been seen simply as homemakers and mothers in India, as in many countries, this view is changing as more women now support their families through work or pursue higher education. Like in the US, many also manage this on top of their responsibilities as mothers. Almost all the women I spoke with are the first in their families to work outside the home and earn their own living.

Through empowerment and education programs organized by our suppliers, these women are learning how to demand respect and equality, in the workplace, at home, and out in the world. Through the HER Respect program, one of our partners promotes gender equality throughout their company. They empower women by creating job opportunities and offering behavioral and technical training, including peer educator workshops. Since encouraging women to take on leadership roles, more female tailors have been promoted to line supervisors and checkers. There are even entirely female-run lines, and one day, there will be an all-female floor, perhaps even a factory. It’s a work in progress, with an emphasis on “progress” and growth. Through consistent surveys and feedback from the workers, the company is continuing to improve the program and their working environment overall.

While this respect starts in the workplace, you can imagine the change that follows in the community. Not only do these women gain economic growth and freedom, they also gain a sense of personal accomplishment and new self worth. This newfound confidence radiates even in their personal lives—from internal to external, mother to daughter, wife to husband.

I want to share just a handful of these stories, gathered from some of the women in one such empowerment program held by a carefully chosen Threaded supplier in India’s Gujarat province.

Nirmala, Tailor

Nirmala, a tailor, shared with us her experience coming from Haryana state, and the challenge of caring for her family. With her husband no longer in the picture, and not offering any financial support, Nirmala struggled to play the roles of both mother and breadwinner before being trained by the factory as a tailor . Through the HER Respect program , Nirmala has found the confidence to communicate her needs—both for support for her family and for the respect she deserves. It was clear from her voice alone just how profoundly she has grown, and she lit up as she shared that she truly feels that the company cares for her and her children.

Malti, a tailor, also experienced personal transformation through the HER Respect project. As with many of the other women we met, Malti is a mother. She explained how she’s been able to share the confidence and respect she’s learned in the factory’s personal and career enhancement initiatives with her kids at home. I remember her smile as she shared just how life-changing the behavioral shift had been — it was like a weight had been lifted, one that could change her children’s attitude toward family and relationships.

Malti, Tailor

Lakshmi (left), Supervisor

Lakshmi, a supervisor, was so grateful for the opportunity to learn that she was inspired to become a HER Project peer educator herself. Now, she helps her coworkers grow in confidence, providing knowledge on important and sensitive topics like navigating gender in the workplace. She explained, “This project helped me in enhancing my confidence level and provide critical knowledge on everyday topics like communication, to more critical issues such as gender and violence.”

Neetu, a tailor, confided a particularly moving story. Having first joined the factory as a “helper” after losing her husband, she revealed how the company’s personal and career programs helped her realize the power of empathy and teamwork — skills she admitted no one had taken the time to equip her with before. She was also determined to learned English through these internal programs, and was proud to be the only associate who was able to share her story with us directly, without the need for an interpreter. Having become an “A-grade” tailor by the time we met her, Neetu was already looking ahead. With a calm determination, she shared her goal of taking on even more team responsibility. With the help of management, she’s preparing for a supervisory role in Quality Assurance.

Neetu (right), Tailor

Imtyaz, Tailor

Imtyaz, a tailor, perhaps managed to make the most vivid impression on me. A product of his upbringing, he recalled his own hesitation about working side by side with women when first coming to the factory. Having voluntarily attended HER Respect training, he now considers the program motivational and progressive. He said he considers himself a more responsible and accountable co-worker, and understands the value of gender equality. In a testament to his — and the culture’s — changing workplace norms, Imtyaz recently encouraged two of his own adult daughters to come and work alongside their father.

These stories inspired me, and the experiences and insights make me hopeful that more companies will feel compelled to introduce such powerful initiatives at their own facilities. These women—and men—have all come so far, personally and professionally, despite social norms, family obligations, and their own trepidation. Their inner strength and confidence is truly humbling, and seeing the change they have created makes me optimistic for women everywhere. Being part of their stories and their journey, in however small a way, is the greatest gift. We are proud to share them with you.