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Blog Series: Re-thinking a crippled society

Re-thinking a crippled society – Part II: Inclusivity


This is the second part of a three-part series by Soumita Basu, a social-development-practitioner-turned-entrepreneur. When she was diagnosed with an autoimmune disorder, Soumita’s views on society transformed. This experience made her realize how much is wrong with our society and the way we organize it. Join her reflections on re-thinking productivity, inclusivity, and entrepreneurship.

Slipping through the shades of oblivion

[By Soumita Basu]

It was a day like any other, until it wasn’t. No, not days like just anybody’s. But like ours. The ones in which we have to make umpteen calls if we want to catch up with a friend over coffee. Or plan days in advance if we have to celebrate with a lovely dining out experience. No, our days are not like yours, because everything needs planning – to the last detail. And then not much is left to uncharted experience. I am like anyone else, sometimes wanting to tread carefully, and sometimes just wanting to jive spontaneously. Having to meticulously plan every single outing can be tiring.

I’m tempted to think this need for such extensive (and often, expensive) logistics is due to my disability. It all happens, because I can’t move easily; because I use a wheelchair; because my hands are feeble and crooked, deformed and grip-less. And then, I think again. It’s because ramps are rare; it’s because everyone is expected to be comfortable with the same spoon; it’s because everyone thinks lounging is more comfortable (no! It hurts. It actually hurts most people, irrespective of their disability). And then on such days, I realise that it’s something much more fundamental: it’s about having surroundings that are thoughtful. Its knowing that I’m not ostracised and that people have given me enough thought.

So what really had happened that day?

I had yet another experience where I was told I was asking for a lot of accommodations. Reminders at every step that I’m not really mainstream and am expected to stay on the margins. Yet another experience where I had to claim my space instead of feeling I naturally belong. This surely wasn’t my worst experience but definitely one of the most frustrating. Here’s why: I was invited on this program for my work on inclusion; the program was by an organisation that promotes inclusion, diversity and encourages empowerment. But I felt excluded by someone who claims to be dedicated to the cause of (women’s) empowerment – the main facilitator of this programme and here, we will call her Halodale.

In a snapshot: I was one of the finalists in a program for women entrepreneurs, curated and organised by an agency and one of the leading universities of the world. Due to the pandemic, most of the programme was adapted for an online delivery. After nearly 18 months, the last 3-day segment was held in person. My disabilities, by then, were well known to the organisers. I had been given a lot of spotlight on their social media, for my work and often my lived experience of physical disabilities. Yet, the hall arranged for this 3-day meeting was not accessible for me. In fact, when I wasn’t asked if I had any specific needs, I was happy to assume they knew how to ensure inclusion and diversity. It was only when I started asking about some specific accessible needs for the room I had been assigned for my stay (more out of habit!), that I realised no thought had been given to how I would navigate the space. Halodale then just left it to me to contact the venue and make the right arrangements, and I did. Apart from fixing accessibility in my room, I also shifted the meetings to an accessible hall within the same grounds. There was such a space; the organisers had only to ask.

When suddenly faced with it all, Halodale only asked me this: “Would you like to stay in your room when the women entrepreneurs’ group goes out for dinner together? It’s a part of the agenda on Day 1 and I don’t know if the restaurant we are going to is accessible, but I will be happy to arrange for your dinner in your room. Would you like me to?”

I felt a bit stumped. I asked her if the objective of the group dinner was networking (extremely important for entrepreneurs). She tried to dodge it initially and then agreed that it would help in networking. However, she insisted that staying back could be an easier option for me. I countered the insistence with a simple offer: I can suggest accessible restaurants if she is willing to consider it. (It wasn’t difficult to find these restaurants as some mobile food apps allows restaurants to mark themselves as accessible and disability-friendly). I sensed reluctance. She had already used some contacts to reserve tables. On probing I found the reservation was without any pre-payment. Although I must admit, even that should not be an obstacle to include a participant. She offered to carry me over any steps we might encounter. Neither my safety, nor my dignity mattered to her. I refused. Finally, she agreed to look for another place based on my suggestion.

After everything was settled, I cried. Ten minutes were washed away by my tears. No, I didn’t feel relieved that I was finally included. I was pained that even where I had made a mark for myself, I still had to fight to be included. I cried because I just went to war to make space for myself, in a place where my existence was already known, where I had earned my spot. I was included in the program, but was far from being integrated.

Can laws enforce integration?

The hotel where the meetings were held boasted of four stars. To ensure it retains all its stars, it had to abide by the laws passed under Right of Persons with Disabilities Act (2016). It had mobile ramps. They are always quickly hidden away as soon as a wheelchair crossed over it; brought out only when another wheelchair user asks for it and patiently waits for it to arrive. The ramps are so steep that no wheelchair user would be able to wheel herself up or down the ramp. In fact, they’re too steep even for a comfortable walk. At many places, there were heavy glass doors which could only be swung open manually. They had only one disability-friendly room and they couldn’t offer a hard mattress there. They explained that they only had hard mattresses the size of a single bed, and the disability friendly room had a double bed. People with lower back issues usually prefer hard mattresses. The hotel didn’t consider that, just like it ignored all other accessibility needs. This is not just a matter of empathy. It is bad business. What business sense does it make to spend on ramps that don’t do the job?

Image credit: Mahesh Basedia

Even some of the top hotels I have been to across the country, had similar issues. Every one of them had only one room designed as a disability-friendly room. Yet, none of these special rooms were actually disability-friendly. None of them considered many disabilities like blindness and deafness. Mobility impairment was the main focus and even for that, the rooms were not fully accessible. I could hear the walls whisper the underlying assumption in every design. The designer didn’t expect a person with disabilities to travel independently. They are always expected to be escorted.

From disogyny to kindness

Like me, you may be wondering as well why all rooms are not disability-friendly. Wouldn’t it be easier for other guests, too? Those with a slipped disc, lower back ache, knee pain, sore neck (I can go on). Wouldn’t it be easier for the elderly? Wouldn’t it make more business sense to offer more comfort, especially in the luxury hospitality sector? If all rooms were disability-friendly, we wouldn’t have to frantically ask for it. We wouldn’t feel so ‘different’, so ‘special’. You can design to integrate, you can design to include, or you can design to disable.

So, why are these very evolved businesses not making enough business sense? Probably for the same reason Halodale was not very inclusive even as she works for the inclusion of women. Shrinath, a dear friend, calls it the problem of ‘disogyny’. We have coined this word to mean the hatred of, contempt for, or prejudice against people with disabilities. It enforces ableism by punishing those who reject an inferior status for people with disabilities.

Disogyny is systemically fanned. It has strong roots in our socialisation which emphasises homogeneity. We are made to think all our wants and needs are same and any difference is stigmatised. How often do we ask our guests if they have any food allergies before serving them? The person with allergies is expected to proactively ask and often gets something completely different from others, often served much before or after others. This is a small example from everyday life that shows how deeply the notion of uniformity is entrenched in us. It gives rise to assumptions, which we think are universal truths. But there is only one universal truth: kindness. Kindness doesn’t assume. It only asks “how can I help?”. Having that space to ask for help, the way you need and want it, is real empowerment.

While laws can help to push infrastructure to be inclusive, and nudge some thinking, it is people and thoughtfulness that can truly integrate. Thoughtful business is good business.


Soumita Basu is the founder CEO of Zyenika Inclusive Fashion, a company that designs clothes for all body types and physical abilities. Her work at Zyenika has been recognised with the Entrepreneurial India Award, 2021. She is the India Inclusion Fellow, 2020 and recognised as an Industry Disruptor by DO School, Berlin, UNWomen and the European Union. Soumita started her career as a journalist and then specialised as a social development practitioner and researcher, particularly in the domains of livelihoods, governance, and heath. Soumita’s focus has always been on cross-cutting issues like gender, inclusion, and equality. She is waiting for the publication of her reimagination of popular fairytales with a feminist lens. Soumita has earned a PG Diploma in Journalism, from Asian College of Journalism, and a Masters in Development Studies from ISS, The Hague, Erasmus University Rotterdam. She was awarded a fellow position at the Netherlands Fellowship Programme.

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The case for care as essential infrastructure

[By Sharmi Surianarain and Kate Boydell]

Picture this familiar sight: the political leader in a hard-hat on a construction site, promising public investment in basic infrastructure o create new jobs and unlock wider growth. It’s a photo-op and sound-bite we can expect to see repeatedly in the months ahead as governments around the world seek to reboot their economies, post-COVID. 

But before we shovel money into ‘shovel-ready’ projects, we should pause. Because if the pandemic has taught us anything, it is that the critical infrastructure that underpins our societies doesn’t always need a hard hat.

Another overlooked, human infrastructure underpins almost all human economic activity—one that isn’t extractive, that has no negative environmental impact, that doesn’t depend on imports and that’s resilient to macroeconomic forces.

We are talking about the infrastructure of caregiving. This infrastructure—spanning a range of jobs—helps meet society’s most fundamental needs: the physical, psychological and emotional needs of adults and children, old and young, frail and able-bodied.

Caring for our own families might not seem like an economic act, but how we organise it has huge economic and social consequences. These are especially felt by women, since care work (paid and unpaid) is usually performed by them as a routine part of their domestic or even professional roles. This has been acutely felt during the COVID-19 pandemic, which exposed the vital need for the large-scale provision of care—to children, the elderly, vulnerable and sick. School closures forced policy-makers to ask not just ‘how will children learn?’, but also ‘how will parents work?’ And, care giving is often the invisible glue that binds many activities together—strengthening our daily transactions with relational bonds.

Image credit: SmartStart

It is now clear that this “infrastructure of care” is just as vital as roads, ports and data networks, and it plays an important role across the human life cycle. Investing in early childhood care alone multiplies value at a grand scale—improving the health and educational outcomes for a generation of children, creating thousands of jobs, while also enabling caregivers to work outside the home.

So why don’t we talk about and invest in care work this way? There are many reasons.

One is simply a failure of political imaginations shaped by that persistent hard-hat image—and an inability to recognize caregiving as work. Second, due to powerful social norms, the work primarily done by women is tarred with the pernicious low-skill label which lowers the status of those who do it and those who study it.

But there is also a practical and immediately addressable reason we continually overlook the potential of care as an economic lever: we just didn’t know how to pull it.

Economists bring precision and broad consensus to how economic activity is counted and reported. They develop models that value it properly, including wider systemic effects. And they propose new investment mechanisms to shape and unlock that value. In other words, they define economic levers and how to use them. Historically neglected by mainstream economics, care work has as a result, been under-counted, under-valued and under-invested. Indeed, as a result, “care feminism has taken a backseat to career feminism.”

What if care feminism engaged with mainstream economics head on? We suggest three specific actions to recast care using feminist economics: Count it. Value it. Invest in it.

Count it.

“What gets counted, counts,” said data feminist Joni Seager.

Over 16 billion hours are spent on unpaid care work every day – a reality that many of us had to confront during the COVID-19 pandemic, when schools and day-cares were shuttered.

If care work—as priceless as it is—was actually counted in real GDP estimates, this would be valued at over $11 trillion. If “care work” were an economy, it would rank only behind the United States and China.

But it is hard to put a price to something as intangible and priceless as care.

Many of us prickle at the act of counting it—as it relates to an act so fundamentally cherished and so human, one that evokes deep emotions. As if care were something that can be measured by money and economics alone.

But money and economics matter. Especially to the millions of those in this sector who are unpaid and under-valued.

And so, if what gets counted, does indeed count, then the act of “counting” the care economy—in our national accounts, and as “real work”—reveals its value.

Counting care work as work and accounting for it in our GDP is the first step, giving us a language with which to comprehend its many dimensions, to label it, categorise, and regulate it. Drawing on decades of activism for the decriminalization of sex work, for example, it allows for care work to be situated within a broader framework of worker’s rights.

Counting care work can allow for the design of policies that acknowledge that burden of care and allows for the regulation of work in this space. Formal recognition of care work as “work” takes it out of the shadows, where this work can be so easily ignored and exploited because it does not count.

Value it

Even if we did count care work in our national accounts or included this work in broader frameworks of workers’ rights, this still would not be enough. Valuing care work requires a fundamental shift in the way we not just count work—but also how we pay for it and protect it.

Women comprise more than 76% of the total care workforce of nearly 400 million—and this work is some of the least paid and most precarious in the world.

Care responsibilities often come at a cost—professional, and personal. The most well-known of these being the motherhood penalty—where women with young children record the lowest employment rates in the world. Care work is also exhausting, demanding, and fraught with physical and emotional complexities.

Image credit: SmartStart

As Ai-jen Poo reminds us “caregiving is most definitely work: physically strenuous, rigorous work that requires discernment and flexibility. As with all forms of labour, you put in a hard day’s work and you expect to be appreciated and compensated.”

What if we valued this work at a structural, systemic level, as well as paid for it, and protected it the way we should?

Recent insurance and divorce settlements in India and China point to a slow shift towards greater monetary valuing of the work done by women in the home. We need to amplify and institutionalize these trends.

Paid family leave for caregiving responsibilities has been shown to help women stay in the labour force and improve well-being for caregivers across the world. Including care and domestic worker rights in national frameworks for labour legislation, imposing minimum floors and clear frameworks to reduce abuse and exploitation can also make a difference.

Invest in it

The ILO estimates that over 2 billion people will need care by 2030—as a result of a growing and ageing population. Unlike many other economic sectors where jobless growth is the norm, the care economy represents huge possibilities.

Demographic trends of ageing and population growth suggests that over 400 million jobs could be generated across the world. Expanding the early childhood development infrastructure, to meet the need worldwide for early childhood care, could alone generate up to 43 million jobs.   

Organisations like Silver Angels in India are trying to focus on the elder care market and investable ideas and opportunities that can be harnessed. Early childhood is a growing focus area for investment by countries, donors, and private investors alike—with the World Bank alone committing over $6 billion in ECD and related investments over 15 years.

Indeed, if we truly valued the things we said we did, we would invest our resources in ideas that strengthen our support for those who need care without compromising its intrinsic value.

All the recent efforts to quantify care work, to evaluate investment in caregiving versus other industries, and to reimagine how it is provided show that the tide may be turning on how care work is viewed, spurred by the aftershocks of COVID as well as long-term demographic shifts.

We can choose to ignore the value of caregiving in our plans, or we can strengthen this invisible infrastructure and empower the millions that carry its weight.

It’s time to lay aside the hard hats and take a hard-headed approach to investing in caregiving – so it can become an engine of economic growth and human thriving.


Sharmi Surianarain serves as the Chief Impact Officer, Harambee Youth Employment Accelerator in South Africa.  Harambee Youth Employment Accelerator develops African solutions for the global challenge of youth unemployment. Sharmi is an activist for opportunity creation for young people, particularly women. She is an Aspen African Leadership Initiative Fellow, Class of 2020 and sits on the Boards of Emerging Public Leaders, Ongoza, Metis, Instill Education and is on the Advisory Council for the NextGen Ecosystem Builders Africa 2020. Sharmi holds a B.A. from Harvard University, a master’s degree from the Harvard Graduate School of Education and a master’s degree from Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management.

Kate Boydell is a writer and advisor with 25 years’ experience using the power of strategic stories to help leaders, movements and organisations bring about systems change. She has a particular focus on the future of work and of education, gender and parenthood, and purpose-driven leadership. She is a Fellow of the RSA, an Unreasonable Impact Mentor, a former Head of Strategy at change consulting firm SYPartners and former WPP Fellow.

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What does the abandoned public toilet tell us?

[By Chinar Mehta]

Abandoned public toilets have become a familiar sight in India. Long power cuts and acute water shortages have rendered thousands of them unusable. While the burden of maintaining the toilets falls on the sanitation workers, the sanitation system remains institutionally disconnected from the water or electricity system. Across India, the continued challenges to the Swachh Bharat Mission (Clean India Campaign) have thrown light on these institutional failures and the socio-cultural politics of sanitation work. This keeps many of the newly constructed toilets unused. What causes this gap between the intentions behind these interventions and actual use?

Image credit: Karan Rai

One aspect that has recently been highlighted in social projects is to understand the “system change” required for interventions to work. Standing in typical project management terminology, system change is defined as “the emergence of a new pattern of organization or system structure. That pattern being the physical structure, the flows and relationships or the mindsets or paradigms of a system, it is also a pattern that results in the new goals of the system.” This pattern of relationships is essentially what can be understood to be a stakeholder analysis. As a methodology, stakeholder analysis is employed in a variety of industries and is tied to any kind of project management. It helps with understanding connections between things and identifying root causes. However, it often deems invisible the human dimension that is long fraught with cultural stigma, inequality, and precarity.

FemLab.Co stakeholder management: in pursuit of the invisible

Informal sectors such as construction, sanitation, gig, and artisanal work have a workforce that seems scattered. Thus, identifying stakeholders can be challenging. Important stakeholders are usually identified from the following domains: international actors, governmental (ministries and local governments), political (legislators), labour unions, private or for-profit organizations, non-profit organizations and in some cases, civil society organizations (CSOs). Essentially, the analysis (usually) reveals the impacts of a state policy initiative on various parties, which may be individuals, aggregates of individuals, or organizations. Proponents of stakeholder analysis argue that it enables the efficient and effective completion of a policy or a project that is most acceptable to all parties involved.

Stakeholder analysis is derived from a research paradigm that values the different experiences of stakeholders with the “same” reality. Take for instance the use of machines in sewer cleaning in India and Bangladesh. Sally Cawood and Amita Bhakta, urban studies scholars, write that sewer-cleaning robots and machines have been rolled out somewhat effectively, but one of the issues the truck drivers and helpers face is that the machine parts are not locally available. So, while the health risks of workers are seemingly solved using machines, the workers face a reality not accounted for by the policymakers. In part, our research also seeks to identify and amplify stakeholders whose voices have so far not been heard.

Entering the rabbit hole

Two key challenges have to be met for a meaningful stakeholder analysis: Firstly, in India, where approximately 450 million workers are employed in the informal sector, revealing all the relevant stakeholders proves to be a monumental task that never truly concludes. The sectors that we have picked for this research have been selected on the basis of the existing structures of terms and conditions, collectivization, and the precarity faced by women workers in the sector. Moreover, some stakeholders such as middlemen who supply labour or connect workers to potential markets only appear as and when we examine the field. Making a stakeholder map, then, becomes a fraught but creative exercise. Consequently, a second challenge lies in estimating how localised we keep our analysis.

Each sector has its own unique networks of stakes, and a stakeholder analysis begins to reveal gaps in communication within these networks. Sanitation work, in which we largely focus on workers who are employed within the public infrastructure, includes cleaning and sweeping of houses, streets, roads, institutional premises, railway lines, train toilets, community and public toilets, drains and sewers. At the outset, the specific work that we are looking at consists majorly of government stakeholders at varying levels – national, state, and local. While local CSOs are crucial to understanding collectivization, advocacy efforts are also directed towards legislative policy formulation.

For instance, there are clusters of groups of domestic workers in Hyderabad locally, but many issues faced by domestic workers may only be mitigated by a central law since workers commonly cross interstate boundaries. This is even more necessary considering that employers in this sector are largely individuals and scattered across the city. On the other hand, sanitation work undertaken by local governments, while formalised to an extent, is closely linked to private manufacturers, contractors, and research institutions. But each of these entities is diverse; for instance, while the role of contractors has largely to do with supplying labour, contractors may be corporations or individuals. Depending on the unique conditions of contractual labour, CSOs channel their advocacy efforts towards the contractors. Moreover, manufacturers and research institutions have to work in close collaboration to develop and produce machines that help in sanitation work. However, the presence of only a few large-scale manufacturers and scattered local suppliers makes product differentiation and development difficult. This points to a gap in communication within the stakeholder network.

We have noted that even though we have a stakeholder map from secondary research, many of the stakeholders will only become visible as we go into the field. In the construction sector, contractors and builders are a diverse group of stakeholders. As we begin to go into the field, we see that labour contractors in this sector are mostly those who got promoted from the workers themselves, and they have strong ties with the community based on geographical and social location. Depending on these ties, the involvement of the contractors, and what they imagine to be their stake in the workers’ welfare will emerge from the field.

Pinning down emerging stakeholders

Pinning specific stakeholders when digital tools are involved needs more thought; these platforms seem centralised and de-centralised at the same time. For example, the supply chain in platformised work is largely opaque. In the platform salon work, particularly, issues faced by women workers remain highly localised depending on customer responses, but platform policies are formulated at a much higher level in the corporation. As Sai Amulya Komarraju writes,

“Customers and their experience and satisfaction are placed at the apex since they bring business, and software engineers enable ‘extra-legal’ mechanisms (rating, tracking etc.) to monitor the service partners through the app in order to ensure the quality of services. Even though service partners are considered as a crucial resource […], the oversupply of workers compared to the demand, and control mechanisms in the form of rating and reviews serve to maintain power asymmetries between the platform, customer, and the service partner.”

Defining stakes then takes on the challenge of translating the language of the women workers to what can be included in the language that is actionable by developers and managers who develop the platform.

There may be many traditional and new stakeholders involved in these sectors. On one hand, there are emerging stakeholders that work in collaboration with traditional stakeholders, for instance, in the sanitation sector. When the Nagpur Municipal Corporation introduced watches with GPS to surveil sanitation workers, the workers and other activists opposed the move. What is important to note here is that NMC collaborated with a Bangalore-based IT company to use these rented watches to track the movement of all sanitation workers. The IT company, in this case, is a relevant stakeholder that, until even a few years ago, would not have been associated with this sector. On the other hand, we also find that emerging stakeholders may introduce us to view digital collectivisation as an alternative, as diffused as these stakeholders may be. For instance, Facebook groups where domestic workers across the world make a community, help them to articulate their common concerns, fostering a sense of solidarity and community. The members of such groups and the platform corporation are all stakeholders of different kinds, and the stakes would have to be defined with the end goal of collectivisation in mind.

What’s in it for me – rethinking stakeholder logics

Previous work on stakeholder mapping exercises has critiqued the reductionist approach that this methodology may seem to encourage. Traditional stakeholder analyses assume that stakeholder behaviours are only guided by rational, individualised concerns. “What’s in it for me?” the stakeholder seems to ask. Instead, the authors argue for an approach that takes into account the politics of “the history, the present, and the expectations of the future” which they collectively operationalise as “shadows of context”. Our initial experience in the field echoes this sentiment.

While direct guidelines about how to create a stakeholder map are useful, these guidelines have to be reorganized to reflect what we learn in the field. During this process of stakeholder mapping, we keep going back to the image of the abandoned toilet; remembering that interventions need to be sensitive to the “shadows of context”. These shadows are not only at the point of the result of an action research project, but needs to be a part of the project from the very start.

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Automation of the Readymade Garment Sector in Bangladesh: Who is paying the price?

[By Mohammad Sahid Ullah and Rawshon Akhter]

Alaya Akter, a first-generation garment worker in Bangladesh, began her apparel career as an operator assistant in the early 90s. She lost her job at the age of 48 due to automation at her factory last year. She is no exception; several thousands of Readymade Garment (RMG) workers across Bangladesh lost their job since the automation started after the Rana Plaza collapse in 2013 that caused 1,132 deaths and more than 2,500 injured. The increasing automation is also partly a realization of the “Digital Bangladesh” vision the Bangladesh Awami League party outlined in 2008 for the year 2021 – the country’s 50th anniversary. But it is coming at a price.

The losers of automation are mainly women like Aliya, who have migrated from the village with little or no education to work in the garments sector, primarily situated in the city areas. A study by the private think-tank Centre for Policy Dialogue (CPD) in 2018 found that the automation of manufacturing reduced the female workers’ participation ratio in the garment sector to 60.8% in 2016 from 64 % in 2015. The current male-to-female worker ratio in the garment industry is 41.7 to 58.3, according to a BRAC university study. The report of 2020 claims that the main reason for decreasing female workers’ participation is that the factory owners consider female workers illiterate and unable to handle modern machinery properly.

In Bangladesh, around 4.2 million workers in 4,825 factories produce goods for export to the global market, principally Europe and North America. To meet foreign retailers’ strict lead-time requirements, 47.37% of large businesses and 25% of medium companies use automation and other advanced technologies. The sector has been in a severe crisis of a lack of overseas buyers’ orders due to the global COVID-19 outbreak, However, the country has recovered thanks to a Tk. 10,500 crore ($ 1,221 million) bailout fund (Stimulus package) from Bangladesh’s government and a rise in retailers’ orders from overseas buyers. Yet, how automation will impact women in this garment industry and whether new technological interventions and the future of decent work for women are compatible remain open questions.

RMG factory in Bangladesh
Image credit: Fahad Faisal / Wikimedia

To explore the impact of automation among female garment workers we interviewed entrepreneurs, union leaders, and think tank members. Moreover, we consulted some recent studies on the matter. Several reports have mapped critical tensions between the empowerment and disempowerment of RMG workers for automation of this industry.

The garment industry’s struggle for survival

The CPD survey, after inspection of 193 garment enterprises and 2,123 workers, has found that female workers are proportionately less knowledgeable about operating different machines than their male counterparts. The initiative, Mapped in Bangladesh (MiB), was launched in 2017, a BRAC university project in collaboration with the Netherlands’ Embassy in Bangladesh, the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers, and Exporters Association (BGMEA). The Bangladesh Knitwear Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BKMEA) mentioned that wage hikes and automation are the major factors behind the decline in the sector’s overall workforce.

The $ 30 billion export and 15% of the Bangladeshi economy’s GDP generation industry considered that automation is the cause of job loss. At the same time, there is hope that RMG businesses become more profitable and sustainable due to automation. For instance, Mostafiz Uddin, Managing Director of Denim Expert Limited, a leading RMG businessperson from Chattogram, regarding automation recently said, “Automation facilitated increased economic growth which ultimately led to job creation.” The World Economic Forum also forecasts that by the mid-2030s, one-third of all jobs could be automated, stating that the workforce most likely to be disrupted will be those who have low educational attainment. This is a strong argument for placing an increased focus on training and education alongside work in the RMG sector. This is something that the Bangladeshi government has thankfully begun to look more closely at in recent years, opines Mr Uddin.

According to Mr Uddin, the garment industry is very people-intensive and provides millions of jobs, but automation is minimal. So, the productivity rates and wage rates are still low. Falling behind in automation will put the business at risk in the future; mentioning this, Mr Uddin points out:

“If we want to move onto the next level of high production, profit and wages we must   embrace automation. Our very survival will be under threat, given that all of our major competitors—Vietnam, India, China and so on—are now looking to automation in a big way.”

A similar voice was raised by Syed Nasir, Managing Director of QPail Ltd from Tongi, Gazipur, a big hub for Bangladesh’s apparel industry. He said, “Buyers prioritise error-free product, and automation ensures flawless products and also helps to boost production rate.” His factory started the automation process in 2016 and completed the transformation in late 2019 with a Taka 50 crore (US$ 5.81 million) bank loan. He opines that although 70% of his factory workers were women, it is less than a percent at the inspection level.

Mr Uddin admits that the adoption of automation from the very beginning jerks this low-cost, labour-intensive garment industry’s job security. “Countries like Vietnam, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka have already proved that new technologies and automation boost productivity growth, lower product prices, and ensure higher wages and much profit,” says Mr Uddin.

Inevitable automation – at whose cost?

“It is a day for quality and competent people, unskilled has gradually been replaced by skills. There is no way except adopting the automation to satisfy buyers,” said Syed Nasir. Following pressure from buyers, factories have to switch to automation with enormous costs, but buyers do not intend to pay more for a product. Thus, many factories face difficulties to repay loans, and some even shut their doors. Syed Nasir explains their approach:

“… as we grab orders, we can repay those loan from the profit. In fact, better price does not depend on automation, but boost up the priority to some extent in grabbing orders from other competitors.”

Dr Syed Basher, Professor of Economics at the East-West University, Bangladesh, and a leading researcher on the RMG sector, categorises the effects of automation at the RMG sector into two-fold, firstly for the short term; this move cuts jobs. Still, it benefits by boosting production and reliability on the quality of output for the long term. Automation is a long-time process and almost all factories have already automated the washing and knitting section. Two-third of big factories have adopted the swing, the most important section of RMG.

“I don’t think the job cut affect women labour because it takes several years to switch a full-fledged automation or robotic installation. The shift takes place gradually and for such, there is not any possibility of sudden job loss. I feel automation might cause a job loss of maximum 300-400 thousand illiterate RMG workers altogether and who can easily absorb other entrepreneurial opportunities like established home-made tailoring or work for small fashion design houses,”

said Dr Basher. In answering a question about the consequence of disempowered rural women after losing jobs from the apparel industry due to automation of factories, he elaborates:

“The number of job cuts is not very high, the cancellation of orders by foreign buyers in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis has instead jeopardised the RMG sector during 2020, leading job losses and affecting nearly 2.5 million people, primarily women.” 

Mentioning a report in The Economist, Dr Basher said that the recent rise in global trade protectionism poses further challenges if it combines with technological advances in automation to shift manufacturing back to developed countries – the primary market for apparel produced in Bangladesh. The Economist Intelligence Unit’s core forecast is that automation and the “reshoring” of manufacturing to developed nations will have a marginal impact on Bangladesh’s apparel export industry in 2019‑23 because the industry stands on a strong bailout fund.

Lalin Salauddin, working as an administrator at a garment industry of Nasirabad Industrial Area in Chottagram, informed that many female workers left their jobs during this COVID-crisis leading either from pregnancy or their unwillingness to continue in automated factories. He said:

“We still value the female workers who have been working in our factory more than ten years as they are competent enough after having minimal training. More so educated male and female youths have got an appointment in recent past. In that sense, we create spaces for the new generation of the skilled labour force through automation.”

As mentioned about Alaya’s case, Lalin said, “Alaya has left, but we hire her young son Gani Arman with more salary, and therefore her leaving might not affect her position in the family.” He also said, “Bangladesh is moving towards Digital Bangladesh, so in honour of that move, we must change our attitudes, I mean adopt new technology.”

According to BGMEA, the apex body of the RMG sector, every year, about 100 new factories opens their doors, using advanced technology in the entire apparel manufacturing process. It believes that advanced technology helps cut down production costs significantly (30-40%) and has spill-over benefits in terms of higher productivity and cut down on lead time.

Ms Zakia Sultana, a veteran RMG worker union activist, associated with Bangladesh Centre for Workers Solidarity, Dhaka, admits that robot technology in manufacturing is growing, and factory-based employment is dropping for this. She said, “Workers unions are not against automation. However, an honourable departure from the job should be the rights, and we must honour that for the sake of harmonious leaving from the job.” After serving 10-15 years for a factory, workers expect some honour from their factory owners and worker unions – at least recognition. But as Ms Sultana explains, division within the unions and their leaders in the end effects those they are supposed protect – the workers.

Bangladesh has indeed made significant strides during nearly four decades to bring about gender equality, particularly in women’s participation in the RMG sector. The industry has been a source of economic opportunity and pride for some of Bangladesh’s poorest and most disadvantaged women – those from uneducated, rural families. However, they are also likely to be the first to be disposed of when technological advancements become commonplace. This falls in line with research showing that factory workers largely regard the female garment worker as a cheap and disposable labour source. However, the silent departure of Alaya from her job and the inclusion of her son ascertain that males will once again reap the benefits of the RMG industry in Bangladesh.

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Superbrands, super evil?

[By René König]

For FemLab.Co I spoke to Linnea Thompson. Her article ‘Crowdsourcing as a platform for digital labor unions’ with Payal Arora served as an early inspiration for our project and she now works as a Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) specialist for the Norwegian fashion retailer Varner. Our conversation helped me to overcome some of my prejudices towards big brands. Maybe it will help you, too?

Superbrands – popular and hated

If somebody would ask you to name a clothing company known for its abusive working conditions, which would you choose? Let me guess: It’s one of the big well-known brands. Certainly, that is what would have come to my mind if somebody had raised that question not too long ago. I spent my transformative years towards adulthood in the 1990s in Germany. Communism was defeated and capitalism emerged as the big winner of the cold war. At least, that is how it appeared for a little while, prompting Francis Fukuyama to announce the “end of history”.

While governments worldwide embraced neoliberal strategies, an anti-capitalist counter-movement was on the rise. In 1998, the NGO Attac was founded in resistance to the seemingly limitless power of globalized corporations. A year later, 40.000 protestors turned against a conference of the World Trade Organization, clashing with police in what has come to be known as the iconic “Battle of Seattle.”

By the time I started studying sociology at Bielefeld University in the early 2000s, it was pretty much common sense among my peers to blame global corporations for almost everything that was going wrong in the world. Like many others, I was impressed by Naomi Klein’s bestselling book “No Logo,” a work that fundamentally criticized the overwhelming power of superbrands and their often-exploitative practices hidden behind the shiny facades created by marketing specialists:

“Since many of today’s best-known manufacturers no longer produce products and advertise them, but rather buy products and ‘brand’ them, these companies are forever on the prowl for creative new ways to build and strengthen their brand images.” (Klein 2010, p. 5)

Looking back at the book two decades later, Dan Hancox portrays the atmosphere of that time like this:

“The battle lines were clear, as ordinary citizens around the world stood in opposition to corporate greed, sweatshops, union-busting, ‘McJobs’, privatisation and environmental destruction: and the avatar for them all, the increasingly unavoidable logos of western ‘superbrands’.”

Klein wrote about a movement that emerged which tried to fight corporations with their own weapons. “Adbusting” built on the same powerful mechanisms as advertising – but it smeared brands instead of promoting them.

Anti-Nike spoof-ad. Image credit: Adbusters Media Foundation

The campaigners had more than enough material at their hands. From environmental catastrophes to never-ending reports on terrible working conditions – there was no shortage of reasons to scratch the shiny facade of big brands. At the same time, their omnipresent advertising guaranteed an endless supply of material that could be weaponized. Take this simple but effective modification of an Exxon advertisement, shortly after their vessel Exxon Valdez spilled millions of gallons of oil in Alaska’s Prince William Sound in a disaster that affects the region even today:

Adbusting by the “Billboard Liberation Front” in 1989

Just like Exxon Valdez’s oil keeps poisoning the ocean, nothing has fundamentally changed regarding brands and their perception. Major corporations continue dominating the markets. Scandals keep surfacing just as predictably as the riots and protests waiting in the wings of the next WTO summit. Occasions and names may change, the basic driving forces remain the same: Greedy global corporations exploit vulnerable local populations, covered by corrupt governments. While a few ‘conscious consumers’ may resist, the vast uncritical majority keeps the machinery running. In fact, the situation may have gotten worse due to the new superbrands of the digital economy as Dan Hancox remarks in his article reflecting on Klein’s book:

“Proud of yourself for not buying books or gifts from Amazon? Fair enough, but it is also the largest cloud service provider, with a 32% market share; your favourite activist website is probably using Amazon Web Services.” 

The internet era started with the promise of endless possibilities. Yet, a smartphone user in 2021 can merely choose whether to feed Apple’s or Google’s data-hungry systems. Klein’s book seems as relevant today as it was during the battle of Seattle. Superbrands are to blame. Who could argue with that?  

A look behind the black and white facades

Although they have contrary intentions, advertisers and adbusters have one motivation in common: They paint a very one-sided picture of the story. The problem with that is not just that this approach rarely leads to accurate perception. What´s worse is that consumers are driven to a state of learned helplessness, a weird mixture of willful naiveté, when we give in to the constant bombardment of glossy advertising, paired with occasional outbursts of inconsequential rage when we stumble over another scandal. All this obscures not only that we don’t live in a black and white world but also that there is much that can be done to improve it – and is in fact done on a daily basis. Including by superbrands. Maybe – and my socialization makes it hard to write this – especially by superbrands.

My interview partner Linnea is the one who is giving me this hard time. When I ask her, what got her into the field of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), her initial reply still neatly fits my worldview:

“When I studied media and communication at Erasmus University Rotterdam, I wanted to know how businesses really work (in contrast to what they are communicating). To me, CSR is so important but obviously, there was and is also a lot of green washing going on. When I was a student, we were all very critical. Our papers were dedicated to finding out ‘who is just green washing and who is actually doing good work?’ because it´s often very difficult to distinguish the two.”

Sure, superbrands talk a lot about social responsibility. It’s part of their marketing strategy. But digging deeper into Linnea’s motivations, I begin to understand that marketing is certainly not what is driving her:

“I´ve always been super interested in following up production chains, wondering how one could make them more responsible and what businesses can do to improve them. In part, that´s for personal reasons: When I was young, my mom was working as an advisor for businesses to create better working conditions with regards to human rights and sustainability. She told me all about it, which got me into this field.”

Working for the business side has made Linnea not less critical but enabled her to take a more granular point of view: 

“The perspective I had as a student became a bit more nuanced after I started working in the field. It´s easier for me now to differentiate marketing from actual corporate responsibility. Any brand, big or small, wants to be perceived as ‘good’, and in the end it’s up to the consumer to distinguish between marketing and responsible business practice. A sustainable image might be just that: an image.”

I immediately have a picture of one of those seemingly close-to-nature outdoor brands in my mind. I probably still have a piece by such a company in my closet from one of my little nature adventures. I recognize myself as the prototype customer who would get allured by the romantic marketing vision created by a Nordic outdoor brand. I was critical but my anger was targeted against the big corporations, not those seemingly sustainable small companies. My intuition let me down as I realize when Linnea elaborates:

“A lot of people have this perspective that the big corporations are the bad ones. But really, the more research you do on this, the more you will realize that this perception is often not true. The reason is simple: these big companies actually have the resources to put their words into action.”

Corporate Social Responsibility – more than marketing

Maybe more money doesn’t necessarily translate to more exploitation. Yet, we intuitively take the side of the underdog. It’s deeply rooted in our culture. From David vs. Goliath to Slumdog Millionaire – we love and cherish the narrative of the disenfranchised who beat the odds. But as attractive as these stories are, they might not be the best guides for conscious consumption. Marketing specialists already took notice of our preference for the underdog and many try to portray their company as one – regardless of whether this portrayal is based in fact.

At the very least, small businesses usually stay under the radar while superbrands are always in the spotlight, making them giant targets that are hard to miss. Adbusting is one example for how this prominence can backfire but brand communication is generally a balancing act with many pitfalls, especially when it comes to corporate responsibility as Linnea explains:

“I understand now how difficult it is to balance the communication of your CSR efforts. Especially in the media in Norway we see, for example, H&M who received intense criticism because they marketed their CSR strategies as better than how experts judged them. So, they end up in this position in which they are perceived as ‘all bad’ – while they´re actually one of the best companies when it comes to following up their supply chain. They have been very innovative on that front.”

There is not much room for nuance in our polarized world and its fast-paced media landscape. What shapes our thinking are the big headlines, scandals, and crazy stories. Like the one from 2014, when Primark shoppers found labels in their clothes with sentences such as “Forced to work exhausting hours” or “Degrading sweatshop conditions”. While it remains unclear if these labels were even authored by actual workers, the story is too remarkable to forget. What remains untold are the far more stories in which workers found better channels to express their grievances due to CSR programs and other activities to help workers. Accordingly, when I ask Linnea about common misconceptions that she would like to change, she answers:

“Many people think that the big fashion brands just order clothes from sweatshops. This is commonly portrayed in the media, but not the other side of the story where brands and suppliers collaborate closely to ensure fair and safe working conditions. This misconception does not help to make consumers respect the work that has been put into producing their clothes.”

My conversation with Linnea made me re-think my own misconceptions about big and small brands. I realized that the power of marketing images is a double-edged sword. Not only can it be turned against them, it also obscures a nuanced discussion of their practices. Sympathy for the underdog is an intuitive counter-reaction to the overbearing power of superbrands but it rests on the same questionable mechanism: image over facts. The truth is out there. It just takes a lot of effort to uncover it. As tempting as it may be, we should not fall for the shortcuts provided by marketing specialists – no matter who they represent.

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Man or machine? Eliminating manual scavenging in India and Bangladesh

[By Sally Cawood and Amita Bhakta]

Manual scavenging – the hazardous removal of human waste from drains, latrines, septic tanks and sewers by hand or with basic tools – persists as a form of caste-based slavery in South Asia. Across India, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Nepal, men, women and children from low-caste, religious and ethnic minorities manually handle our waste, frequently resulting in injury, illness and even death. Since 2014, an estimated 156 people have died in septic tanks in Bangladesh alone, while in India one person dies every five days after entering septic tanks and sewers, often drowning after falling unconscious from toxic gases.

Over the last 5-10 years, there has been growing attention on the potential of robots, Artificial Intelligence (AI) and machines to eliminate manual scavenging for good. Recent media and academic articles reveal opportunities and challenges brought about by mechanisation. We take this further and offer some avenues for inclusive practice on a process (mechanisation) seen by many as the only viable way to eliminate manual scavenging in our towns and cities.

A range of global technological innovations in sanitation have emerged in recent years, from sewer-cleaning robots such as ‘sewer crocs’ or ‘bandicoots’ and AI or manhole monitoring systems (to identify and resolve sewer blockages) to mechanical trucks (to suck out human waste from septic tanks) or Gulpers (hand-powered pumps). The creators of these innovations, including private technology companies, claim that they improve efficiency, safety and dignity of sanitation work, by removing or reducing the need for human contact with faeces. To help us understand some of the opportunities and challenges brought about by mechanisation, we first need to place this process into the deeper historical, social, political and economic context in South Asia into which it’s deployed, and ask: who is engaged in manual scavenging today, and has this changed over time?

In India, manual scavenging is most commonly associated with Dalit women (of various sub-castes, most notably Valmiki) collecting and dumping waste from dry latrines, often found in rural areas. Widows from the ghettos of Mumbai have also been found to do this work, often recruited upon the death of their husbands through manual scavenging, or ‘sewer deaths’. With the introduction of the 1993 and 2013 Elimination of Manual Scavenging Acts, subsequent directives to demolish dry latrines and improve sanitary facilities in line with the Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM) and Atal Mission for Rejuvenation and Urban Transformation (AMRUT), the mode of manual scavenging and gendered nature of the work is changing. Far from being eliminated, manual scavenging has simply adapted with modernisation, with a shift from dry latrines (though these also remain in some areas) to the removal of human waste from pit latrines, septic tanks and sewers – a task most commonly undertaken by Dalit men. In Bangladesh, too, low-caste men (largely from self-defined Harijan communities, or ‘children of God’ as they were originally referred to by Mahatma Gandhi) are predominantly involved in the handling of human waste, using their bare hands or basic tools, such as a bucket, rope, and spade. It is within these underlying social contexts that new technology is being trialled and gradually introduced, but to what effect?

Across India and Bangladesh, governments (national and local), international donors, NGOs and private companies have been instrumental in rolling out technologies and associated programmes to improve sanitation work, and sanitation services. In India, sewer-cleaning robots and machines such as the Bandicoot are slowly making their way to different municipalities and local authorities, most recently in Tiruppur Corporation to great jubilation (Tamil Nadu having the highest recorded number of sewer deaths across the country). In Bangladesh, Gulpers and mechanical trucks (known as Vacutags) have been introduced in a range of municipalities and city corporations. In both countries, the introduction of technology –  often accompanied by provision of uniforms, personal protective equipment (PPE; e.g. gloves, hat, boots, masks), skill training and, in some cases, higher wages, has helped to professionalise the sector. It also greatly improves health and safety, with workers better protected against chemical, physical and biological hazards, and some reporting greater respect from service users, though this is not always the case. The introduction of technology and PPE to safeguard the wellbeing of sanitation workers has also been supported by efforts to introduce social security schemes, such as the ‘Garima’ scheme in Odisha, India, covering 20,000 sanitation workers and their families.

A Mechanical Vacutag Truck in Bangladesh
Image credit: Sally Cawood

Whilst these interventions have brought about marked improvements, they have also brought tensions and contradictions. Two main points are noted here. First, the roll out of technology is still in early stages, with the majority of municipalities and local authorities being a while away from semi or full mechanisation due to the high cost, limited production of local materials, administrative hurdles, lack of political will or protests from workers. The lack of equipment or specialist skills required to repair machines, also means there are frequent operation and maintenance failures. In Bangladesh, for example, truck drivers and helpers complain that it takes a long time to replace parts on the trucks (mostly imported from overseas) when they break down, as they are not locally available (something that NGOs and businesses are working hard to resolve). In India, a sewer-jetting machine (to unclog sewers) of 6000 ltr capacity can cost Rs. 44 lakh (approximately 59-60,000 USD), making such technology unaffordable for many local authorities. Linked to this, PPE or other handheld equipment may be poorly designed for the climate, task at hand, and comfort of the wearer (an issue also reported by female road sweepers who often receive PPE designed for men). This frequently leads to non-use or the rapid wear-out of PPE that is not replaced. Yet, the provision of PPE for pit emptiers in Khulna, Bangladesh and in Lahore, Pakistan, shows some signs of increasing attention now being paid to this issue.   

Second, and a particularly recurrent theme from fieldwork in Bangladesh, is that the most marginalised workers involved in manual scavenging or emptying are often not able to access improved sanitation work or alternative livelihood options, due to entrenched stigma linked to identity, occupation and place of residence, as well as bribery, nepotism and corruption. Some manual emptiers also fear job loss associated with the switch to mechanisation. Likewise, in India, fears over job redundancy and takeover among Dalit workers are supported by evidence that indicates higher-caste or other socio-economic groups (predominantly men) are more likely to own or operate machinery and, even, to access rehabilitation support under the remit of ‘manual scavenger’. In both countries, improved or alternative livelihood options also require scrutiny, as many ‘liberated’ manual scavengers also remain in low-paid, informal or exploitative work arrangements, even if it is regarded as a step-up from handling human waste (for example, road sweeping or solid waste collection  –  which can, in fact, also expose workers to faeces). Whilst many may argue that job takeover by other (non-Dalit) groups can reduce stigma around sanitation work (an important avenue for future research and action), these challenges raise critical questions over who actually benefits from mechanisation, and who these technological innovations are designed for in the first place.

The road ahead

It is clear that societal attitudes, personal aspirations after hundreds of years of dehumanisation and viable alternatives for manual scavengers will not change, right away, in line with mechanisation. As we show above, mechanisation can also reinforce gendered, classed and casteist inequalities. This might be especially so when interventions oriented primarily towards profit, efficiency, proving one’s ‘business model’ or prototype, takes precedence over the realities of those cleaning our waste. With this in mind, we end here with some tentative avenues for further research, discussion and action among academics, activists, journalists, governments, NGOs, private businesses and workers themselves:

  • Place greater attention on the priorities of manual scavengers relating to improved or alternative livelihood options, especially the new generation of educated youth. For example, via education, vocational and skill-based training, business grants.
  • Integrate ‘transition plans’ into sanitation interventions for workers to prepare for mechanisation, including skill-development training to operate machines, or in the case that fewer jobs are available, appropriate re-deployment or support in seeking alternative (non-sanitation) work.
  • Improve working environments for all ‘sanitary workers’, including appropriate PPE, health insurance and work benefits (pensions, maternity leave, annual leave), which are currently lacking.
  • Support workers to organise (via unions, cooperatives or associations), to bargain with employers for improved pay and more regular, secure work, which remains a major challenge in light of informal subcontracting.
  • Deepen and expand our understandings of the impacts of mechanisation on manual scavenging within and outside of India and Bangladesh, for example, to Pakistan, Sri Lanka or Nepal, where these caste-based occupations also exist, and persist.

In the midst of this focus on mechanisation, sanitation workers will remain integral to the operation of this technology. Mechanisation in sanitation services should also include improving sanitation for workers themselves, to ensure their health and wellbeing. Yet, Dalits remain excluded from services, including toilets for their own homes, leading many to defecate in the open. The SBM’s construction of toilets without improvements in sewage systems (increasing the number of pit latrines and septic tanks requiring emptying) also means that manual scavengers will remain in India, denying other employment opportunities and worsening caste oppression. More research and activism is sorely needed to deepen our understanding of the impacts of mechanisation and ‘improved’ sanitation, and propose inclusive solutions and responsive alternatives, to make sure that not one more life is lost in manual scavenging.


Dr Sally Cawood is a Global Challenges Fellow at the Department of Urban Studies and Planning (USP), University of Sheffield, UK. Sally is currently leading a Global Challenges Research Funded (GCRF) project with WaterAid on gender, caste and sanitation work in India and Bangladesh.

Dr Amita Bhakta is a freelance consultant in the UK. Amita specialises in delivering inclusive infrastructural services in the global South, particularly in the water, sanitation and hygiene sector.

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Blog Series: Re-thinking a crippled society

Re-thinking a crippled society – Part I: Productivity

This is the first part of a three-part series by Soumita Basu. Soumita is a social- development-practitioner-turned-entrepreneur. When she was diagnosed with an autoimmune disorder, her views on society transformed. This experience made her realize how much is wrong with our society and the way we organize it. Join her reflections on re-thinking productivity, inclusivity, and entrepreneurship.

The value of my every hour

[By Soumita Basu]

“Now, I’m neither productive nor reproductive,” she said with a wry smile, skilfully turning it into a giggle. We were soaking in the warmth of the rare pre-spring sun beside the canals of Den Haag. It was a spontaneous meeting. We had a lot of respect for each other. What we lacked in chemistry, we made up for in our common quest to find our place in a world we had suddenly become alienated from. Words moved effortlessly as we sat beside each other on the wooden bench, munching on a mixed bag of nuts.

When she suddenly remarked on her productivity, I was staring at the tall, almost barren purple tree across the canal. I missed how the words looked on her. I turned to meet her eyes and found tiredness wrapped in smiles and giggles. A few months ago, she was diagnosed with stomach cancer. She wasn’t thinking of death. She was looking for life as she knew it for over four and a half decades. While I had fifteen less years to boost, my relationship with life was changing rapidly too. My (then) undiagnosed autoimmune disorder had started ruling much of any conversation.

Unless, they were with friends.

Friends bring out the deeper value of our existence. Something, we all need to cherish from time to time. Our value in the lives of our loved ones isn’t defined. Its sacred territory. This is the single most important thing that brings life to our days. But what about livelihoods? And the distinct identity we draw from our productive avatars? In a world where ones’ ‘usefulness’ is often judged by how productive they are, finding the space that allows you to be productive becomes imperative for ones’ existence. Yet, for most of us, it is also about existence itself. About the means to survival.

Image credit: Pixabay

Countries with strong social protection programs for the chronically ill or with disabilities are very few. While social protection programs ensure survival, it doesn’t give meaning to it. That can come only when we co-exist and co-create. Having chronic illnesses or disabilities systematically excludes us from having this feeling of contributing. It deprives us of a sense of belonging. Slowly the spiral of questioning our self-worth begins to grow. At every turn we ask if we are a ‘burden’. I had to restart my career in my mid-thirties when I acquired an autoimmune disorder and started to gradually lose my mobility. The more mobility I lost, the less work I got. And finally, I stopped working completely. I had no income, while the medical bills were piling. I leaned on my family. Anxiety started surfacing. I wasn’t worried about the constant chronic bulldozing pain that I experienced every second of everyday. I wasn’t worried about death either. I was worried about living, about being able to buy my medicines and put food in my mouth. I was worried about survival. I was worried and I was guilty. There are not enough words to suggest how guilt can engulf you without any trigger when you feel like a burden, when you cannot financially support your aging parents. In fact, your illness demands every penny ever saved as a family. Everyone told me I wasn’t being rational, especially since my family was so supportive. But it wasn’t about my family.

The world around me was not rational either. It only talked the language of productivity. It rated people based on a hazy relationship between input and output, where the output is very vaguely defined and the input is usually just reduced to the movements of the hour hand on our clocks. It’s completely irrational. Or at least very overpowering because most people usually cheat (often, themselves). In most white-collar jobs, people work unrecorded, and unpaid, ‘overtime’. News of burnouts have become common stories in any sector. We don’t just burn the mid night oil, but often ourselves in the name of passion, and dedication. However, when we work a few hours less, our compensation packages get adjusted accordingly. The relationship with our organisations and their employees is guided by mistrust, rather than faith. This mistrust becomes even more pronounced in case of persons with disabilities as there are often ill-founded doubts on their work-related abilities. The organisation-staff relationship is driven by ambition, instead of empathy. Completing the task gains importance over how that is achieved. Often, this alienates from the people of the organisation. It colours the people with monochrome, instead of multidimensional beings.

This doesn’t mean we should be without ambition. We need ambition to grow. It is important even for individuals within the organisation. However, we need to be driven by empathy at the core, with ambitions in the periphery instead of the other way around. A paradigm shift towards redefining our relationship with our organisations and redefining the identity of the organisation is imperative to be inclusive. Instead of focusing on linear one on one relationships with each individual staff and the organism, we need to build an organism as one unit with geometric networked relationships between the individual members. Here, tasks are not assigned to individuals but to teams. So, while the team completes the task, the individual members may contribute with ease. There could be the young parent needing to be back home early afternoon every day or someone who can work late evenings but needs a three week break every quarter. The design thinker with spurts of creativity and the focussed repetitive organised worker find equally comfortable space. Workspaces need to be designed to encourage collaboration instead of fanning the notion of survival of the fittest.

Being disability friendly demands a healthy environment. The culture of a place needs to be healthy and friendly for everyone before it can become disability friendly. In other words, being disability friendly and inclusive ensures a healthy environment for everyone. Not physically, but mentally and emotionally, too. It is an impossible feat to be disability friendly for just one person or a few select people. It’s a culture, a way of life, not something that can be practiced in silos. We need to rethink not hiring practices but also our work integration. Organisations truly invested in inclusion have started to reengineer their work processes to ensure more talent can participate.

The function of the society is to ensure its members operate at their full potential, creating a harmony that would otherwise be unknown. However, when the society choreographs its moves to only allow for a chosen few, it is not a healthy society. There are many people who have certain disabilities. Probably, if we look across the spectrum, we will find more people with disabilities than otherwise. Often, they might not even identify as a person with disabilities. Yet, the social structures favour the chosen few, and label others as marginalized. If we look deeply, even if there are people with disabilities, it is the society that’s disabled.

How do we evaluate the productivity of such a crippled society?

Our self-worth is silently driven by how useful we feel. I realised I needed to fulfil this existential need of mine. There was one year when I was completely without work; my sense of worth was shaken. I thought of the home makers. But they work at their homes, I thought. It was unpaid labour but at least there was tangible labour. I couldn’t do that either. I felt “neither productive, nor reproductive”. I took rescue in the locks of my hair. I cut them to donate to patients of cancer and alopecia. I needed to feel useful. I needed to be part of some story.


Soumita Basu is the founder CEO of Zyenika Inclusive Fashion, a company that designs clothes for all body types and physical abilities. Her work at Zyenika has been recognised with the Entrepreneurial India Award, 2021. She is the India Inclusion Fellow, 2020 and recognised as an Industry Disruptor by DO School, Berlin, UNWomen and the European Union. Soumita started her career as a journalist and then specialised as a social development practitioner and researcher, particularly in the domains of livelihoods, governance, and heath. Soumita’s focus has always been on cross-cutting issues like gender, inclusion, and equality. She is waiting for the publication of her reimagination of popular fairytales with a feminist lens. Soumita has earned a PG Diploma in Journalism, from Asian College of Journalism, and a Masters in Development Studies from ISS, The Hague, Erasmus University Rotterdam. She was awarded a fellow position at the Netherlands Fellowship Programme.

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Centered but invisible – On the contradictions of service design at Urban Company

[By Sai Amulya Komarraju]

Ting! A beauty worker checks her mobile. A ‘lead’ appears on her mobile screen from the platform service aggregator she has registered with. She accepts it, calls the customer through the platform that has helped her become a microentrepreneur, confirms the request and location of the customer and rides off to the location. She rings the bell. Once the customer greets her, the worker does what has become a routine since the onset of COVID-19: She sanitises her hands, dons a fresh pair of gloves, face mask, and face shield before entering the house. She sets her products neatly and gets to work. Once finished, she sprays everything she has touched with sanitiser, from the doorbell she rang to the tap she used in the customer’s washroom to fill water for a pedicure session. She packs all her belongings and collects soiled products (used waxed strips and such) to dispose of them on her way to another gig.

Meanwhile, the now relaxed customer is asked by the app to rank the beauty worker on her hygiene: Did she wear a mask? What about gloves? Did she leave any used products behind? In short, how successful was the worker in her attempts to disappear without leaving any proof of her physical presence?

Behind all this is a Standard Operating Procedure that regulates the worker’s behaviour, which is then monitored by the app with the help of the data provided by the customer. Based on this feedback, the worker receives a hygiene rating. Moreover, Machine Learning (ML) is utilized to recognize if the worker was wearing masks and gloves through pictures that the worker has to provide before the gig.

The above describes a day in the life of service partners (who provide services and are variously refereed to as service partners, providers or professionals) and customers (who avail services through the platform) associated with the app-based, on-demand platform aggregators. On-demand platforms (like Urban Company and Housejoy) match service partners or ‘pros’ with customers in need of home-based services such as cleaning or salon treatments, through leads. To do this, they charge a commission. Any hitch or issue within the service partner app or the customer app leads to the breakdown of the entire ecosystem. This is where the Software Development Engineers step in. They ensure that the entire experience from booking a service to feedback remains seamless. These engineers must at all times remain alert to whatever complaints arise, either from service partners or customers, even while working to eliminate manual intervention in other aspects. I spoke with a couple of Software Development Engineers (on the condition of anonymity) working for Urban Company to gather insights about their role within the organization, the importance of service partners and customers in process of designing technologies.

Image credit: ivabalk / Pixabay

Role of Software Development Engineers (SDEs)

On-demand platforms are veered towards maximising customers’ experience (which has long been established as a brand on its own). This is also reflected in the kind of words one uses in industrial design and innovation—such as experience economy or service economy. In order to keep up with such a fundamental organizational change, companies turn towards the concept of ‘service design’.

Speaking about what companies expect Software Development Engineers to do, SDE 2 explains:

“we translate all the business fundamentals, business logics into tech solutions. Essentially, automate the entire process. So, this is what the expectation is from you when you are working as a software developer.”

But this is not the only requirement. The idea, another SDE from Urban Company says, is to make sure that the service partners and customers (who book services on the app) are comfortable with the environment provided for them within their separate apps:

“[…] for instance, we need to create a solution to the problem of auto-suggestion of products. If a service partner working in the beauty segment is ordering products, we have to work with the team that predicts market trends and make sure that their suggestions appear at the top of the page. Then we must take into account if pros are comfortable with that placing. Should it appear right at the very top of the page, or when they go to the particular product’s page, is that where the prompt should go?” (SDE 3)

The SDEs I spoke with agree that creating smooth environments for service partners or pros is more complicated than the flows involved with customers. Therefore, more engineers work on the service partner app. SDE 4 notes that the design of the interface is such that one must take into account what the service partners are making of any new feature launched (whether in terms of understanding what it does or ease of use). SDEs must also co-ordinate with other teams that are most likely to be affected by changes they make. They must also adhere to the company’s business goals in order to create something that works, fixes, and reduces the burden of manual intervention. Although, the SDE says, “you cannot always predict how something might turn out to be, but that is what makes it exciting as well”. This mostly invisible work of making sure that features do all these things–enhance customer experience, reduce manual intervention, help service partners make decisions, but above all improve the business logic of profit-making for the company is done by the SDEs.

Asked if engineers undergo any training since they design technologies for those who are marginalized due to multiple factors (gender, class, type of work they are engaged in), I received no definite answer.

The Urban Company ecosystem. Image credit: Sai Amulya Komarraju

Service design: From productivization to servitization

The concept rather the philosophy of service design is broadly understood as the activity of planning and organizing the resources of a business, i.e., people (in the case of the platform ecosystem: service partners, employees, customers), props (AI and ML based algorithms), and various other processes (workflows, Standard Operating Procedures and other dimensions involved in order to ensure smooth services) to directly improve the employees’ experience (in this case it is would include both SDEs and service partners). This ensures that every component is laid out and thought through in detail to ensure a smooth ecosystem. Ecosystems are best understood as collaborative environments where various resources of the company work together to co-create values.

The philosophy of service design shines through in what my interviewees explain: UC assumes that SDEs take into account the views of service partners during all stages of development of a feature. SDE 1 and 2 report that UC focuses on a ‘win-for-all’ approach. In fact, a recent study by Fairwork India has found that UC tops the list of companies that provide “fairwork” based on 5 principles: 1) Fair pay 2) Fair conditions 3) Fair contracts 4) Fair management 5) Fair representation. Confirming this, SDE 3 states that engineers regularly call partners (personal information is encrypted and not shared with anyone) to check if a particular feature seems okay to them. “It is common sense, you know, I mean you are making something for someone, whom to call, if not the recipient?” SDE 2 says that it is easier to guess what a customer wants “because you are one yourself… we have all availed services… but understanding the POV of the pros is difficult… we all call and talk with pros as and when required”. In fact, SDE 2 also admits that when she joined the platform, she was uncomfortable with “round the clock tracking” of service partners. However, when the service providers themselves expressed that this was an acceptable trade-off, she made her peace with it.

“I think the idea is you want them [service partners] to succeed as well. They do really work hard. So, again, no one tells you to do it, but you think about it, how do we give them the best chance to succeed and then create a feature” says SDE 4. For instance, SDEs collaborated closely with the business team to anticipate “sprees” (such as the sudden demand for roll-on waxing), so that service partners could stock up on products needed for such services. However, this view must be balanced by the fact that the business logic of profit-making is supreme, in the face of which even long-term, scalable tech solutions must take a backseat accruing what SDE 2 refers to as a “tech debt”.

This logic inevitably organizes the relationships within the ecosystem in a hierarchical fashion. Customers and their experience and satisfaction are placed at the apex since they bring business, and software engineers enable “extra-legal” mechanisms (rating, tracking etc.) to monitor the service partners through the app in order to ensure quality of services. Even though service partners are considered as a crucial resource (SDE 3), the oversupply of workers compared to the demand, and control mechanisms in the form of rating and reviews serve to maintain power asymmetries between the platform, customer, and the service partner.

The inadequacy of service design

In some sense, when SDEs speak of developing Standard Operating Procedures in order to provide a holistic experience for the customer, they move beyond thinking about mere productivity of service partners. But this does not take away from the fact that workers are still expected to display skill and dexterity at work. They are expected to take a minimum number of leads (which can be read as productivity of a particular partner) and their ratings and continued association with the platform depends on customer satisfaction.

The aim of service design is to move beyond thinking in narrow terms of providing “goods” to the broader concept of offering services. In short, not productivization but servitiziation is the goal. However, this necessarily requires productizing the worker’s skills. We need to problematize this move from good-dominant to service-dominant logic. The burden of delivering the actual experience ultimately falls squarely on the shoulders of service partners. This is especially so in the case of home-based services such as beauty and wellness, where a worker’s physical labor involved in the performance of beauty-work contributes the most in creating a feeling of wellbeing for customers. This burden is reinforced by the fact that their work is constantly supervised by both the app and the customers. The multitude of problems and the high degree of precarity gig workers in the home-based sector face is well documented. Therefore, despite of the human-centric focus of service design, the burden of delivering customer satisfaction with the goal to generate profit is felt more keenly by the service partner first and foremost.

My interviews reveal that SDEs do think about the service partners and that there is a modicum of care they feel towards them. Still, there is much left to be desired in terms of ensuring that all resources are equally empowered within the ecosystem. For human-centric design to live up to its name, it is imperative that businesses adopt an ethics of care within design that could help balance logics of business, technology and the needs of workers.

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Is feminist design a solution to platform workers’ problems?

[By Pallavi Bansal]

Imagine a scenario in which you do not get shortlisted for a job interview – not because you are underqualified – but because the algorithms were trained on data sets that excluded or underrepresented your gender for that particular position. Similarly, you found out that you are consistently paid less than your colleagues in a sales job – not because of your inability to fetch clients or customers for the company – but because the rewarding algorithms favoured clients belonging to a certain religion, race or ethnicity. Further, you are asked to leave the company immediately without any notice or opportunity to interact with your manager – not because you committed a mistake – but because the clients rated you low based on prejudice.

While these biases, favouritism and discrimination could soon become a reality in mainstream workplaces due the exponential growth of decision-making algorithms, it is already causing disruption in the online gig economy. Recently, researchers at George Washington University found social bias in the algorithms related to dynamic pricing used by ride-hailing platforms Uber, Lyft and Via in Chicago, US. The study found “fares increased for neighbourhoods with a lower percentage of people above 40, a lower percentage of below median house price homes, a lower percentage of individuals with a high-school diploma or less, or a higher percentage of non-white individuals.” The authors of this paper Akshat Pandey and Aylin Caliskan told the American technology website, VentureBeat, “when machine learning is applied to social data, the algorithms learn the statistical regularities of the historical injustices and social biases embedded in these data sets.”

These irregularities are also spotted in relation to gender. A study conducted by Stanford researchers documented a 7% pay gap in favour of men, using a database of a million drivers on Uber in the United States. However, this study highlighted an even bigger problem that the researchers attributed to the following factors – differences in experience on the platform, constraints over where to work (drive), and preference for driving speed. A Cambridge University researcher Jennifer Cobbe told Forbes, “rather than showing that the pay gap is a natural consequence of our gendered differences, they have actually shown that systems designed to insistently ignore differences tend to become normed to the preferences of those who create them.” She said the researchers shifted the blame to women drivers for not driving fast enough and ignored why the performance is evaluated on the basis of speed and not other parameters such as safety. Further, in context to women workers in the Indian gig economy, it is imperative to understand whether these biases are socially inherent. For instance, if certain platform companies segregate occupations based on gender, then the resulting pool will inherently lack gender variation. This also compels us to ponder whether the concentration of female labour in beauty and wellness services, cleaning or formalised care work is a result of an inherent social bias or technical bias.

To make sense of all of this and understand how we can improve the design of these digital labour platforms, I spoke to Uday Keith, a Senior AI Developer with Wipro Digital in Bengaluru. His responses drew my attention towards Informatics scholar Bardzell’s feminist human-computer interaction design paradigm, which I use to contextualize them.

Illustration by Pallavi Bansal

PB: How can we overcome biases in algorithms?

UK: First of all, algorithms are not biased, it is the datasets which are biased. The imbalances in the datasets can be corrected via a method known as SMOTE (Synthetic Minority Over-sampling Technique) where the researchers recommend over-sampling the minority and under-sampling the majority class. In order to achieve this, we need to bring diversity to our training datasets and identify all the missing demographic categories. If any category is underrepresented, then the models developed with this data will fail to scale properly. At the same time, it is essential for the AI developers to continuously monitor and flag these issues as the population demographics are dynamic in nature.

This points us toward the two core qualities proposed by Bardzell – Pluralism and Ecology.  According to her, it is important to investigate and nurture the marginal while resisting a universal or totalizing viewpoint. She stresses to consider the cultural, social, regional, and national differences in order to develop technology. The quality of ecology further urges designers to consider the broadest contexts of design artifacts while having an awareness of the widest range of stakeholders. This means AI developers cannot afford to leave out any stakeholder in the design process and should also consider if their algorithms would reproduce any social bias. 

PB: Can there be a substitute for the gamification model?

UK: To simplify the process and ensure equity in the gig economy, platform companies can advise AI developers to introduce a “rule”. This would mean fixing the number of minimum rides or tasks a platform worker gets in a day, which can also help in ensuring a minimum wage to them and provide a certain level of income security. The introduction of a fixed rule can even eliminate social biases as this would not result in a particular gender or social group getting less work. Further, the reward system can undergo a major overhaul. For instance, rather than incentivizing them to drive more and indulge in compulsive game-playing, platform companies can build algorithms that provide financial rewards when the drivers follow traffic rules and regulations, drive within permissible speed limits, and ensure a safe riding experience. In fact, we can even provide options to the customers where they could be given discount coupons if they allow drivers to take short breaks.

Elaborating on participation, Bardzell suggests ongoing dialogue between designers and users to explore understanding of work practices that could inform design. This also means if the platform companies and AI developers are oblivious to the needs and concerns of labour, they may end up designing technology that could unintentionally sabotage users. Secondly, an advocacy position should be taken up carefully. In the earlier example, “driving fast” was considered as a performance evaluator and not “safety”, which usually happens because the designers run the risk of imposing their own “male-oriented” values on users.

PB: How work allocation can be more transparent?

UK: Well, deep learning algorithms used by various companies have a “black box” property attached to them to a certain extent. These algorithms are dynamic in nature as they keep learning from new data during use. One can only make sense of this by continuously recording the weightage assigned to the pre-decided variables.

The quality of self-disclosure recommended by Bardzell calls for users’ awareness of how they are being computed by the system. The design should make visible the ways in which it affects people as subjects. For instance, platform companies can display the variables and the corresponding algorithmic weightage per task assigned on the smartphone screen of the workers. So, if a platform driver has not been allocated a certain ride due to his past behaviour, then the technology should be transparent to reveal that information to him. Uncovering the weightage given to various decision-making algorithms will enable the platform worker to reform their behaviour and gives them a chance to communicate back to the companies in case of discrepancies or issues.

PB: How can we improve the rating systems?

UK: The platform companies have started using qualitative labels that could help users to rate the workers better. However, we do need to see whether sufficient options are listed and suggest changes accordingly. Moreover, if we want to completely avoid the numerical rating system, we can ask the users to always describe their feedback by writing a sentence or two. This can be analysed using Natural Language Processing (NLP), a subfield of Artificial Intelligence that helps in understanding human language and derive meaning.

Bardzell writes about the quality of embodiment in respect to meaningful interactions with the technology and acknowledging the whole humanness of individuals to create products that do not discriminate based on gender, religion, race, age, physical ability, or other human features. This concept should also be applied in relation to how users rate workers and whether they discriminate on the basis of appearances or other factors. Hence, there is a strong need to include the qualitative rating systems along with the quantitative ones.

Additionally, Uday Keith recommends defining “ethics” and frequently conducting ethics-based training sessions since a diverse set of people form the team of data scientists, which comprises of roughly 10% of women in an urban Indian city Bengaluru. He concluded by remarking that the issues in the platform economy are more of a system design fault than that of an algorithmic design – the companies consciously want to operate in a certain way and hence do not adopt the above recommendations.

These pointers make the case for the adoption of a feminist design framework that could bring about inclusive labour reforms in the platform economy. As Bardzell says, “feminism has far more to offer than pointing out instances of sexism,” because it is committed to issues such as agency, fulfilment, identity, equity, empowerment, and social justice.

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Tilting towards equality: Can nudges improve gender inclusion?

[By Helen Smith and Sharmi Surianarain]

In the fight for greater gender equality and inclusion, governments, NGOs and other stakeholders are increasingly recognising the power of nudges to change human behaviour. The results are promising.

Ever heard the question: “Would you like fries with your burger?” or “Do you want to supersize that drink?”

You’ve been nudged. When you are presented with the option of adding something to your order without necessarily having thought of it before, you’ve been presented with a new choice to consider. Do I want it or not?

Since 2008, behavioural nudges have gained traction globally. Governments, such as in the United Kingdom, have set up Nudge Units to influence policy decisions, drive environmental issues, maximise tax compliance and influence better health choices, to name a few.

Harambee work seeker working at BGR.
Image credit: Harambee Youth Employment Accelerator, 2021

In 2016, the UK Government sent customized letters to 800 doctors stating: “80 percent of practices in your local area prescribe fewer antibiotics per head than yours,” offering three alternatives to antibiotic prescriptions instead. This trial led to 73,406 fewer antibiotic prescriptions and aseries of experiments to improve the collection of tax arrears, using information on peer compliance on tax regimes to improve collections.  It was so successful it was also replicated in Costa Rica and Poland.

Closer to home—Kibera in Nairobi, Kenya is Africa’s second largest informal settlement. Residents typically struggle with rampant lethal water borne diseases such as cholera. Despite interventions offering discount coupons for chlorine solutions (a relatively cheap and effective treatment), resident uptake was poor and disease persisted.

By applying nudge theory and by instead placing large containers with chlorine solutions near water sources, the programme made the path of least resistance more available. The result? The uptake of chlorine solutions increased from 10% to 60%.

So, what is a nudge?

In the words of Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, authors of the influential 2008 book “Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness”:

“A nudge […] is any aspect of the choice architecture that alters people’s behaviour in a predictable way without forbidding any options or significantly changing their economic incentives. […] The intervention must be easy and cheap to avoid. Nudges are not mandates. Putting fruit at eye level counts as a nudge. Banning junk food does not.”

Nudging is not about compelling a certain choice. Rather, a nudge should encourage a certain choice through:

  • Transparency – the nudge does not hide options, rather it is obvious and clear;
  • Choice autonomy – a person is always empowered and enabled to make the final choice;
  • Clear benefits – the nudge has a clear upside for the person making the choice

Nudges have also received their fair share of criticism—with critics pointing out their coercive and infantilizing approach towards people’s behaviour. Others suggest that nudges are too short term, and that they are not powerful enough to shift systems and structural issues that led to challenges in the first place. However, we posit that nudges are not meant to act in isolation and are but one tool in a suite of interventions to target a range of issues.

Thoughtfully designed nudges can indeed act as a force for good, as exemplified below. But can nudges only work to shape consumer preferences or improve tax collection? We outline the case for including nudges in our arsenal of interventions to address the ever-greater need for gender inclusion, below.

The fight for gender equality just got worse

As Oxfam International puts it, COVID-19 is the “inequality virus,” rolling back decades of progress made on gender and racial inequality. The pandemic has also been dubbed as a she-cession, with the world’s nearly 750 million women working in the informal economy seeing a fall in incomes of almost 60%.

In South Africa alone, two-thirds of the three million jobs lost during the hardest phase of the lockdown were experienced by women. They were impacted by both school closures and additional child care obligations, and are losing their livelihoods faster because they are more exposed to economic sectors that were hardest hit—like tourism and retail. Lockdowns throughout the world have triggered a significant increase in gender-based violence—the “shadow pandemic” that has trailed the virus as second-wave cases surge and lockdowns return. In the UK, over just one weekend in March, calls to domestic violence helplines rose by 65%.

Now, more than ever we need practical and pragmatic solutions to help women across the globe deal with the gender inequities now exacerbated by the pandemic.

So, what could nudges offer in the way of addressing these challenges?

Trying to change human behaviour for a desired outcome is not a new idea. The proverbial “carrot and stick” approach has been used for centuries. But nudges may offer a new and possibly more effective approach to behavioural change. Instead of mandating behaviour, nudges offer people the ability to make their own decisions.

Lisa Kepniski and Tinna Nielsen’s Inclusion Nudges approach uses nudge principles to design more inclusive communities and organisations—helping reduce bias, enhance inclusive collaboration, and reduce discrimination. As they suggest: “knowing is not enough—designing for inclusion is a must.”

Harvard Kennedy School Professor Iris Bohnet’s book, “What works: Gender Equality by Design” offers yet another example of behaviour-based solutions. Bohnet provides insight into research-based tools that focus on debiasing organisations not individuals. Using an understanding of and experimenting with human behaviour, Bohnet proffers solutions that tilt hiring and promotions in favour of a more gender equitable approach in both boardrooms and classrooms.

COVID-19 has exposed the volatility of women’s precarious incomes, witnessed a rise in gender-based violence, and seen the return of gender norms and stereotypes that further lock women out of the labour market We discuss three examples of where nudges can be used to promote gender inclusivity—to reduce violence, increase job applications, and promote financial inclusion.

Nudges can shift sexist attitudes towards women

Nudge theory and its application has become a new approach to tackling gender based violence (GBV), which at least one in every three women experience during their lifetime (World Health Organisation).  Moreover most violence experienced by women is at the hands of an intimate partner. In fact, 38% of all women murdered globally is as a consequence of a relationship with their male intimate partner.

Ideas 42 is a not for profit organisation applying behavioural science to drive social change. To tackle the issue of Intimate partner Violence (IPV) in Chennai, India, the Ideas 42 team partnered with local organisations by targeting alcohol consumption through the Beautiful Home Project. Using the behavioural nudge of reciprocity (getting something in return for what I do), rickshaw drivers were offered the option of money remitted into a savings account to remain sober during their workday. This nudge in the form of a financial incentive reduced daytime drinking, and IPV dropped by 30%.

More encouragingly, when financial incentives were coupled with short couples therapy interventions, IPV reduced by 50% in the treatment group.

With the doubling and tripling of GBV over the course of the pandemic, this remains a pressing issue for society to address. Governments all over the world are providing toll-free hotlines as well as options for discreet/ no-dial phone options for those unable to call using regular phones. These initiatives can be amplified and further strengthened with nudge theory, and provide a valuable addition to the expansion of social and psychological support services.

Nudges can encourage more women to apply for work

Women in In the United Kingdom are much more likely than men to make the transition to part-time work after the birth of their first child (Behavioural Insights Team). But the move to a part-time role can be detrimental to their career prospects with many women working part-time failing to acquire promotions within the workplace. COVID-19’s lockdowns and ensuing school closures has meant that the burden of care has fallen disproportionately to women, with many women opting out of the workplace entirely.

Even before COVID-19, Zurich Insurance in the United Kingdom sought to understand and address the causes of their gender pay gap and to seek remedies. Baseline studies showed that part-time staff were 35% less likely to apply for promotions. This was primarily driven by the assumption that progression was not possible without an equivalent increase in the number of hours worked.

Nudge theory suggests that as human beings we are likely to choose a course of action that is easy and friction-free. So, Zurich Insurance switched the “default” option for all new job vacancies to become open to part-time workers, job-share and or full-time employees. Hiring Managers were able to “opt-out” of including part time workers as eligible for the role they wished to advertise. However, this was only possible if they could provide a solid substantiation for doing so.

Three changes were then made to the hiring process:

  1. The heading of the job advertisement referenced the part-time working options
  2. Part-time working options were included at the beginning of the advert text
  3. The advert included a reference sentence to part-time work inclusivity

The nudge experiment ran for 12 months. Results showed a significant increase, 16.4% in the proportion of female applicants to roles at Zurich Insurance. Moreover, at a senior level the increase was even greater at 19.3%.

These nudges can be adapted in a COVID-19 world to encourage more women to return to the workplace in the face of additional care responsibilities.

With innovative experiments that encourage more flexible work-choices for women from the outset (at the application stage rather than in-employment), we could bias our global work-from-home experiment to instead make progress on the (re-)inclusion of women into the workplace.

Nudges can increase women’s financial inclusion

Financial inclusion as a pathway out of poverty has also been at the centre of nudge design. Empowering women with financial autonomy can be achieved through better access to digital financial services, and in particular through platforms like mobile money. For female-headed households, mobile money has proved effective in encouraging the accumulation of savings and by facilitating the switch to a business occupation.

Data produced by Financial Inclusion Insights shows the significant gender disparity in Pakistan regarding financial inclusion. The data presented further serves to highlight the work to be done in the provision of products to address this imbalance. In 2017 only 14% of Pakistan’s population were financially included. And while 60% of the population had mobile phones, only 39% of the female population had mobile phones as compared to 80% of the male population.

Moreover, only 13% of Pakistan’s people were utilising mobile money products. And whilst 20% of the men had mobile money, a mere 5% of women had.

Ideas 42, partnering with Women’s World Banking and Mobile Money provider Jazz Cash, whose female customer base was only 10-15%, conducted a series of nudge experiments. Using social norms, reciprocity (in the form of financial incentives) and text messages that were tested for greater appeal to women, for example by emphasizing their roles and context and more frequently using words like “sister” and “mother.” This was sent through a referral network, they targeted improved female financial inclusion. With the implementation of these nudges, it was projected that  new customers (via referrals) would increase by 31% and 10,000 of these would be women (full study here).

Conclusion

While nudges can be powerful and can shift one’s thinking, they need to be taken together with a suite of other programmes and interventions to affect deep and lasting change. When reducing barriers to women’s greater inclusion could be as simple as encouraging women to make referrals through text messages, making part time work a default option for hiring managers, or promoting reduced alcohol consumption and thus decreasing the risk of partner violence.

If we reimagine the world with women at the centre, perhaps we can tilt the world towards equality. Think about that the next time you hear “Do you want some fries with that?”


Helen Smith is a Solutions Design Lead at Harambee and brings over two decades of experience in the transformation of human capital in South Africa. One of Harambee Youth Employment Accelerator’s founding employees, Helen has led the design and implementation of products and programmes to accelerate young people into work, partnering with some of South Africa’s biggest employers to prioritize inclusive hiring. As part of Harambee’s expansion into new markets, Helen was instrumental in developing contextualized products for youth employment in Rwanda. Prior to working in youth development Helen led large scale transformation programmes in the field of Human Resources and Change Management. Helen holds a Post Graduate Diploma from WITS Business School in Johannesburg and an honours degree in Social Anthropology, Gender Studies, from the University of South Africa.

Sharmi Surianarain serves as the Chief Impact Officer, Harambee Youth Employment Accelerator in South Africa.  Harambee Youth Employment Accelerator develops African solutions for the global challenge of youth unemployment. Sharmi is an activist for opportunity creation for young people, particularly women. She is an Aspen African Leadership Initiative Fellow, Class of 2020 and sits on the Boards of Emerging Public Leaders, Ongoza, Metis, Instill Education and is on the Advisory Council for the NextGen Ecosystem Builders Africa 2020. Sharmi holds a B.A. from Harvard University, a master’s degree from the Harvard Graduate School of Education and a master’s degree from Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management.