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Changing perceptions – from seamstress to robot operator

Project time period

20202021

Though the majority of garment workers in Bangladesh are women, less than one percent has a leadership role. Furthermore, women are less represented than men in the more sophisticated machine operation roles. Ingrained stereotypes and attitudes are part of the problem, where Bangladeshi women are not perceived – by others and themselves – as capable of taking on more advanced roles. In our project with the BBC Media Action, we are investigating if, and how, we can change the perceptions to make sure women will still have a job in the future as the garment industry transitions to automation and digitalisation.

Arjina, garment worker in Bangladesh
“I think learning how to use computers and technology might help us keep our jobs, or at least find other work,” says Arjina, garment worker in Bangladesh.

The Bangladeshi garment industry has long been the backbone of the country’s foreign trade, accounting for over 83% of their total export. However, as the industry has been focused on manufacturing affordable, mass-market items, there has been little room for innovation. While automation and digitalisation have been part of other industries tactics for decades, such as the car or healthcare industries, the garment industry in Bangladesh has had a slow start.

Now, however, the winds are changing and the next decades will bring innovation and robotics into the textile industry, demanding a different setup of skills, technology and workforce.

Challenging existing power structures

Though women represent more than 60% of the total workforce in the textile industry, they only represent less than 1% of managers. Furthermore, women are less represented than men in the more sophisticated machine operation roles and are often employed to execute tasks which are perfectly positioned for automation. The reason for this is two folded; many women garment workers lack the necessary skills and are often illiterate, but there is also the problem of deep-rooted stereotypes in Bangladesh that women can’t work with advanced technology or are not capable for leadership roles and thus can’t have these jobs.

Built on these insights, the H&M Foundation has initiated a pioneering project in Bangladesh with a multitude of partners to support female garment workers in this transition, to make sure they will still have a job in a future defined by automation and digitalisation.

One central component of the project is the Skilling Program, focusing on three interventions:

  1. Soft skills development – e.g. communication, problem-solving, creativity
  2. Hard skills development – e.g. technology and digital skills
  3. Perception change

As for the perception change, we are trying to shift the “tech is for boys” narrative, that often guides women’s interests and professional aspirations. We want to combat the attitudinal barriers that are preventing women in Bangladesh from taking on more skilled roles within the industry.

Pilot to find successful methods

To help us with this, we have joined forces with BBC Media Action. It’s an independent charity of the BBC, who has been present in Bangladesh since 2005, using the power of television, radio, mobile phones, print and online media to transform people’s lives. Their track-record is impressive supporting and empowering people of Bangladesh in creative ways.  

In our project, the BBC Media action will conduct a pilot and focus on three groups: female garment workers, their families and factory owners/managers. The material will be communicated in social media, our Skilling Program as well as in factories.

The scope:

  • Research gender and work-related attitudes
  • Explore media access and preferences
  • Develop and pilot communication tools aimed at achieving attitudinal change
  • Based on above, provide recommendations on how to work with these issues long-term for maximum impact

Changing attitudes and mindsets takes time though. We are therefore focusing on a small group of people first, to explore if there’s potential to scale up the concept. The learnings and insights from our pilot will provide direction and help us to design our long-term program in Bangladesh, aiming to create systems change from the ground up.

Project Specifics

  • Total Donation: SEK 3.7 million
  • Program Period: 20202021
  • Countries: Bangladesh
  • Focus Areas: Constructive Activism
  • Partners: BBC Media Action