Ethiopian women in industry

”No country can ever truly flourish if it stifles the potential of its women and deprives itself of the contribution of half of its citizens”
Michelle Obama

Ethiopia has made substantial and positive steps to transform its economy in order for manufacturing to drive job creation. I’m proud to say that most of the jobs created in our industrial parks have gone to women (80-90%). However, as women increasingly participate in Ethiopia’s labour force, we’re still far off in accommodating their needs as they enter the workplace. Once they join the workforce, they’re not on a level-playing field. Women face many challenges in and outside of the workplace just to hold down their hard-earned jobs, let alone thrive and progress.

Having recently read an excellent report on Women in Manufacturing in Ethiopia prepared by the UNDP, I have been reflecting on the magnitude of the challenge before us in making manufacturing inclusive in Ethiopia. From discrimination and harassment in the workplace to a lack of health and childcare services outside, women even suffer a lack of safety in the urban areas that they migrate to in order to work. Specifically, women in manufacturing are on average less educated, younger, and earn much less than their male counterparts.

The UNDP report stated that, while women workers are preferred over men by managers in many industries, they still earn 77% of what the men get even after taking education and experience into account. Their roles are also gender-segregated, which is part of the pay-gap problem. According to the study, women consist of 60% of the garment production workforce in the cutting stage, 95% in the sewing stage, but only 15% in the finishing stage. There are both societal and institutional factors at play here. But ultimately, we have to change the gross misconception that high-skilled and managerial tasks are “difficult” for women.

At the risk of stating the obvious, it is important to highlight that we cannot have a productive and thriving workforce unless we tackle these issues of inclusion head-on and more deliberately. Too often, our sector development strategies have been gender blind and that is now costing us in terms of productivity, export and job creation. The study also pointed out challenges and opportunities for women as entrepreneurs and employers. Women-owners are better represented (22%) in small firms concentrated in low-productivity, low technology and low-growth sectors, as opposed to large and medium scale factories, where they only make-up 16%.

Here it is important to ask why women are not penetrating male-dominated sectors. The report found that women mostly enter business for survival, while men enter the market to capitalize on ideas. Access to markets and raw material, lack of business development services and a lack of access to finance are major limitations for women entrepreneurs in particular. Their lack of information is also a major challenge and this report aptly highlighted that market information is often exchanged on informal platforms and networks dominated by men.

That is why we need a multi-layered set of policy and programmatic interventions to tackle these roadblocks to women’s participation. However we are not starting from scratch. We need to acknowledge the many strides made on the policy front to empower women along with a range of programs launched through partnerships with the private sector and development agencies. The Government of Ethiopia, in partnership with development partners, has already launched several interventions targeted at achieving the short and long-term goals outlined in the report.

For instance, the Ethiopian Investment Commission in partnership with DFID’s Enterprise Partners Programme has developed and delivered gender relations training packages to the women workers and their – often male – managers in the Industrial Parks. The women receive training on sexual and reproductive health, personal and menstrual hygiene, nutrition, sexual harassment, communications skills and confidence-building. We are now jointly working with DfID-EP to enhance the Human Resource Management System for Industrial Parks to systematically create a more gender-friendly working environment.

Yet there is still so much more to be done, both on the ground as well as at the policy level, both within and outside of the workplace. We need to examine our policies and strategies through gendered lenses and develop recommendations and action plans with measurable gender indicators. One potential way forward to address these gaps would be by developing a gender strategy for the manufacturing sector. The strategy would strengthen the sector’s structures and systems towards gender equality.

There’s no question about the value and necessity of an inclusive approach to development. Prime Minister Abiy has taken an exemplary lead by having women lead the government on an equal basis with men, including Africa’s sole female head of state! Business now needs to follow his example and play its part to ensure that women are well-represented AND on a level playing-field at all levels of the economy as workers, managers and owners. The global body of evidence is loud and clear. No sustainable growth and transformation can ever be achieved without the meaningful participation of women.

Fitsum Arega, 2019.

Hawassa Industrial Park


6 thoughts on “Ethiopian women in industry

  1. This is the kind of thinking and analysis that will mitigate the gender inequality as well as propel in a positive way the economic growth of Ethiopia keep up the good work

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Well said, we also need not to forget cultivating young Ethiopian girls towards STEM related education. Looking forward to read more of your insight.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. This article demonstrates that Ethiopia is on a path to better, more inclusive development when those like you in the highest echelon of the government acknowledge the shortcomings of the manufacturing sector. Other sectors are certainly similar to that found in the UNDP report, especially the health sector. Thank you for sharing your reflections.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Thanks for reflecting on this important issue and most importantly sharing your thoughts publicly. It is impossible for the nation to come out of poverty and attain sustainable development in one generation without bulldozing the unfair barriers women are facing on various fronts, and without empowering as many women as possible to lead in various sectors. For these efforts to bear fruits, the cause of women’s equality must not be left for women alone. It’s encouraging to witness men like PM Abiy and you standing up against conscious and unconscious biases that deter women from playing their share for the advancement of our country. Please keep it up! Assegid

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Yes gender,low payment is a problem. But you should first correct the overall industrial park objective, location, forward and backward linkage as illustrated by Beijing law journal article by Ermias Wedajo.


  6. This is a great insight and a topic of conversation that I have had with many individuals, especially when half of the cabinet for the Ethiopian Minister’s position were handed to woman. There is a belief in our society that men are more superior than women; this misconception dates to the ancient days of operations. Maybe it was because men did the hunting, gathering and provided for their family but those days are somewhat a thing of the past. However, the notion that women are not physically and mentally on a level ground seems to be wrong. This same concept existed in the old days with slavery and we have seen how the most powerful man in the world in the last decade was a black person. I believe progress can only be achieved when society understands that people are all equal regardless of gender, ethnicity, race, disability or religious beliefs. Jobs should pay their employees based on the role and not based on all the variables I have listed above. Government should hold companies accountable with policies that will prevent companies from discrimination. This article is great because this issue is more than policy problem, it’s more of a society problem and that education and training will help tremendously. Thank you for sharing your thoughts, really appreciate it, we hope to see more. Keep up the great work 😊


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