The Economics of Women’s Health—and What it Means for Multinational Companies

By Didem Tali, Contributor

When Samira El-Sayed, an Egyptian factory worker, received an eye-opening training about reproductive health covering taboo topics such as menstruation, female genital mutilation, hygiene, and family planning, her life changed. With the new information, she not only altered some of her own behavior, but also began to have controversial conversations whenever she could.

“I value this knowledge and believe that it is my duty to pass on the messages I am blessed with,” El-Sayed said. A Levi Strauss & Co employee, El-Sayed was exposed to these seminars through her participation in the HERProject, an initiative multinational companies can opt-in to, to empower women working in global supply chains.

“I started talking to other women on the bus, at the mosque, at the market, and anywhere else I could reach,” she added.

The idea behind the HERproject, and other women’s empowerment initiatives in development circles, is that by supporting and educating females in areas of health, personal finance, and gender equality, women can feel more empowered, have a more dignified work experience, and—as healthier employees—expand their economic potential.

In essence, by participating in a more ethical business model that advances the state of women, companies expand their own opportunity for growth: a win-win.

The Truth Is in Attendance

Today, millions of women support their families and communities by working in the global supply chains of multinational companies around the world. In sectors like electronics, manufacturing, garment, food and agriculture—in the factories and fields— women often represent more than half of the workforce.

Yet globally, women are still exploited in today’s workforce. Female factory workers in the Global South remain some of the most vulnerable employees on the planet. Recent investigations reveal thousands more women continue to receive “slave wages,” experience harassment, and lose their jobs if they become pregnant.

What’s more, millions of girls and women miss school or economic activities due to health-related issues—chief among them is lack of access to feminine hygiene products.

A focus group Business for Social Responsibility (BSR), the global nonprofit responsible for HERproject, conducted in a factory in Pakistan found that female workers were missing up to three days of work a month during their menstrual cycles. Many of the workers also reported pain and other health problems such as skin rashes that might stem from lack of menstrual hygiene. (In Pakistan, studies show that 79 percent of women don’t manage their periods hygienically.)

When that same factory introduced subsidized sanitary napkins for its workers and provided a training about menstruation and reproductive issues, women’s health complaints significantly abated. Female employees started to work 2.5 more hours per month, representing an additional 615 days of work per year for the factory.

Based on experiences like this one in Pakistan, BSR has found that when multinational companies invest in reproductive health, critical health information, and services for the women who work in supply chains, health-related absenteeism drops at work, employee loyalty and focus increases, worker-management relations improve, and leadership and communication skills among workers expand.

Global Economics For She

In addition to higher productivity for companies, healthier and empowered women in supply chains create wider economic opportunities for themselves and society at large. Studies show that women reinvest up to 90 percent of their income into their families and communities, compared to a 40 percent investment from men.

“Forget China, India and the internet,” the Economist wrote as early as 2006, “economic growth is driven by women.”

From global organizations like the United Nations to research teams within private firms such as Deloitte, one consensus seems to remain clear: Investing in women accelerates communities and thus, creates a wider base of consumers and potential employees. As Deloitte put it, to invest in woman is to “bank on the largest emerging market the world has ever seen.”

According to McKinsey, if women were able to participate in the workforce on the same level as men—this would lead to a $28 trillion influx in global GDP by 2025.

A Source of Dignity

Taking the training at her company to heart, El-Sayed continues to bring the information she received about women’s health outside of the factory walls. “I am proud that my mission is of value to my community,” she said.

Today, El-Sayed acts as a peer educator, giving seminars at local health clinics, mosques and community centers. She even receives calls and visits from girls in her village who have questions about reproductive health issues and are too shy to talk to their own families.

With the leadership and communication skills she honed through her job and its associated women’s programs, El-Sayed is also ready to tackle bigger tasks at work.

When factory workers in developing countries like El-Sayed are given the opportunity to earn money, improve their health, lift their communities up, and get bigger responsibilities at work, it’s good for business and the economy.